Met Council: 21st century transit needed: Chair Susan Haigh supports transit sales tax increase

By Lisa Kaczke - Sun Current Newspapers

Met Council Chair Susan Haigh called for increased transit funding to improve the Twin Cities’ public transportation during her State of the Region speech on Feb. 12 at the Union Depot in St. Paul. (Staff photo by T.W. Budig)

Met Council Chair Susan Haigh called for increased transit funding to improve the Twin Cities’ public transportation during her State of the Region speech on Feb. 12 at the Union Depot in St. Paul. (Staff photo by T.W. Budig)

The Twin Cities region needs a 21st century transit system to keep up with a fast-paced world, according to Met Council Chair Susan Haigh.

Haigh called for the expansion of the light rail system and bus rapid transit to draw the next generation of employees to the Twin Cities in her transit-centric State of the Region speech Monday, Feb. 12.

“Our transit system must help Minnesota move even faster in the competition for jobs, talent and economic growth,” she said.

The Twin Cities’ transit system as it stands today isn’t keeping pace with other metro regions in the United States, she said.

“Our shared vision is a red-hot regional economy fueled by solid infrastructure, in particular, a 21st century transit system,” she said of the partnership between the Met Council and Twin Cities business community.

Haigh supports an increase of a quarter cent sales tax in the seven-county metro dedicated to expanding and improving the current transit system. The tax increase proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton would bring in $250 million annually, she said.

“The governor’s transit tax proposal is fundamentally about people and where they will live and work,” Haigh said. “Transit expansion is a means to an end and that end is job growth, business growth and ultimately prosperity for our residents, today and tomorrow.”

Nearly a quarter of the region’s jobs are located within a half mile of the Light Rail blue, green or southwest lines, she said.

In addition to the increase in funding, the state needs to stabilize its revenue, she said. Unpredictable transit funding is keeping investors from putting money down and hurts the Twin Cities in the competition for federal funding.

“Six times in the last ten years transit funding was cut and gimmicks or one time stop-gap measures were used to fund our most basic transit needs,” she said.

The funding would allow transportation to be improved to meet the needs of the changing Twin Cities demographic.

Generation Y – those born after the early 1980s – is interested in being mobile employees who rely on transit systems rather than cars, she said, adding that 46 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds would rather have Internet access than a driver’s license.

“These workers pick a city based on its amenities and a home based on the express bus or rail line closest to their doorstep,” she said.

Additionally, the senior citizen population is expected to double in the Twin Cities in the future and will likely want to use transit to get around instead of cars, she said.

“These changes will cause demands on our transit system to explode exponentially,” she said.

Haigh noted the region is at a “pivotal moment” and asked for support to expand public transportation.

The proposed sales tax increase would pay for the Southwest Light Rail transit line to be constructed, expanding the Bottineau Light Rail line in the north metro, a 1 percent annual expansion in the bus system and adding bus rapid transit or light rail in the corridor along Interstate 94 east to Hudson, Wis.

In a panel discussion after the State of the Region speech, SWLRT Committee member Asad Aliweyd said building the SWLRT will have a direct and indirect impact on the region. It will not only create jobs and business opportunities, but will connect the southwest metro region in way that it isn’t connected now with the bus system, he said.

The SWLRT, an extension of the green line, would begin at Target Field and travel 15 miles through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

Having a transit line connecting the suburbs to the metro will also benefit families. During the first few years after Aliweyd immigrated to the United States from Somalia, he was living in San Francisco and couldn’t afford a car. He used the trains in the city to get to work when he couldn’t get a ride, he said.

The SWLRT would help with affordable housing in the southwest suburbs because the committee would like to see all stations on the line have affordable housing around them, he said after the panel discussion.

For families who can’t afford more than one car, their children would be able to use the SWLRT to safely travel to the metro colleges like St. Thomas, St. Mary’s and the University of Minnesota, especially on days of inclement weather, he said.

Light rail will also benefit the community’s health by being another option for residents to use to travel to medical facilities, said Aliweyd, who is the executive director of the New American Academy in Edina.

He relayed the story of a family who recently immigrated from Africa to Eden Prairie who were unable to get to doctor’s appointments because public transportation wasn’t available to them.

When new immigrant families are choosing where to live in the metro, they consider the neighborhoods, the jobs available and the places where they can have better school districts for their children and better transportation options, he said.

Contact Lisa Kaczke at lisa.kaczke@ecm-inc.com

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