Business leaders tout new rail line as boost to Twin Cities' economic competitiveness at ULI, LOCUS MN event

The Hiawatha light rail line in downtown Minneapolis, MN is already popular. Photo by Matt Johnson via Flickr.

Leaders in the Twin Cities know that rail transit will be a key component of the cities’ future economic competitiveness, and they’re eager to catch-up with their regional peers in creating a comprehensive transit network.

Since opening in 2004, the Twin Cities’ only light rail line, the Hiawatha Line, has far ridership exceeded expectations. Construction has already begun on the region’s second line, the Central Corridor Line, which will connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul and is expected to be completed in 2014. Now, attention is shifting to the Twin Cities’ southwest corridor, home to large corporate office parks and wide highways, where the planned Southwest Corridor Light Rail Transit line has the potential to not only change how people get around, but also the shape of the region’s future development.

On December 5, 2012, business leaders, transit officials, real estate developers and advocates gathered in Minneapolis to discuss plans for the Southwest Corridor line and what more needs to be done to make the line a reality.

The event was co-hosted by ULI Minnesota and LOCUS, and sought to identify opportunities for transit-oriented development (TOD) along the Southwest Corridor line while also rallying support amongst the business and real estate communities for the line’s completion. It began with a presentation from Will Fleissig, a developer and noted TOD expert, discussing the results of workshops that he and ULI Minnesota led this fall examining five selected proposed station areas along the route, and what opportunities exist there for TOD. The workshops were conducted with local officials and real estate developers, and looked at what elements of the proposed line – including station siting, parking and layout – could be changed to better encourage TOD while the project is still in the design phase.

Every leader cited Denver’s investment in its region-wide transit system as a driver of economic growth

Fleissig’s presentation was followed by two representatives from the region’s business community, Will Schroeer of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Louis Smith, representing the Southwest Corridor Investment Partnership, a recently formed group representing large corporate employers, including United Health, Target, Comcast and Cargill, based in the Southwest Region. For them, the Southwest Corridor line is all about economic competitiveness – particularly the ability to attract talented, younger workers. Schroeer cited a recent Chamber led trip to Denver, where every single leader the Minneapolis delegation visited cited Denver’s investment in its region-wide transit system as a driver of economic growth. Smith discussed his members’ interest in providing more transportation options for their employees, and the increasing number of workers who prefer to live in downtown lofts rather than suburban homes.

Finally, Jay Corbalis, representing LOCUS and is Minnesota chapter, added some national perspective to the discussion. He noted that while the transit-funding landscape is always shifting in Washington, regions that can bring more local revenue to the table when applying for federal funding for transit projects are in a better position to compete for scarce federal funds.

While there was clear consensus among participants about the benefits of the Southwest Corridor line, there is still no guarantee the line will be built. Local funding has not been entirely secured yet, and the project will face stiff competition from other worthy projects in Washington for federal funding, which the project requires to be built. To underscore that point, Schroeer showed a slide comparing the rate of sales tax dedicated to transit in a number of peer regions, including Denver, Seattle and Dallas. The Twin Cities ranked last. As a result, the event also served as something of a call to arms for attendees to get involved in promoting the line and transit funding in general, as Schroeer and Corbalis urged attendees to get involved with their efforts or contact their elected representatives. Even the Southwest Corridor Investment Partnership, which has initially expressed an aversion to advocacy, hinted that position might change depending on progress made towards the line.

The business leaders, elected officials and advocates assembled on Wednesday realize that to stay competitive, they must attract the best and brightest young workers, and that a robust regional transit system that allows for a walkable lifestyle is key to doing so. Now, their task, led by the Regional Chamber of Commerce, LOCUS MN and others, is to create the political will to pay for it.