Invest now with eye on region’s future

/ 28 April 2012 / jennifer

Star Tribune Editorial, April 28, 2012 –

Met Council 2040 report shows the need to build for the future.

SMART, NONPARTISAN
“The value of a regional forecast and a regional planning process is to nudge people to really look to the long term. … Big employers so get this: They make decisions based on how people can get there. This is not a partisan issue. This is just about what’s a smart way to invest in public infrastructure.”
SUSAN HAIGH, chair, Metropolitan Council

Given the current turbulence of concurrent legislative and campaign seasons, it’s unlikely that many of Minnesota’s elected officials have given much thought to the state of the region 28 years from now.

They should, especially because they now have an important forecast from the Metropolitan Council’s recently released look ahead to 2040. The forecast should spur state leaders to emulate previous generations and make decisions today with a focus on the future.

Clearly, major changes are on the horizon. The forecast estimates that the metro area’s population will grow 31 percent to 3.74 million, with a gain of 893,000 residents. There will be 458,000 more households, up 41 percent. Immigrants will account for one-third of the population growth, making the metro area in 2040 as diverse as many of our elementary schools are today.

The percentage of the population older than 65 will nearly double, from 11 to 21 percent, while the number of those younger than 25 will increase 26 percent. We’ll be older. We’ll also be much more diverse, with many more immigrants likely living in the central cities or nearby suburbs.

With more people will come more jobs — and more commuting. The Met Council estimates a 37 percent employment gain, from 1.55 million in 2010 to 2.12 million in 2040. These workers would contribute to a gross metro product of $400 billion, or 1.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product — not bad for the 1 percent of the national population the region will represent.

But there are downsides to that growth. There will be new pressure on an already clogged transportation system. Demand for transit is already rising along with gas prices. And, as noted in an analysis released last week by the American Lung Association, our air is already polluted to the point that it might violate federal health standards.

How will we meet that environmental challenge in 28 years, when the region will have 31 percent more people, 37 percent more jobs and 41 percent more households? The forecast suggests that the Twin Cities can’t build roads fast enough to accommodate the expected growth without more costly traffic and pollution.

A strategically minded region wouldn’t wait until population and employment growth create a crisis: It would make savvy, business-oriented investments now, just as previous leaders built the infrastructure and amenities that make our region work today.

Gov. Mark Dayton and state legislators have a unique opportunity to begin to build for future transit needs. The proposed Southwest Corridor light-rail line is the type of investment that can be made now, with immediate and long-term benefits for the region.

The 15-mile, $1.25 billion line would connect the already burgeoning suburbs of Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hopkins and St. Louis Park to Minneapolis and beyond. It’s one of just 10 projects out of more than 100 chosen by the Federal Transit Administration for preliminary engineering.

If the project proceeds, the state would realize a 9-1 return on investment. It would pay only 10 percent of the cost, compared with 50 percent by the federal government, 30 percent by the County Transit Improvement Board and 10 percent from the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority. The line is projected to carry 30,000 riders a day by 2030, and undoubtedly many more by 2040.

What’s needed is just $25 million in a bonding bill — this session. Failure to act now may mean the FTA will move on to other projects.

Southwest LRT has been urged by five chambers of commerce — Minneapolis, St. Paul, Twinwest, Edina and Eden Prairie — that represent more than 3,000 businesses. A public opinion poll taken in January found that 61 percent of Minnesotans supported building the line.

And the Met Council, which has ample evidence with the Hiawatha and Central Corridor light-rail projects, predicts it would create 3,500 construction jobs, 150 engineering, outreach and management positions, and 175 operations jobs in the next six years.

The Southwest Corridor line would mean jobs now, and would help accommodate economic growth in the future. If the 2012 Legislature fails to act, it will have missed a rare investment opportunity.

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