RailVolution showcases Minnesota transit successes

Before a national audience of 1,400 urban planners and transit enthusiasts, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and others told the story of how the Twin Cities metropolitan area was transformed into a community that embraces “livability” and mass transit, including light rail.

“The growth was horizontal and there were lots of people who were saying it wouldn’t work in Minnesota,” said McLaughlin, during the opening plenary of the RailVolution conference in Minneapolis.

But the metro region bucked years of infighting and helped pass a transportation bill in 2008 that allows counties to tax for the expansion of transit in the metro area. Anoka, Ramsey, Hennepin, Dakota and Washington Counties decided to pool their resources from the quarter-cent transit sales tax, which is why the Southwest Light Rail Line is able to move forward.

“They had to believe their day would come,” McLaughlin said of the counties.

MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle, who ran a regional bus company before being appointed to MnDOT, said it was faster for him to bike to the conference than to take his car.
MnDOT Commissioner Charles Zelle, who ran a regional bus company before being appointed to MnDOT, said it was faster for him to bike to the conference than to take his car.

This was the first time the annual conference has been held in the Twin Cities, allowing Minnesota leaders to share their success stories.

Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Charlie Zelle, who biked the Greenway trail to get to the conference, spoke of MnDOT’s commitment to multi-modal transportation and maximizing the health of Minnesota’s people and economy.

“MnDOT is more than a highway department,” he said. “We have a statewide bike plan and we will probably be the second state in the union to have a statewide pedestrian plan.”

Michael Langley of Greater MSP said a mix of transportation types is critical to attracting  talented workers to the Twin Cities, especially millennials.

“Nearly every area of the world is facing a future workplace shortage,” he said. “It’s fueling a competition for talent like we’ve never seen.”

Federal Highway Administration Secretary Anthony Foxx on Tuesday addressed conference attendees about the need for a bipartisan compromise on funding. He proposed moving away from the Highway Trust Fund to a more inclusive transportation account (named the Surface Transportation Trust Fund) that also addresses rail needs, with $19 billion in proposed dedicated funding. He also discussed the recent announcement of $3.6 billion in resiliency funds for transit systems.

During his comments, he wore a red bicycle pin that the MnDOT commissioner frequently wears at multi-modal events.

During the five-day conference, attendees toured the recently completed Green Line and attended dozens of workshops on topics ranging from street walkability to bus-rapid transit to the use of mobile phones to enhance bus service. On Sunday, the Northstar commuter train traveled for the first time to St. Paul’s Union Depot and conference attendees took it back to Minneapolis.

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