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Congresswoman McCollum Remarks at the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce Public Event Series

August 13, 2012

Good morning.  Thank you, Doug, for that introduction.  And thanks to the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce for organizing this event.  Matt Kramer and the Chamber are great partners for me and for my office.

Today our country is celebrating great success at the London Olympic Games.  America won more total medals than any other nation.  It is a great achievement for our athletes and our people.  Just imagine if America had placed 23rd overall in the medal count.  This morning, editorials would be talking about our national embarrassment on the world stage.  Coaches would be fired.  Funding for training programs would be increased.  It would be recognized as a national crisis.  

Unfortunately, that is America’s standing in the transportation Olympics.  The World Economic Forum ranks the quality of U.S. infrastructure 23rd in the world, just ahead of Chile.  The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates America needs to spend $20 billion MORE each year just to hang-on to this disappointing ranking.

Public spending on transportation infrastructure in our country has fallen steadily since the 1960s and now stands at two-point-four percent of Gross Domestic Product.  Europe spends twice as much at 5 percent of the GDP.  China is investing 9 percent of its GDP.

To compete in the 21st century, America needs to match our investments to international competitors, not settle for what appears politically achievable.  I have witnessed the politics around transportation change significantly since the last authorization bill in 2005.  There used to be a bipartisan consensus that transportation was a core function of government.

There was a shared understanding that public investments in infrastructure created the foundation for private sector success.  That consensus has been lost.

The budget introduced by House Republicans this year declared transportation to be a responsibility of states and localities.  Unbelievable but true.  In Washington, we need help from the business community to get Congress back on track.

Here in the East Metro, the St. Paul Chamber’s leadership has allowed us to invest in a modern, multi-modal transportation system that will create economic opportunity for decades to come.  The Union Depot and Central Corridor are nearing completion – on time and on budget.  These are two of Minnesota’s most significant transportation projects in a generation.  Central Corridor will connect the core of the Twin Cities, and the Depot becomes the multi-modal destination for the entire Upper Midwest.  Together, they represent over $1.2 Billion of investment in our infrastructure.  Work on the Depot will be finished in October.  Major construction on the Central Corridor will be done by year’s end.  As we prepare to celebrate our success, we need to see these projects for what they are – a beginning, not an end.

The Depot and Central Corridor form the backbone of a new transportation system that allows us to connect:

  • Maplewood and Woodbury with the Gateway Corridor,
  • Cottage Grove and Hastings with Red Rock,
  • White Bear Lake and Little Canada with Rush Line.

I brought one slide for us to look at.  The dark colored lines are real.  Light green lines are on the wish-list.  As you can see – the East Metro has a lot of connecting to do.  And we can see that we have a lot of catching-up to do with the West Metro if the Twin Cities is going to have a strong, balanced system.  We need to get working on the East Metro’s next big transit projects – NOW.  We cannot wait until the Depot and Central Corridor are complete.  It is time to build a coalition of East Metro leaders and set priorities.

A coalition of business and government; local elected officials and state legislators; and Ramsey, Washington and Dakota Counties.  And, now that the Union Depot is ready to open, it is time to expand the coalition.

Our suburban communities need to be at the table and helping to drive the conversation.  We have to invite regional partners in Western Wisconsin, Rochester and Duluth to be a part of this future.  And we should be talking to Chicago, Milwaukee and even Bismarck.

Working together, our coalition needs to set the East Metro’s new set of transportation priorities.  There is an emerging consensus that Gateway Corridor is next.  The Gateway Corridor Commission, including Woodbury Mayor Giuliani Stephens, Maplewood Mayor Will Rossbach, and Washington County Commissioners Gary Kriesel and Lisa Weik have worked hard to forge consensus on this project.  Local business and government leaders are seriously considering “true Bus Rapid Transit” for Gateway.  “True BRT” has a dedicated right-of-way, high quality stations, and ticketing just like Light Rail but with the cost savings of bus transit – estimates put the cost at half of Southwest Corridor.  Gateway would be “rail ready” so future leaders could upgrade to Light Rail. 

A “true BRT” line would be the first in Minnesota – it would be a world-class investment that: connects Ramsey and Washington Counties, promotes economic development, and reduces congestion in the busy corridor just outside this door.  Years ago, I helped secure the first federal funding for Gateway.  Today, I am ready to work in partnership with Washington and Ramsey Counties to build this line and bring it into the Depot.

We all need to work together to build consensus in the region – at the Met Council, state legislature, and among business leaders – that Gateway comes next after Southwest Corridor.  I believe another priority for the East Metro is connecting the Depot to our outstanding International Airport along the Riverview Corridor.  This will create a transit triangle that links the Depot, the Minneapolis Interchange, the airport and the two downtowns.  And planning should keep moving forward on the Robert Street, Rush Line and Red Rock corridors.

Amtrak will soon be leaving the Midway station and pulling into Union Depot.  I strongly support the work now underway to add a second daily Amtrak train between the Twin Cities and Chicago.  This regional Amtrak service would be faster, on time and business-friendly.  While Amtrak is an immediate opportunity, I remain committed to the longer-term effort to secure High Speed Rail service to Chicago.  There is important work to do in the rail yards south of Union Depot to get ready for high speed rail and Red Rock commuter rail. 

Today, nearly one thousand freight trains squeak through this bottleneck – the railroads expect traffic to increase 36 percent.  I am working with Ramsey County and the railroads to add capacity in this section through a major public-private partnership.  These investments will connect communities and grow business in the East Metro.  And a strong East Metro makes for a stronger Twin Cities region.

The East Metro and West Metro compete as one region against the rest of the country, and the world.  The transit vision on this slide is what we need to stay competitive.  But we will never be able to realize our region’s bold transportation vision without the federal government as a partner.

After years of delay, Congress finally passed a bill this summer to reauthorize the federal surface transportation programs.  This bipartisan, two-year authorization is called MAP-21.  The best news about MAP-21 is that it is very different from the terrible transportation bill introduced by the House majority – H.R. 7.  MAP-21 holds funding at current levels with some increases for inflation.  The House bill would have cut funding for every state.  It would have cut MnDOT’s budget by $313 million and cost Minnesota nearly 11,000 jobs!  MAP-21 maintains the current split between highway and transit funding at approximately 80 percent to 20 percent.  H.R. 7 eliminated dedicated funding for public transit – threatening to stop progress on every major transit corridor in the Twin Cities.

It is fair to say that MAP-21 represents a series of political compromises.  Instead of providing more funding, the bill gives states with more flexibility in how to spend the funding they receive.  Instead of prohibiting funding for some existing programs, MAP-21 consolidated 7 major existing programs into 4, and eliminated 60 separate accounts.

MAP-21 is not the huge step backwards many states once feared, but it is not the big step forward America really needs.  Our economy needs the certainty of a 5 year authorization.  We need a strong commitment to major infrastructure programs like the TIGER grant program that helped build the Union Depot.  TIGER was cut out of this bill by the House majority.

We need to restore dedicated funding for bike and pedestrian projects.  And we must solve the biggest challenge facing this country’s transportation system – funding.   MAP-21 will provide $105 billion for highways, roads, bridges and transit over the next two years.  Of this amount, nearly $19 billion had to be found from sources other than the gas tax. 

The federal gas tax has not been raised in 19 years.  Americans are driving less and buying more efficient vehicles.  The gas tax either needs to be replaced with another funding source or it needs to be increased.  The first option is complicated.  The second option is unpopular.  But all serious people agree that inaction is NOT an option.

Congress urgently needs to put transportation funding back on solid footing and – I strongly believe – we need to significantly increase our investments.  Until a solution is found, America will continue idling in the number 23 spot while the rest of the world works to pass us by.

At a time when politics has us stuck in neutral, we need the business community to help get us into gear.  That is exactly what the St. Paul Chamber is doing with “Connect and Go East Metro."  I look forward to working with the Chamber and its members to make Washington a full partner in our community’s future plans – just as it has been with the Depot and Central Corridor.  Together, we are restoring St. Paul and the East Metro to its historic position as a transportation center.

You can see this history from Mounds Park, overlooking the Mississippi River and downtown St. Paul, where barges, trains, highways and airplanes all converge.  Together, we are building on that legacy and investing in new century of growth and opportunity in the East Metro.