Jim Erkel

How to spend $300 million a year? A local transportation expert has his own wish list.

THIS PAST Election Day, Minnesotans voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that might finally result in a 21st-century mass transit system for the Twin Cities. Jim Erkel, land use and transportation program director for the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy and co-author of Getting on Board: Transit’s Role in Regional Economic Competition, has some ideas on how the redirected funds could be spent.

Has the Twin Cities ever had a great mass transit system?

In the first half of the 20th century, we had one of the finest in the nation. It stretched from Lake Minnetonka to Stillwater and connected Anoka to Hastings. Minneapolis and St. Paul were connected by a route on University Avenue. The system began to fade with the growing ownership of cars.

We have more cars than ever now. Why is mass transit still important?

Our economic success depends on our ability to attract knowledge-based workers. A high-quality public transit system is one of the first factors they consider. Given the globalization of the economy, we’re competing with Tokyo, London, and Frankfurt. In Minnesota, with its cold climate and remote geography, we’ve had to work harder than other places to get people.

We aren’t attracting top-quality professionals?

The Twin Cities have ranked high in many measurements of social and economic achievement, but our ranking is starting to slip. We’ve been running on reputation rather than seeking innovation. Rather than striving to excel, the region has decided pretty good is good enough. “Minnesota Nice” has become “Minnesota Smug.” And of the 20 most populated cities, traffic congestion between 1990 and 2000 has worsened most quickly in the Twin Cities, where almost 90 percent of trips are by car.

What is your vision for an expanded system?

The backbone would be a light-rail line on the Central Corridor, which would run from St. Paul’s Union Depot to the capital, down University Avenue, across the river, past the U, and into the downtown area, where it would connect with the Hiawatha Light Rail line. Existing bus lines would hook up with it all along the route.

What would it take to realize this?

Two to three years of planning, plus $930 million, funded half by the federal government, and half split between the state of Minnesota and the governments of Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

That’s a lot of money!

Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. And growth is inevitable. By 2030, there will be 1 million more people in the Twin Cities, generating an additional 4 million daily trips. Freeway congestion will be double what it is now, and it’s very likely we’ll hit a tipping point in terms of air and water pollution. Then it becomes much more expensive to remedy the problem.

Key Board Kid

Colton Peltier leads a double life: as a fun-loving seventh-grader at Hastings Middle School, and as a serious pianist. One wears jeans and T-shirts; the other has a full set of tails in his closet. It’s the guy in the cummerbund who, at age 11, won the first Minnesota Idol contest and will perform with the Minnesota Orchestra January 24, 25, and 28.