The Great River Rail Commission just may be part of the solution to bolster Minnesota’s economy. The timeline for a return to normalcy isn’t quite linear. However, capital investment in Minnesota’s general transportation infrastructure, even right now, might result in job creation specific to the freight rail system, and by extension, passenger rail.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 29, Sen. David Senjem, Chair of the Senate Capital Investment Committee, held an informational hearing about the importance of state bonding investment in Minnesota’s transportation infrastructure. The committee heard testimony regarding how such investments would restart Minnesota’s economy and create jobs. While passenger rail was not specifically addressed, investments in the freight rail system used by passenger rail trains were supported by members of the committee and the speakers.
Sen. Senjem, R-Rochester, stated the hearing would be a discussion about stimulating Minnesota’s economy with transportation infrastructure investments and not about specific projects. Five witnesses were on the agenda to speak to the committee and answer questions.
These witnesses included Bentley Graves, from the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce; Jason George, from the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 49; John Hausladen, from the Minnesota Truckers Association; Kathleen Harrington, from the Rochester Area Chamber of Commerce; and Mike Beard, from the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority.
According to Graves the Minnesota Chamber has been a long-time supporter of leveraging state funds for various transportation projects. When Sen. Senjem asked which modes he thought were most important, Graves responded that it depends on the region. The most vital type could be highways, bridges, transit or freight. Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher pointed out that MnDOT is also concerned about safety at rail crossings.
Another concern was voiced by Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson, who inquired as to the effects of COVID19 on transportation revenue. Jason George spoke up, beginning with the fact that his union has enjoyed full employment since 2016, even adding 400 members last year. According to George the 49ers have been working safely through the COVID19 limitations and are ready for more transportation projects. Sen. Tomassoni, D-Chisholm, asked whether revenue decline would delay such projects already programmed. Commissioner Anderson Kelliher said MnDOT can deliver all the projects programmed this year, but that a long-term, sustainable funding source is needed.
Witness John Hausladen described the importance of freight movement by trucks and well-maintained roads and bridges for expediency. Kathleen Harrington then spoke about the importance of regional airports to small city economies, pitching a runway improvement project for the Rochester International Airport. Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, reminded the committee about public transit.
Mike Beard from the Minnesota Valley Regional Railroad Authority brought up the value of preserving and improving freight rail lines, especially short lines that serve a small industrial center or manufacturer. Beard described two federal grants submitted to modernize and improve a rail line that will move farm products, improving farming profits and incentivizing a shuttle service. He also highlighted local match funding for federal grants, a more expedient option than waiting for the legislature.
Augmenting Beard’s advocacy for freight rail lines, The Great River Rail Commission seeks to increase freight rail capacity along the corridor. Speaking to Commissioner Anderson Kelliher’s concern, the Commission also looks to increase safety for rail and highway users. But a main focus of the Commission is to bolster economic development in the state, especially in the Minnesota portion of the corridor between the Twin Cities and La Crescent. That goal could be achieved by providing a second daily round-trip passenger train between the Twin Cities and Chicago.
Sen. Pappas asked Sen. Senjem about the timeline to introduce the Senate bonding bill. Sen. Senjem stated that he is not aware of any targets but introduction of a bonding bill is imminent. Transportation is vital to Minnesota jobs and the economy and will be prominent in the bonding bill.