Editorial: Time to boost transit plans

Published 7:16 am Tuesday, January 4, 2011

This might surprise you, but 2011 stands to be a defining year in the long-term future of transportation in central Minnesota.

Why? Because back-to-back years of terrible news have squelched once-promising, long-term transportation improvements for Central Minnesota.

It began in 2009, when St. Cloud Regional Airport lost commercial air service and the millions of dollars it generated via everything from economic development to consumer convenience. The second hammer fell last month, when plans to expand the Northstar commuter rail line from Big Lake to St. Cloud were essentially tabled.

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Combined, that means Central Minnesota has no viable long-term plan to better connect itself with, well, the rest of the world.

That’s why the first transportation priority of 2011 should be a meeting of this area’s leaders to clarify transportation priorities and re-establish a long-term transportation vision.

Sure, projects such as the West Metro Corridor and repaving of U.S. Highway 10 help keep local traffic flowing. But remember there are no long-term plans at the state level to upgrade roads between here and the Twin Cities, yet experts agree that within 15 years there will be substantial growth in that corridor.

Similarly, St. Cloud’s airport the past decade received substantial improvements in part because it was viewed as a relief airport for the Twin Cities and perhaps a cargo-intense flight destination. Now, though, with economic conditions continuing to be challenging, that seems unlikely.

And, of course, even though the Northstar expansion is mothballed, its backers continue — as they should — to encourage residents to use Northstar buses and ride the train from Big Lake to Minneapolis as able.

While all three efforts are important, the top priority should be a united, area wide effort to restore commercial air service to St. Cloud.

Common sense says this objective holds the most benefit for the area because it has the best potential for attracting new people and businesses here. Plus, it can keep longtime residents and businesses from leaving.

Certainly, though, that is open to debate, which is why we urge community leaders to come together and shape a new long-term vision for transportation in Central Minnesota.

People might have thought they knew what it was, but the past two years have changed the challenges. It’s time to re-examine these issues, prioritize the new challenges and work together to start achieving them.

— St. Cloud Times. Dec. 29