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Expanding Minnesota's transportation network

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What do representatives from the American Heart Association and Move MN have in common? If they’re Dave Van Hattum and Erik Petzel it’s their strong belief that a diversified transit network can improve the Twin Cities and Minnesota’s physical and economic well-being.

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That was the message they shared at a breakfast presentation sponsored by Environment Minnesota at the Red Stag Supperclub March 18, 2014. Not only does expanding people’s transportation options to light rail, rapid bus, bicycling, and walking reduce smog and pollution, but it also provides “direct economic benefits” according to Van Hattum. Civic and business leaders involved in the Itasca Project reported “significant impact where [mass] transit is widely available.”

Though the Twin Cities has nearly completed the second line of its light-rail network, its initiative amounts to only half of what cities like Denver, Dallas, and Salt Lake City have accomplished. By comparison, Van Hattum says light rail mileage in Europe nearly doubles the best American efforts. And the “rapid bus concept” remains stalled over concerns of how to pay for it.

For Petzel the transit issue combines health and economics. Minnesota’s percentage of obese people climbed from 15 to 26 per cent from 1995 to 2012. By 2020 that figure is expected to reach 33 per cent. During that six year period Blue Cross-Blue Shield estimates insurers will pay an extra $3.7 billion in health care costs. Agreeing with Rubicon Consulting CEO Nilofer Merchant that “Sitting is the new smoking,” Petzel says for people to “incorporate physical activities in life, alternatives must exist.” Where now only 49% of low-income people live in neighborhoods with sidewalks, “livable communities” enjoy a variety of transit alternatives and street planning changes like the bicycle lanes and center lane conversions in Battle Lake, Minnesota which make for “an attractive, safe, and accessible downtown area.”

Both men recognize such initiatives need to be sponsored and funded on a state-wide basis. In the Twin Cities, such an initiative “needs to be connected to other modes of transportation.” Out-state, funding such transit initiatives is crucial “to stem the flow of people moving to the Twin Cities.” If an “active transportation” measure is funded by the legislature this year, Petzel and Van Hattum feel certain that “people will use it.” One dollar of investment can yield three in “direct economic benefits” as resulted with the Hiawatha light rail project, which shows these initiatives have “significant impact where transit is widely available.”

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