Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

Southwest LRT will help ease the mismatch between urban job seekers and metro jobs

Center for Transportation Studies/University of Minnesota

Look closely at the orange and green splotches on new mapping of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and you’ll begin to understand why building the Southwest Light Rail Transit line (SWLRT) has become so important in special session negotiations, for both Minnesota business leaders and advocates for economic and racial justice.

Orange blobs on these maps represent the largest concentrations of metro job vacancies, while the green blobs mark the greatest densities of underemployed job seekers. Connecting those needy blobs — workers in need and employers in need — should be a driving force in transportation policy. And the dotted line to the southwest, representing the proposed SWLRT, comes close to connecting two of the largest orange and green blobs.

Those maps and an abundance of other current data and advice for transit and workforce development are part of an impressive report that was released toward the end of the regular session by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Transportation Studies. A distinguished U of M associate professor in transportation policy, Yingling Fan, is the lead author.

The report — “Linking the Unemployed to Jobs: Integrated Transit Planning and Workforce Development’’ — provides a strong foundation of support for two fairly straightforward propositions.

One, we do need aggressive investment and a build-out of both commuter rail and other transit options, to help alleviate both an emerging labor shortage and to address mounting concerns about racial equity and widening disparities in workforce and economic outcomes.

Two, transit development really must be more closely coordinated with workforce training and workforce development policies. Underskilled and underemployed young adults of color living on the north side, for instance, should be nudged more specifically into fast-track Career Pathway training for the specific kinds of jobs opening up in the suburbs, to which a transit build-out will provide quicker access.

The current mismatch

A summary article about the report in a recent edition of Catalyst, the CTS newsletter, puts it this way: “Unemployed transit-dependent workers are often caught between a rock and a hard place: they may be qualified for suburban jobs they have no way to get to, but unqualified for downtown jobs they could easily reach by transit.”

smith photo
Dane Smith

The mismatch has worsened in the Twin Cities over the last 15 years, according to the maps in the report, and Fan nails the problem with this statement in the newsletter: “The biggest concentrations of unemployed workers lack frequent transit service to some of the richest concentrations of job vacancies, particularly jobs in the south and southwest metro.’’

The CTS report offers new and detailed data and analysis about the exact kinds and quantity of job vacancies by location, and it should serve as a valuable resource for economic development planners and workforce experts throughout the Twin Cities.

Analysis and recommendations

These are among the specific advisories and policy recommendations:

• Redefine “accessible jobs” based on access by transit, not geography.

• Consider the entire gamut of factors linking workers with jobs: individuals’ skills and interests, available training, jobs reachable by transit, and interested employers.

• Collect data on job seekers’ skills to help determine focus for training programs, and tailor those programs to participants’ capabilities and needs.

• Identify employers who stand to benefit from engaging with workforce development and transit planning efforts. The employers may include those facing labor supply problems in inaccessible suburban locations.

• Redefine flexible transportation to take into account disadvantaged workers’ often complex lives and nontraditional schedules. Serving disadvantaged workers well with transit will mean fast, frequent, regular regional service and local connections tailored to demand.

• Pursue diverse first-mile/last-mile solutions to connect workplaces with transit lines. Engage transportation management organizations and also consider employer or district shuttles and car or bicycle sharing.

• Pursue transit-oriented economic development to direct future job growth to transit-friendly areas.

Minnesota’s top business leaders generally embrace these findings. And so it’s difficult to understand why the House Republican majority isn’t more impressed by an unequivocal statement of support by leading corporate CEOs for SWLRT, in an op-ed that ran in the Star Tribune toward the end of the regular session. Business owners and managers traditionally constitute perhaps the most important base of support for conservative and Republican policies and candidates.

Transit is a quality-of-life factor

In that op-ed, written by three CEOs and co-signed by nine others, this futuristic statement and warning leaps out:

Estimates show that our region will add around 750,000 people over the next 25 years. Many will be the younger workers all businesses are looking to attract. And they are driving less and choosing transit more frequently. A Rockefeller survey showed that young workers consider transit to be a quality-of-life factor that draws them to a region to live or work. Gone are the days of moving to a city or region because of work; today’s young workers choose first where they want to live, and then seek a job in that location.

And more to the point of immediate equity and connecting suburban jobs with urban job seekers, the CEOs said:

These (SWLRT and other planned rail and rapid bus routes) are transit lines that travel through some of the densest areas of the region, rich with current and future jobs. The planned lines would put 500,000 more people within a 30-minute commute from work. They would provide a faster, more reliable option for workers who don’t want to sit in traffic on a snowy day or don’t want to buy a car to live and work here.

Meanwhile, despite some dissent from some progressives in recent years, equity advocates in the Twin Cities and statewide also generally align in strong support for full-speed ahead on SWLRT and other transit projects. Among the more assertive champions of an equitable light-rail buildout is the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, a coalition of grass-roots organizations that advances racial, economic and environmental justice in growth and development patterns in the Twin Cities region.

The AMS is working closely with an alliance of neighborhood groups to ensure that the SWLRT and other transit projects live up to their promise and do the many little things that help truly connect disadvantaged populations to better jobs and to serve other needs related to equity.

Serving the cause of equity

Numerous and voluminous national reports show how transit and light-rail development serve the cause of equity, from minority hiring in construction and operation of the projects to their obvious value in affordability and connectivity for low-income riders.

The Center for Social Inclusion (CSI), on a webpage headlined “Access to Public Transit Is a Matter of Racial Equity,’’ offers statistics that reflect findings in the U of M study. CSI estimates that “Black people are six times more likely and Latinos three times more likely than White people to rely on public transit. And to compound matters, in the last decade, the proximity of job centers to high-poverty communities has declined by 61 percent, which means that people of color are increasingly disconnected from their jobs.’’

The disconnect and the mismatch are among Minnesota’s most important problems and they represent a clear and present threat to our continued prosperity and equity. If our communities of color, top business leaders, and our leading academic experts are all on the same train, it might just be advisable to climb aboard.

Dane Smith is president of Growth & Justice, a nonpartisan nonprofit that that advocates for more equitable economic growth in Minnesota.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by john herbert on 08/15/2016 - 02:10 pm.

    Could the money be spent more wisely?

    For a fraction of the Two Billion Dollars plus operating expenses we seemingly could expand training for residents in the urban core and entice businesses to move back into the city. There are plenty of vacant spots on the Northside alone.

    I am not against transit in general, just this line is a boondoggle. To me it strains credibility to think that someone on Lowry & Penn (near where I grew up) would take a bus to a rail station and then take a 30-45 minute train ride to a low paying job in EP and then repeat the process on the way home.

  2. Submitted by Mike martin on 08/15/2016 - 10:23 pm.

    This article ignores cost

    The author like 60-80% of LRT supporters has never met an LRT project he didn’t love. Never thinks about whether a particular LRT project is over priced or costs substantially more than the benefits.

    Not once in this article does the author mention the cost of the SW LRT. He therefor completely avoids any discussion of the cost verses the benefits.

    The author would probably support SW LRT if it cost $ 4 billion instead of $ 2 billion

    The author does not talk about the fact that the current SW LRT route complete bypasses the West End where over a $ 1 billion of private investment has been made since planning for SW LRT began. SW LRT completely bypasses all these jobs which are 10 minutes from downtown/. Instead the Author talks about jobs which are 30-45 minutes from downtown.

    Instead going past the West End job mecca, SW LRT goes through a park where there are no jobs.

    If the SW LRT is built, it will cost $ 2 billion. During its construction the entire rest of the state of MN will spend only $ 700 million on highways. Why should we spend more on one LRT line than on all the highways in the entire state? Does anyone beside me see something wrong with this picture?

  3. Submitted by Mike martin on 08/15/2016 - 10:24 pm.

    If the Meto council is so Smart

    If the Met Council and Metro Transit are so smart why are there 4+ Op Out bus companies in the Minneapolis suburbs???? (Opt out bus companies were formed by communities outside the 494-694 loop that did a cost benefit analysis and decided they could provide better and cheaper bus service to downtown Minneapolis than the Met Council and Metro Transit. All those funny colored buses you see in downtown Minneapolis and on the interstate)

    There is no way SW LRT will ever take riders from SW Transit because SW Transit is faster, everyone sits (50-65% of LRT passengers stand during “rush hour”) has WiFI etc.

    • Submitted by Larry Moran on 08/16/2016 - 09:27 am.

      If The Metro Council Is So Smart

      While there are 4 bus systems that chose to opt out, if you look at their budgets over 75% of their funding comes from the state. That’s me. So why am I paying for cushy buses with WiFi for a limited number of people?

  4. Submitted by Michael Johnson on 08/16/2016 - 12:46 am.

    SWLRT needs a new route.

    It would be great to connect the EP area with Minneapolis via SWLRT. Indeed, I have passed up job opportunities there due to the commute. The only problem is the current proposed route needlessly ruins much used and valued green space, the very thing that makes Minneapolis and surrounding communities a sought after destination. So what to do? Propose a new route. Run it right down the corridors already in place and used by the freeway systems. You might have to lose a lane here or there to make it work, but for the most part it seems there is more than enough room to squeeze in a train. 212-62-100-394 and bam you’re in downtown Mpls right where the proposed line ends up. Why not turn the little used HOV lane on 394 into a one way train? I know, I know. It sounds crazy. All the money that was just spent on widening Hwy 100 and now you want to replace it with a train? Well.. and that’s the point. If we are going to be serious about meeting our changing transportation needs we have start making hard choices and stop trying to provide for wider and wider roads for bigger and more numerous cars. Anyone remember carpooling?

Leave a Reply