Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


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

Connecting workers in need of jobs with employers in need of well-matched workers should be a driving force in transportation policy.

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.

Article continues after advertisement

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.

Article continues after advertisement

• 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.

Article continues after advertisement

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