State view: Investment needed in Twin Ports as freight transportation hub

Every day, Minnesota residents rely on a freight system that transports consumer goods, mail, parts and equipment, and commodities to millions of destinations via land, water and air. This vital movement matters to all types of businesses, farmer...

Every day, Minnesota residents rely on a freight system that transports consumer goods, mail, parts and equipment, and commodities to millions of destinations via land, water and air. This vital movement matters to all types of businesses, farmers, workers and consumers.

Especially in the Twin Ports, freight's diversity and economic importance are hard to miss. Water, rail and road all come into play at the nation's busiest Great Lakes port.

Duluth is a key linchpin for the massive infrastructure -- mostly public and built up over a century -- that links Minnesota's

communities to one another and ties the state to the larger economies of the region, the nation and the world.

The transportation sector is an important source of jobs for the Duluth metro area. The share of the region's jobs in the transportation and utilities category -- at 4.6 percent -- is a third higher than the statewide share.


Given Duluth's critical role as a transportation hub, leaders in the region and statewide will need to target the area for investments to improve freight handling and hauling. Most of this transportation infrastructure is paid for by tax dollars and user fees and managed by our governments. With the state's fiscal challenges, it's imperative for us to invest more money as smartly as possible to rebuild and to improve the systems that keep this economic lifeblood flowing.

Our review of research related to freight movement and economic competitiveness notes several key challenges for the Duluth metro area.

One critical concern is corrosion of the Twin Ports' metal underpinnings, which has accelerated since the 1970s. Tapping into economic stimulus dollars, the Minnesota Depart-ment of Transportation recently committed $3 million in federal funds for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority to fix dock wall corrosion. But more funding is needed to preserve this crucial asset, perhaps from Minnesota's Port Development Assistance Program and the port authority's own capital improvement funds.

Another issue is a lack of facilities in Duluth that can handle the transfer of containerized freight. Shippers increasingly move freight in secured containers that can be transferred between modes -- from ship to rail or rail to truck, for example -- without the need to unpack and repack. Minnesota and shippers would both benefit from such facilities, but the significant costs would be hard to bear without some mix of public and

private investment.

For the Great Lakes, efficient freight shipment depends in part upon the public-sector system of locks on the rivers. Current locks cannot handle larger, more efficient ships. Consequently Minnesota has a vested interest in regional and federal proposals to improve locks serving the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway, while at the same time seeking to protect

the chain from invasive fish species.

Off the water, freight movement would be made easier for large loads if obstacles were removed from the local roadways linking Duluth's port to major trucking routes -- an abandoned railroad bridge that limits clearance, for example, and pavement problems that snag low-riding trucks.


Another recent challenge for the Duluth transportation hub: accommodating heavy trucks that carry the oversized parts moving through the port for clean-energy wind turbines.

For Minnesota as a whole, other issues jump out as priorities. The public sector needs to reassess and invest in the roadways outside the Twin Cities area that constitute the vital Interregional Corridor system. It must wrestle with congestion problems on roadways in the Twin Cities area and find ways to spur improved intermodal freight facilities statewide. And it must upgrade roads and bridges to handle heavy freight loads.

These challenges won't go away. In fact, they can only grow.

The most recent U.S. Department of Transpor-tation data pegged the amount of freight moving into, out of, and within Minnesota in 2002 at

664.3 million tons, worth $352.2 billion -- an amount that's about 1.7 times the state's total GDP from that same year. The federal government predicts that freight tonnage moving in Minnesota will more than double, to 1.3 billion tons, in the next 25 years.

Investing in the movement of freight stands out as vital to Minnesota's economic growth -- and nowhere more clearly than in Duluth.

Matt Kane is the director of policy and research, and Charlie Quimby is a communications fellow at Growth & Justice, a progressive think tank based in St. Paul. The group released a freight transportation report in December, the latest installment in its project on "Smart Investments in Transportation for Minnesota."

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