Dynamic duo

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March 6, 2006 // UPDATED 2:05 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

Rybak, Coleman tackling Twin Cities issues together

The often-frosty relationship between city government leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul has thawed.

Mayors R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman have pledged to work together on a number of fronts — namely on transportation and education issues they say are critical to shaping the region’s future.

They have appeared together at several events in recent weeks, including at the St. Paul Union Depot promoting the proposed Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line and at a University of Minnesota research laboratory advocating a joint-city biosciences corridor.

During a recent meeting of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce at Downtown’s IDS Center on Nicollet Mall, the mayors highlighted efforts to work across the borders of their respective cities.

The new spirit of cooperation between the leaders contrasts with Rybak’s chilly relationship with former St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, who turned off many DFLers when he broke with the party and endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2004.

Mayors across the Twin Cities need to keep a big-picture view of the region, Rybak said while addressing community and business leaders at the Chamber meeting.

“Mayors can’t be ideological or chauvinistic about our areas,” he said, adding that the Twin Cities has fallen behind other major metropolitan areas on investments in transportation and education. “We’ve become far too fat and sassy,” he said.

Forging an alliance

But Rybak and Coleman aren’t going it alone. The two are part of the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) Regional Council of Mayors — a coalition of 23 mayors working collaboratively on a range of issues, including transportation, affordable housing, growth and economic development, among other things. The council formed two years ago.

According to a recent Brookings Institute report on economic disparities in the Twin Cities, people here live regionally: Less than a quarter of metro-area residents live and work in the same city.

Caren Dewar, director of ULI Minnesota, said having Minneapolis and St. Paul leaders working together in a spirit of collaboration rather than as rivals bodes well for the region.

“I think it really helps us look at it as an advantage that we have the Twin Cities, rather than a disadvantage,” she said. “And everybody agrees that our solutions really need to come out of a regional focus.”

Burnsville Mayor Elizabeth Kautz, co-chair of the Regional Council of Mayors, said transportation is the group’s highest priority, although eminent domain reform remains a hot issue.

The mayors also worked together on affordable housing and advocated for increased development in the suburbs.

“We know that when we come together to look at these issues within our region, we can certainly make a difference, and we have done that,” she said.

Kautz said mayors are “results oriented” and can have a significant impact on public policy when they form alliances on issues. She highlighted the state transportation bill that nearly passed during the 2005 legislative session as a rallying point for mayors across the region. The package, vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, would have provided about $7.5 billion for mass transit, roads and bridges during the next decade.

Minneapolis and St. Paul city council leaders also are working together to promote common goals.

Members of the Minneapolis and St. Paul city councils met in February to discuss joint state legislative interests for the 2006 session — the second year the two councils have met to come up with a shared vision for the Twin Cities.

Pushing transit

Mayors Rybak and Coleman have singled out the proposed Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line slated to run along University Avenue connecting the cities’ two downtowns as a top priority.

The 11-mile line would connect with the Hiawatha LRT line at Elliot Park’s Downtown East/Metrodome station. Trains leaving Downtown would cut through the University of Minnesota campus, the Midway area and the State Capitol complex and then stop in downtown St. Paul.

Coleman called the Central Corridor St. Paul’s “No. 1 priority project.”

Rybak also said he’d push state legislators to set aside money for the project, which is expected to cost about $840 million, according to the Central Corridor Partnership, a coalition of businesses promoting the light-rail line.

In 2005, the State Legislature passed $5.25 million in funding for the project.

An estimated 40,000 riders would use the Central Corridor on an average weekday in 2030, according to a forecast by Metro Transit officials released earlier this year.

Rybak’s spokesman Jeremy Hanson said the mayor plans to “rally for LRT to St. Paul” like State Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul rallied for the Minneapolis light-rail line.

“He will also work to fuse this next LRT line into the city’s 10-year action plan,” Hanson said.

Empowering youth

Besides transportation initiatives, the mayors have talked about collaborating on programs for city youth.

Rybak touted his office’s work to match Minneapolis students to summer jobs with local employers as part of the city’s STEP-UP program, launched in 2004.

Last year, the program paired more than 300 youth with 69 employers. This year, the city has set a goal of matching 500 students with jobs. Rybak has urged Coleman to set up a similar program.

Besides summer mentorships, Rybak highlighted the city’s public-private initiative to open career centers in every Minneapolis public high school to help students prepare for life after graduation and match low-income students headed for college with tuition money.

Coleman also is working on spearheading a variety of afterschool programs for St. Paul youth. The city has labeled the initiative the “Second Shift.”

Shared legislative agenda

The two mayors wield significant influence, but Minneapolis and St. Paul council leaders also play a critical role in shaping public policy.

City Councilmember Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), chair of the Council’s Intergovernmental Relations Committee, said the collaboration will make the region stronger.

“There are just so many places where we have more in common than we have separate,” she said. “Clearly there are places where each city is going to have to go their own way, but there are so many places where the two cities working together can enhance each city more than each city working alone on the same issue.”

At a Feb. 16 meeting, Minneapolis and St. Paul leaders agreed on a joint state legislative agenda. They named the proposed Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) line as the highest regional priority for the two cities, Hodges said.

Minneapolis and St. Paul city government leaders also are pushing for increased local government aid, calling for state support of the biosciences and voicing opposition to the phase-out of limited market values, which limits the increase in value of properties for property tax purposes.

“I think it’s also very useful to send that signal to our partners in our respective counties and our partners across the state that we are working together,” Hodges said.