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Obama finds supportive crowd during St. Paul visit

President Barack Obama wades into the crowd to shake hands after speaking at Union Depot in St. Paul's Lowertown on Wednesday, February 26, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)1 / 2
President Barack Obama speaks at Union Depot in St. Paul's Lowertown on Wednesday, February 26, 2014. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)2 / 2

ST. PAUL -- President Barack Obama found a largely supportive audience during his visit to the renovated Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, a transit hub designed with Amtrak and future light rail, bus rapid transit or high-speed rail connections in mind.

The Central Corridor light-rail transit line, or Green Line, is expected to stop outside the depot when it begins passenger service to downtown Minneapolis in June.

To fund construction, both projects relied heavily on federal transportation grants, a pot that Obama plans to replenish and reissue to public transit initiatives across the nation.

“Facing the worst economic crisis since the Depression, the president brought money here to St. Paul, and you see that today,” former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said following Obama’s remarks. “He took massive grief for it, but he led.”

Lynn Farmer, a homemaker who lives in Minneapolis, thought Obama sounded all the right notes for her and for her 9-year-old son, Noah Farmer.

“We believe in public transportation and building that infrastructure for both Minneapolis and St. Paul,” said Farmer, who joined a crowd of about 1,300 who waited several hours to get a glimpse of the president.

With her two young sons at her side, Laura Lathrop listened somewhat skeptically as the president laid out plans for continued investment in the nation’s roads, bridges, railways and public transit infrastructure.

Lathrop, a St. Paul homemaker who lives in the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, finds Metro Transit bus service too pricey for her family of four to take advantage of on a daily basis, especially on her husband’s salary as a schoolteacher.

Buses in the province of western China where Lathrop used to live cost her pennies a day, not $1.75 to $3 for an adult ride. Ongoing discussions about a train or streetcar reaching her neighborhood still strike her as a distant possibility.

“I’m hopeful for the future, but right now it’s just too expensive. It’s just cheaper to own a car,” said Lathrop, who calls herself a public transit supporter.

Several hours before Obama spoke, U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., issued a statement saying the president’s “fatally-flawed health care scheme … runaway federal spending and deficits are barriers to our economic recovery.”

The president also took some ribbing on Twitter when, less than two hours after his speech, a light-rail train car derailed during a test run at Cedar and 12th streets in downtown St. Paul. No one was injured when the train hit accumulated snow and ice and slid a few feet off the tracks.

“President Obama comes to Minnesota, touts how great light rail is, and train goes off the tracks hours later,” wrote a self-described Minneapolis conservative who goes by the Twitter handle Eye on Politics. “Can’t make it up. … Barack Obama’s magic touch!”

The president’s signature federal stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, directed $48.1 billion toward transportation initiatives, including more than $1 billion through competitive Transportation Income Generating Economic Recovery grants. Obama on Wednesday committed to funding a sixth round of TIGER grants, at a price tag of $600 million.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said it made sense for the city and Ramsey County to work closely together to identify transit projects that could qualify for funding.

City and county officials are studying a possible bus rapid transit or streetcar line down West Seventh Street toward the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but no final decisions have been made.

Among the crowd at Wednesday’s speech were several area schoolchildren.

The St. Paul Preparatory School, a 225-student private high school that draws enrollees from 35 countries, took nearly 50 students to the presidential address.

Among them was Obama fan Virginia Ventiucci, 18, of Italy, who once traveled from her hometown to Berlin to hear the U.S. president speak, only to discover she could not get in.

“Apart from the fact that he’s the most powerful man in the world, I followed his re-election campaign and I was really happy when he got re-elected,” Ventiucci said.

She lucked out when the president came to St. Paul and spoke just blocks away from the school.

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.