Rafael Ortega is not the sort of man you’d expect to meet in the Ramsey County offices in St Paul, Minnesota. As a product of the Lower East Side with a degree from Fordham, he’s brought a brand new perspective to transportation since taking office in 1995.
“Nothing’s going to be on the scale of New York but look, for us to be competitive as a region we gotta invest more in transit,” said Ortega. “I got into this because my first year in office I went up to the capital [and] nobody on the board gave a hoot about transit, to be honest with you.”
Ortega has a friendly, easy-going conversational style that occasionally causes meetings to run long. That’s no problem, since he retains a high level of respect within the region for the light rail, streetcar and bus systems he has helped create.
As Ramsey County commissioner and chairman of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, Ortega is the individual with the most power to affect transportation policy in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he represents one half of the Twin Cities.
Up until a year ago, Ramsey was in fact the second largest county in a broad coalition of seven counties in the Twin Cities metro area that instituted a quarter cent sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements. On top of disagreements about how transportation resources should be distributed, certain counties in the metro area prioritized buses over trains while others did the opposite.
“As you’re building out a system, you have to put your money in different pieces first, otherwise it’s not the kind of thing that you could evenly distribute,” Ortega told me. He jokingly added, “We’ll buy ten buses and we’ll give everybody 2.2 buses, y’know?”
Once the coalition disbanded, many counties discarded the sales tax they were using to fund the regional bus network, leaving Ramsey and Hennepin counties (where Minneapolis is located) to double their own sales tax carve-outs in order to fund their expanding networks. The two counties already see funding issues on the horizon.
“It’s always a struggle to fund these projects, especially if you’re trying to do it yourself because they’re so big,” Ortega mused. “So I think down the road we’re gonna have to be creative about how we adjust this.”
The upside is that the Twin Cities are quickly realizing the benefits of a robust transportation network. The green and blue line light rail lines that connect the two cities have already drastically outperformed expectations, meeting 20-year ridership goals in about a quarter of that time.
“For a while we were tracking [ridership statistics] like baseball scores,” Ortega said. “It has to do with dependability – you go there and you know the train is coming more or less within twenty seconds of the time, if not right on time.”
Because of these successes, Ortega now has a slate of new projects to consider, including a new streetcar connecting the Riverview corridor between Minneapolis and St Paul.
Ortega’s strong track record with transit might influence how lawmakers view other transit projects in the state and region. The Passenger Rail Office of Minnesota’s Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is on life support as it struggles to collect consistent funding from the state general fund. In fact, Minnesota’s contribution to a study connecting St Paul, Milwaukee and Chicago via a second daily train was funded by Ramsey County because MnDOT couldn’t come up with the funds.
Two out of the two employees working out of the Passenger Rail Office, Director Dan Krom and Project Manager Frank Loetterle, expressed concern over future funding for rail.
“We’ve been fighting an uphill battle ever since [it was founded] just to maintain the office and maintain funding,” Krom said. “We have severe budget constraints.”
Yet even with its limited budget, the Passenger Rail Office is working hard to continue to expand rail transportation connecting the Twin Cities to areas as far as Duluth.
“We’re looking down the road to see where we can invest with the limited resources there we’ll need in the future.” Loetterle told me. He was positive that new projects such as the Northern Lights Express connecting Minneapolis and Duluth would bring in more first-time consumers who will begin to see the importance of a transportation network in their state.
To those working in passenger rail, robust and comprehensive transportation systems are the ultimate greater good, and it’s worth dragging along stubborn counties or states into their vision in order to make that happen. When a new commuter climbs aboard and starts using public transportation, they’re converted into rail advocates by simple nature of wanting their commute to be as painless as possible. The challenge for policymakers, then, is convincing other politicians how essential rail travel is to so many people.
“I mean, the ability of people to move from east to west [during Westward Expansion] is what gave people a lot of opportunities,” Ortega said. “To achieve the American dream, you gotta be mobile. That’s part of this country too, right?”