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Obama’s Minn. visit to focus on transportation

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ST. PAUL — With President Obama scheduled to give remarks Wednesday at the Union Depot in St. Paul, a Lowertown coffee shop and wine bar has an incentive to lure him to its lunch counter.

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The Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar on Prince Street is offering free beer “to anyone named Barack,” according to its Facebook page, which carried a picture of the president with a beer in hand at facebook.com/blackdogcafe.

“ID, but not birth certificate, required,” the page declares.

“We know he likes beer, and we’ve got all local beers,” Black Dog co-owner Sara Remke said.

The beer giveaway is just one indication of the interest surrounding Obama’s visit. He last stopped in the Twin Cities in February 2013, when he traveled to North Minneapolis to speak about the nation’s gun laws after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

The Black Dog sits across the street from the new Central Corridor light-rail operations and maintenance facility, and down the street from Ramsey County’s cavernous Union Depot transit hub, which underwent a $243 million facelift a little more than a year ago. Both projects were locally and federally funded.

Obama is expected to deliver transportation-related remarks at 2 p.m. today, though the White House has released few details about his address. Tickets were distributed at the depot Monday morning, first-come, first-served, and security is expected to be tight.

City and county officials said they’ve been kept in the dark about the exact nature of the president’s remarks.

“I’m anxiously awaiting that,” said Ramsey County Board Chairman Jim McDonough, who played key roles in organizing the 90-year-old depot’s revival.

Nevertheless, the president’s visit “shows the strength of our project and the spirit of partnership that it took to get that project done, between local, state and federal government,” McDonough said.

Rafael Ortega, chairman of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, said he expected Obama to focus on the need for national investment in transportation infrastructure and “putting people to work” on public works projects.

“The end project is a transit hub that connects people to work and school and everything else,” Ortega said.

Obama may point to public transit as a key ingredient in urban renewal, something St. Paul officials have stressed as momentum continues on more than $1 billion in development projects along the Central Corridor line, or Green Line.

Obama’s visit comes at a sensitive time in public transit discussions on both sides of the Mississippi River. The Metropolitan Council’s plans to build a Southwest light-rail line from Minneapolis to the southwest suburbs have been stymied by discussions about rerouting freight traffic near residential neighborhoods. Meanwhile, St. Paul is studying a possible downtown streetcar along West Seventh Street, but business owners on the route have taken a skeptical stance.

City and county officials in the east metro remain concerned about how to fund a growing backlog of public transit proposals, and many back a sales tax that Gov. Mark Dayton proposed last year to raise money for transit.

After four years of construction, the Central Corridor is expected to begin rolling between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis on June 14, with a stop outside the Union Depot on Fourth Street.

It remains unclear when Amtrak, which was originally expected to move operations into the depot in late 2012, will be ready to relocate from St. Paul’s Transfer Road.

An announcement from Amtrak was expected in late January, but heavy snowfalls and freight traffic to and from North Dakota have complicated the passenger line’s operations this season. Amtrak rents space on freight track operated by BNSF Railway and two other companies.

“This journey with Amtrak has been much more complicated than anyone anticipated,” said McDonough, pointing to the difficulty of coordinating track and signal switches with three freight railroads and the federal government. “It’s just been a little bit frustrating.”

Amtrak officials said Tuesday that they were waiting for the green light from the county.

“Ramsey County is working with the freight railroads on that, and we will shout from the mountaintops when that day arrives,” said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak in Chicago. “We’re excited about the move, because this will benefit the passengers and benefit downtown St. Paul.”

On Tuesday, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners convened as the Regional Railroad Authority and approved two-year maintenance and operations contracts with Railworks Track Systems Inc. of Lakeville and Railworks Signals and Communications of Jacksonville, Fla.

Public curiosity about the depot remains high, but tenants have been gradual. Also on Tuesday, the county board approved a one-year lease agreement with W Marketing-Agency Nord, a St. Paul-based marketing and special events consultant.

Jefferson Bus Lines and Megabus.com have moved into the depot, but Greyhound reneged on plans to join them and instead consolidated its two Twin Cities operations in Minneapolis. Ramsey County officials say they’re in talks again with Greyhound, but nothing has been finalized. Two casino shuttles and Metro Transit buses also use the depot.

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

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