ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When White House officials chose St. Paul's Union Depot for President Barack Obama's announcement of a $600 million competition for federal grants to fund infrastructure projects that create jobs, they picked a site that received nearly $125 million in federal funds for a major renovation.
Union Depot went into decline in the early 1970s after the city's dwindling passenger train service was moved to a new depot in the Midway area between downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, said it was in serious disrepair when she toured it shortly after being elected to Congress in 2000.
"It had been overrun by pigeons, windows were broken and shuttered, and the space was cold and largely abandoned, except for a few empty mail carts," McCollum said in a statement.
Today, it's becoming a regional transit hub. It's already being used by Metro Transit buses and some intercity bus companies, and it's poised to become busier later this year when a light-rail line connecting downtown St. Paul with downtown Minneapolis starts running and Amtrak service returns.
The project, which was in the works before Obama took office, has created more than 3,000 jobs since construction began in 2010, according to McCollum's office. The renovations were completed in December 2012.
Republicans tried to score political points by highlighting the absence of leading Minnesota Democratic officeholders at Obama's appearance, targeting Sen. Al Franken, who's running for re-election this fall.
Democratic U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum, of St. Paul, and Keith Ellison, of Minneapolis, accompanied Obama to Minnesota on board Air Force One. But Franken did not, citing another commitment.
Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey accused Franken of distancing himself from the president.
"Al Franken's record is a total rubber-stamping of President Obama's agenda," Downey said in a statement. "Between casting the deciding vote for the Obamacare debacle to supporting President Obama 100 percent of the time, why wouldn't Al Franken want to welcome the President to Minnesota?"
A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll published last week put Franken's approval rating in the state at 55 percent, compared with 58 percent for Gov. Mark Dayton and 43 percent for Obama.
Dayton did not attend the event either, but it's because he's recovering from hip surgery. He has said he expects to be in a body cast into next month, so he's working from home.
Climate change activists planned to rally outside Union Depot to urge Obama to reject the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline and protest the expanded use of Canadian tar sands oil.
The event was being organized by 350 MN, which said it wanted to protest how the upsurge in trains transporting crude oil, primarily from North Dakota, is snarling passenger train service, including the Empire Builder, which connects St. Paul with Chicago to the east and Seattle and Portland, Ore., to the west.
Obama told governors at a White House meeting on Monday that he expects to decide within the next couple months on whether to approve the pipeline from western Canada across the U.S. to Gulf Coast refineries in Texas. The project has been caught up in the debate over climate change. Pipeline opponents say the tar sands oil Keystone XL would carry is dirtier than other crude because producing it generates more greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. They're also worried about spills.