ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — When White House officials chose St. Paul's Union Depot for President Barack Obama's announcement Wednesday 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 in an earlier round of the program.
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.
"This project symbolizes what's possible," Obama said of the station's rebirth.
U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-St. Paul, said the station 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 beforehand.
Obama pointed out that it's now becoming a regional transit hub that brings several modes of transportation under one roof. 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.
Obama noted that the light-rail line that ends at Union Station is expected to cut the trip between the two downtowns in bad weather to just 30 minutes instead of the two-hour slogs that aren't uncommon when it snows heavily.
"I just had a chance to take a look at some of those spiffy new trains," he said. "They are nice. Big. They're energy-efficient. They're going to be reliable."
Obama couldn't resist the chance to joke about Minnesota's deep freeze. It's shaping up as the coldest winter in the Twin Cities since 1978-79. And he did it at the expense of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.
The temperature had crept up only to about 10 degrees with a wind chill of minus 8 at the airport when Obama, Foxx and their entourage disembarked from Air Force One.
"He turned to me and he said, 'This is the coldest I've ever been in my life!'" Obama said of Foxx. "And we were only out there for, like, a minute. Which goes to show how soft these folks from North Carolina are."
Obama said he has spent a lot of time with Minnesotans lately — because he was watching the Winter Olympics.
"Minnesota sent 19 athletes to the games," he said to loud cheers, adding, "They did us all proud."
And he singled out a community in far northwestern Minnesota where hockey is a way of life.
"Once again the tiny town of Warroad proved it's Hockey Town U.S.A.," he said, naming Warroad High School graduates T.J. Oshie and Gigi Marvin, who were stars on the U.S. men's and women's hockey teams, respectively. He paid tribute to Oshie for securing a shootout victory in the U.S. game against Russia.
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.
McCollum and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minneapolis, accompanied Obama to Minnesota on board Air Force One. But Franken did not. His spokesman, Michael Dale-Stein, said Franken had planned to make the trip but needed to attend a friend's funeral.
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges — both Democrats — greeted Obama as he got off Air Force One at the airport.
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.
U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said he planned to pose a series of unanswered questions via his Twitter account in response to Obama's visit.
"Minnesotans keep telling me they have had enough and they can no longer bear the burden of failed policies and a weak economy," Kline said in a statement.
About two dozen climate change activists rallied in the frigid cold 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 organized by MN 350 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.
"Hey hey, ho ho, Amtrak is the way to go," they chanted. "Trains for people not for oil."
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.
The protesters stood against a backdrop of a light-rail train, which Metro Transit parked in front of the station for the president's visit.
Kate Jacobson, lead coordinator for MN 350, said the protesters want Obama to support mass transit to reduce the need for oil.
Event organizers packed several hundred people into a penned area under a high arched-ceiling hall at Union Station that leads to the Amtrak platform. Some spectators were lucky enough to score chairs. The rest were crammed into an area that strongly resembled a mosh pit at a rock concert. And when the crowd of 1,300 cheered, the noise echoed as loudly as at any concert.
Ryan Gilmer, a ticket reseller from Plymouth, said he couldn't pass up the chance to see Obama, which he considered "a real cool thing," and wasn't worried about getting a decent look because he's 6-foot-4.
"You don't get a chance to hear a sitting president very often," Gilmer said.
Lou Fragale, a real estate agent from Golden Valley, said he wasn't bothered by being penned in amid the tight crowd.
"It's OK. We're comfortable. We're in a good mood. We'll get a glimpse of the president while he talks about his transportation issues," Fragale said.