Study reveals how Minnesota industries rely on transportation

The oil boom Oil Boom Graphicin North Dakota has generated a lot of wealth in a short amount of time, and resort owners in the Brainerd Lakes area would love to capture some of it by enticing new vacationers from the west. The trouble is, the area is inconvenient to reach from that direction.

This is one of the examples in a newly released research report that examines the role transportation plays in Minnesota’s economic competitiveness. “The research underscores the importance of a reliable transportation system in facilitating economic growth,” says principal investigator Lee Munnich, director of the State and Local Policy Program at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Researchers examined the impact of transportation on Minnesota’s competitive industry clusters—geographically concentrated, interconnected groups of companies and institutions that share knowledge networks, supply chains, and specialized labor pools.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), the project examined a wide range of industries, including medical devices, robotics, and processed foods. In all, 28 firms were interviewed within 12 industry clusters, says co-investigator Mike Iacono, research fellow in the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering.

Several common themes emerged from the interviews: the importance of shipment reliability, the desire for improved intermodal freight facilities, and the condition of the infrastructure. Several firms whose products were either breakable or perishable cited the need for smooth pavements, for example.

The report also highlights the unique challenges faced by some of the state’s major industry clusters, such as the hospitality and tourism cluster in the Brainerd Lakes Area. A four-lane highway makes it easy for visitors from St. Cloud or the Twin Cities to visit resorts in the area, but travelers coming from the Dakotas face a more circuitous route. Air travel options help to an extent, bringing in visitors from farther distances who can fly in to Fargo or St. Cloud.

MnDOT research project engineer Bruce Holdhusen says MnDOT’s goal with the study was to discover how its investment decisions could help support job creation and economic prosperity. “The idea is to look at the companies and industries that are already bringing money into the state, figure out what their transportation challenges are, and then use that information to see what kind of investments we could make to support their continued growth,” he says.

MnDOT is incorporating the results of the study into its statewide freight planning. It is also using the industry-clusters approach in a statewide effort to talk with manufacturers, other shippers, and carriers about their transportation priorities and challenges, Holdhusen says. MnDOT will focus on its Metro District starting this summer. Two similar projects have been undertaken in Greater Minnesota, and a third study is starting this year.

“The research may also help to form the basis for collaboration between public and private entities in promoting economic development,” Munnich adds.

(Adapted from an article published on the joint CTS/MnDOT Crossroads blog.)

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