Minneapolis-Saint Paul’s Intersection of Freight and Economy

As part of Brookings’ Metro Freight research series, the Metropolitan Policy Program solicited commentaries from civic leaders around the nation. The purpose of these blog posts is to provide a more detailed look into the unique trading and goods movement relationships within several metros.

Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the primary freight hub in the Upper Midwest. The metro area produces and consumes a wide range of commodities, benefiting from its extensive freight infrastructure to transport goods to and from regional markets like Chicago, Milwaukee, and Omaha.

Lost in this traditional view of freight, though, is how the Twin Cities also boasts the fifth largest goods trade balance ($14.9 billion) in the country—with huge domestic surpluses in precision instruments and machinery—highlighting its economic importance in larger global value chains.

Brookings’s new Metro Freight series provides an important economic starting point that allows Minneapolis’ network of leaders to better understand how our expansive freight infrastructure relates to our dynamic metropolitan economy.

According to Brookings, the Twin Cities transports about 140 million tons of freight valued at $219 billion annually. Given the metro area’s concentration of high tech firms and other advanced industries, it should come as no surprise that it also ranks 12th in the United States for the value of its exports ($16 billion), as it strengthens its innovative capacity via patents and extends its global reach through one of the nation’s first metro export plans.

To maintain this competitive edge in the global marketplace, the metro area will need to continue exploring strategies that build off its freight and industrial assets. As metro leaders gain a better understanding of the area’s unique position in global value chains, they can further integrate goods movement into broader transportation and economic development programs—and draw from collective efforts that have already emerged across the public and private sector.  

And the need to act is more important than ever before.

Similar to other parts of the country, the Twin Cities is grappling with a series of pressing freight challenges. The Hoffman Junction in east Saint Paul, for instance, handles 5 percent of the nation’s freight rail traffic, but capacity limits and bottlenecks are limiting the area’s ability to manage these flows.

The state and metro area’s only two container yards—the BNSF Midway Hub and Canadian Pacific Shoreham yard—must also wrestle with operational capacity needs and developmental constraints. Ongoing redevelopment pressures near the waterfront have led to the planned closing of several terminals at the Port of Minneapolis, even as several industries rely on these facilities to promote the region’s economic health and employment base.

Yet despite these challenges—and in the face of persistent federal gridlock—the Twin Cities has a solid start addressing its freight needs. With a well-developed system of multi-modal freight connections and robust distribution options in place, the metro area supports a vital, competitive economy and high quality of life for almost three million people. In turn, it has demonstrated an ability to handle a tremendous assortment of goods for production and consumption, from advanced medical devices used by Medtronic to coal used by Xcel Energy to generate power for the region.

At the same time, joint efforts between the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council have helped define additional opportunities for goods movement in the area. By aiming to work more closely with partners such as the Saint Paul Port Authority and Union Pacific, among others, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Area Freight Initiative has elevated freight’s importance in the region, targeting projects that provide easier access to centers of production, adding capacity to congested roads and rails, and fostering greater community sustainability.

Through these collaborative partnerships, leaders can accelerate freight improvements in tandem with other key economic priorities, helping to supporting the Twin Cities’ long-term vitality in global goods trade networks.