|By Mike Kaszuba, Star Tribune,
MinneapolisMcClatchy-Tribune Business News
Sep. 28, 2006 - Brian Lamb began wondering how he'll get 250 extra buses. Brent Cory braced for having most of Eagan's 1,500 hotel rooms booked. The state Transportation Department talked of how the biggest road construction project, the Crosstown Highway, might be reworked to lessen traffic jams.
All around the Twin Cities area Wednesday, the idea of hosting a national political convention suddenly raced from possibility to reality. Even with two years to do the planning, the logistics of setting aside 20,000 hotel rooms in September 2008 for the Republican National Convention -- as well as a wide variety of other details -- is certain to be a daunting task.
"This is really big," said Keith Otzen of Destination Bloomington, the convention and visitors bureau serving the Twin Cities' largest suburb, where 33 hotels offer more than 7,300 rooms. Otzen said convention officials in Bloomington, as well as those across the metro area, had for months stressed to hotel owners that if they could commit 90 percent of their rooms "then we've got a good chance" of being awarded either the Democratic or Republican conventions.
Many convention officials locally, however, said that, logistics aside, the Republican convention will be a godsend. "We're going to be packed to capacity during the convention," said Cory, executive director of the Eagan Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Others welcomed the coming congestion. "It's very positive," said Moe Sharif, the owner of the Downtowner Woodfire Grill and Chico Chica restaurants on W. 7th Street, within blocks of the Xcel Energy Center. When concerts or hockey games are held at the arena, he said, "my restaurant is saturated with people."
But hotel rooms and busy restaurants are only part of the equation.
"It's a significant number of buses and operators," said Lamb, the general manager of Metro Transit, the regional transit operator. Lamb said preliminary estimates suggest 250 to 300 extra buses would be needed daily to transport convention-goers from hotels to the Xcel Energy Center. The agency, by comparison, used roughly 75 extra buses during the State Fair. On most days, he said, the agency uses 700 of its fleet of 850 buses for its regular routes, leaving just 150 in reserve.
Borrowing buses from other cities, such as Rochester, may be a possibility, said Lamb, as would slowing the number of buses Metro Transit normally retires in a given year. "That will build up our reserve fleet," he said.
A bigger problem will be how to fit that many extra buses into the tight confines of downtown St. Paul while avoiding gridlock and dealing with the inevitable street closures surrounding the Xcel Energy Center. The key, said Lamb, will be "scheduling these things in a precise enough way to avoid those kinds of gridlock situations," he said. But Metro Transit, he said, does have experience in such matters -- roughly 450 buses move through downtown Minneapolis during a typical morning rush hour.
Within hours after the Republican convention announcement, a state Department of Transportation spokesperson said that no routine state highway roadwork in the Twin Cities would likely be scheduled during the Sept. 1-4 convention, and that no major highway construction jobs would start during that week.
"Will there be impacts? Yes, there will be," said Judy Melander, a MnDOT spokesperson. "I'm sure there's going to be a concerted effort to help motorists as much as we can."
The largest potential roadway bottleneck, the massive reconstruction of the Crosstown Highway, is scheduled to be underway in 2008 even though funding now remains in question. But Melander said the project could be reworked so that traffic disruption is minimized, particularly during the week of the Republican convention. "There might be something we put in our contracts" with the builders, she said.
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