Resurrecting the light rail

The Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line — a $957 million, 11-mile conduit between St. Paul and Minneapolis — will be a well-earned achievement come the first rides in 2014.
The forthcoming Central Corridor light-rail line will follow Washington Avenue Southeast across the University of Minnesota campus.
By
  • Gus Holtz
March 10, 2010

Upon its completion in 2014, the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit line will reconnect the Twin Cities in a way that has been missing for 60 years.

A University of Minnesota student heading to Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul will be able to hop on the light rail at one of three University stations — in Stadium Village, outside Coffman Union or on the West Bank — and make the trip in less than 40 minutes.

The landscape of the main campus artery, Washington Avenue Southeast, will be transformed from a clogged street to a sleek transit mall from Pleasant to Walnut streets.

For this stretch, auto traffic will be limited to emergency vehicles. Pedestrians, bikes, buses and trains will rule the mall.

The $957 million, 11-mile conduit between St. Paul and Minneapolis is scheduled to begin heavy construction this year, but the idea of a new rapid transit system has been debated since the 1970s.

Proposed to run along the defunct tracks of a streetcar line demolished in the 1950s, planning of the corridor didn’t gain serious momentum until 2001.

“The fact is, we’re not trying to site a nuclear reactor, we’re siting a tremendous transportation amenity,” Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

“In these final weeks, everyone has to come to the table with the assumption that they will do everything humanly possible to get us together to get this done right now,” he said.

But the ride to this opportunity has been fraught with resistance and setbacks. After nine years of battles and political maneuvering, the Metropolitan Council — the administrator of regional transit — is working to beat the clock to get federal approval for the final design of the corridor by the end of March. Heavy construction is set to begin at the end of this year.

Peter Bell, chairman of the Met Council, estimated that postponing the project even one year could add tens of millions of dollars to its price tag.

University setbacks

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents unanimously rejected the Central Corridor’s current path down Washington Avenue in July 2001, the first in a series of complaints. Instead, the Board of Regents advocated for the consideration of a tunnel or an alternate route.

In 2006, after the current route had been chosen by the Met Council, the University voiced concern over the possible effect a Washington Avenue line would have on traffic and on the sensitive research labs located nearby.

The complaints culminated in a September 2009 lawsuit against the Met Council filed by the University under the Minnesota Environmental Policy Act, with concern over the line’s harm to research being the driving force.

The University’s deadline to file a federal lawsuit passed last week. On Monday, a Hennepin County judge rejected the Met Council’s request to throw out the University’s case.

Vice President of University Services Kathleen O’Brien said a staff of about two dozen University employees from multiple departments have already worked thousands of hours drafting a compromise between the two parties, which have yet to reach a final agreement. Vibration and electromagnetic interference are the two main concerns of University researchers. The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance facility, located in the basement of Nils Hasselmo Hall, is home to a research center for studies of diseases like AIDS and various cancers and would be most affected by the train.

If the interference can’t be mitigated, the entire lab, including about $14 million worth of magnets, would have to be moved, said facility manager Beverly Ostrowski. Located about 70 feet from Washington Avenue, the lab’s equipment would be affected by magnetic field disturbances caused by the DC power supply of the train.

Ostrowski said the manufacturer of the powerful magnets used in the lab advises a distance of approximately 500 yards from a DC powered train. The University and the Met Council are working on methods to lessen the impact of the line. There is still disagreement over damages if the allowed amount of vibration and electromagnetic interference from the line are exceeded. The Met Council opposes the $25,000 in damages the University wants to impose for each time these mitigation standards are exceeded.

“Once the Central Corridor is built, it’s there permanently,” O’Brien said. “The University needs to … have a durable agreement that works not only for next year or five years from now, but 40 years from now.”

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who has hosted multiple meetings as a mediator to speed negotiations, criticized the University’s actions.

“I don’t know if the University understands what horrible shape they’re in,” she said. “Many members of the public have become disenchanted.” Aaron Isaacs, who worked as a planner for Metro Transit from 1973 to 2006, opposes the University’s stance as well.

“It’s like the U’s attitude is exactly the opposite of what it ought to be,” he said. “The U ought to embrace light rail.”

Lengthy litigation

The University’s lawsuit against the Met Council was just the beginning, as two others were filed in 2010 by Minnesota Public Radio and the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul. In a 2006 newsletter, Bell foreshadowed some of the problems the line would face.

“At the end of the day, I cannot promise that every community want and need will be met,” he wrote. “But my colleagues and I will make certain everyone is heard and their views are considered.”

In January, a coalition of community groups and businesses from the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul filed a federal lawsuit against the Met Council, the Federal Transit Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation. One of the groups, the Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee is seeking to protect the ethnic community from t he gentrification of the area they call home.

“Can we do big things in this country anymore?” Bell said. “We have allowed, in this country, legitimate community input and concern to morph into special interest veto.”

Originally, the coalition fought to add supplementary stops within the neighborhood. The Met Council obliged with three. In February, MPR filed a suit, citing concerns similar to those of the University. The vibration would be detrimental to two of MPR’s studios in its St. Paul offices, Jeff Freeland Nelson, managing director of public strategy, said. MPR originally opposed the line’s route, which runs about 12 feet from the building, Nelson said.

The radio station has been working with the Met Council over standards to mitigate the effects of the train’s vibration. Overall, the MPR lawsuit deals with 700 feet of the 11-mile track and one-tenth of 1 percent of the project’s overall budget.

“We knew when we filed this lawsuit that it was not going to derail the project,” Nelson said.

Bell stressed that standards can’t be haphazardly applied across the line, because the Met Council would be liable if they didn’t work. Also, engineering each section separately could delay the project. In addition to the spate of lawsuits, significant criticisms of the line have been leveraged bysupporters and opponents alike.

'Not easily replaceable'

When the first light-rail train was built in Salt Lake City a decade ago, business owners feared the impact construction would have on profits. Now, with the light rail bearing down on Stadium Village, local business owners have similar fears.

Bill Knowles of Salt Lake City’s Office of Economic Development has served as the “downtown ombudsman” for the city, consulting for other cities’ business mitigation plans along the way.

“Yes, [construction] had serious impact,” Knowles said. Salt Lake City saw the closings of two businesses — “two too many” as far as Knowles is concerned — and revenues were impacted. Short-term construction woes and long-term parking losses are at the top of the list of worries for Stadium Village business owners.

“It’s all about the city protecting its assets, and these small businesses are the city’s assets — not easily replaceable should any of them go away,” Knowles said.

In Salt Lake City, a lack of communication between the city, businesses and construction teams hindered the project the most, Knowles said. Now, a highly publicized communications system resolves issues within 24 hours. The Met Council is using similar methods to rectify problems, with an outreach coordinator assigned to each of six areas highly affected by construction.

However, not all communication between the Met Council and businesses has been completely clear and direct. Nancy Rose Pribyl, president of the Stadium Village Commercial Association, said the campus area’s communication coordinator passes along what she knows, but the size and complexity of the Met Council and the light-rail project is too convoluted for a streamlined system.

“There’s a lot of information that has come through,” Pribyl said. “It’s hard to get specifics and details as to what to expect and when.”

Additionally, when the Met Council held meetings to address concerns, business owners’ comments weren’t actually considered, Pribyl said.

“The open and collaborative listening sessions were not … they were open, but they had already had the decisions made,” Pribyl said.

Trials and tribulations, 1970s to present

The light-rail plan has been in the works since 1970. Isaacs, the former Metro Transit planner, explained that in that year the restructuring of the bus system led to the first churning of ideas for a new rapid transit system. There were more ideas thrown around than he can remember.

Rather than inspiring innovation, this debate may have been excessive.

“There were quite a few [plans] that came around and then went nowhere,” ranging from light rail to subway plans, Isaacs said. “They just never reached fruition. They were never funded by the state.”

Progress was further slowed by a lack of communication between different authorities.

“There was always a lot of turf fighting” between the Met Council and the Metropolitan Transit Commission, the predecessor to Metro Transit, Isaacs said.

This fragmentation has led to the lack of a unified vision, said John DeWitt, founder of Transit for Livable Communities. These criticisms are apparent today, and Hausman introduced a bill last year that went as far as proposing the dissolution of the Met Council. Bell agreed that some reform of the Met Council was necessary, but he said he did not know the perfect formula.

Now that the project is finalized, federal regulations bar major changes if it is to remain on track. This rigidity becomes more of a problem due to design flaws inherited from the uncertain beginnings of the line, Hausman said. Doubt that the corridor would ever come to fruition and the controversial nature of the project caused planners to take “the path of least resistance” without actually considering the effectiveness of the route, Hausman said.

“It got studied so many times, and it drug on for so long that I’m not sure many people really thought it could ever happen,” said Dennis Probst, who was the project manager for a consultant team in the late 1980s and was involved in the design of the current layout.

Good timing

It was the coinciding of three Minnesota politicians that made the state’s first light rail a reality after 30 years of setbacks. Even after the Hiawatha Line had been approved, Hiawatha seemed a lost cause to the Met Council; it was set to be a lower-budget bus route instead of light rail.

Then, in the early 2000s, Hennepin County commissioner Peter McLaughlin and Congressman Martin Sabo appeared as the angels of Twin Cities public transit, working to get federal funding for the surplus costs required to make Hiawatha a light rail. These funds required a match in the state’s own budget. The third key player, then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, threatened a blanket veto of the state budget if local funding for the light rail wasn’t matched.

Twin City Rapid Transit Co.

In the early 20th century, Thomas Lowry left an indelible impression on the city’s transit. Lowry came to the cities in 1867 as a lawyer looking to invest in valuable real estate. Instead, he created it.

Today’s era of public transit succeeded the robust Twin Cities train culture of the streetcar age, which peaked in the 1920s and 1930s. Lowry served as president of the Twin City Rapid Transit Company up to and during the golden age of streetcars. The company’s earliest projects were symbolic: four “inter-urban” lines connecting the two cities constructed and in operation by 1910.

Minnesota Historical Society curator Matthew Anderson said streetcar lines stretching out from the cities brought corridors of development, which later slowly filled in between.

“The cities kind of took the shape that they have today because of the streetcars,” Anderson said.

The main inter-urban line along University Avenue, almost identical in layout to the planned light rail, was the main thoroughfare and created the Midway district. In fact, the district got its name from being the first “way” between the two cities via public transit.

Some areas where popular streetcar lines crossed became retail districts that still exist today. As commuters waited for their next train, they had “time to kill and money to spend,” Anderson said.

Death of a streetcar

After the line’s popularity peaked in 1920, the Great Depression’s far-reaching slump dragged ridership down with it, according to Anderson’s research.

Rationing during World War II brought a short-lived comeback for ridership, but it dropped off again after the war ended. In its peak year, 1920, the Twin City Rapid Transit Company sold 238 million tickets. By 1954, ridership had dropped to less than 5 million, according to Anderson’s research. That was the year the last streetcar ran.

Time is money

Although those involved are optimistic about the line’s completion, deadlines for federal funding are fast approaching. Three lawsuits and a heap of unresolved issues don’t help.

For instance, although the Obama administration has softened some of the rigid requirements for federal funding, critics say requirements are still too stringent to be workable.

“That’s the catch-22 of taking federal money,” Hausman said.

She is particularly concerned because the Met Council said the project’s problems can’t be fixed without delaying it. In an attempt to keep the project on track, local funding is already being used to jumpstart preliminary construction in St. Paul, with the assumption that federal financing will reimburse the costs later on.

Unless the issues can be resolved quickly, however, there are no guarantees.

“If people approach these last few months of negotiation by selfishly trying to get everything they can for their own interests, we’ll comfortably stay in the stone ages of transportation,” Rybak said.

Additionally, budget deficits at both the state and federal levels add to the uncertainty surrounding the project’s completion. The state and federal elections this fall pose perhaps the biggest risk of the train plans going awry.

“There could be dramatic changes in the political landscape,” said Met Council spokesman Steve Dornfeld. “There’s no guarantee that this project will remain a priority for the governor or the Legislature or even for Congress.”

Comment Policy

The Minnesota Daily welcomes thoughtful discussion on all of our stories, but please keep comments civil and on-topic. Read our full guidelines here.
Minnesota Daily Serving the University of Minnesota Community since 1900