Last November, when the U.S. government approved an extension of Minneapolis’ Green Line light rail route to Eden Prairie, it was touted as a massive victory for economic justice in underserved communities in the Twin Cities. Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey applauded the public transit expansion in a tweet for its commitment to “advancing economic justice and building a stronger workforce, responsible climate policy, and access to more affordable housing options.”
But while the new route is a clear positive from an environmental lens, allowing suburban commuters to travel to and from the city in eco-friendly electric trains instead of gas-guzzling SUVs, I believe it fell short from a lens of economic equity.
In practically every level of public office, from mayor to governor to president, elected leaders will face decisions of whether to invest in business growth or to allocate resources for low-income communities. Should a city construct a sparkling business plaza or build hundreds of affordable housing developments? Should it create a tax haven for corporations or invest in grocery options for poor neighborhoods?
In many cases, pro-business decisions will line up with the interests of the working class by expanding employment and economic growth. But in other cases, too strong of a focus on business growth can overshadow potential investments that would be substantially more beneficial to the communities that need it most: low-income neighborhoods.
When the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council drafted its Green Line expansion route, it may have fallen into this mistake.
According to interactive data from the Urban Institute, Twin Cities areas in the bottom 10 percent of socioeconomic status are clustered near the city centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and typically contain a large percentage of people of color. This includes majority-black neighborhoods in north Minneapolis and majority-Hmong communities in St. Paul.
The Green Line’s new southwest extension avoids these neighborhoods. Instead, it glides along Lake of the Isles, stopping in the affluent neighborhood of Kenwood, which is in the upper 10 percent in the U.S. in terms of socioeconomic status. The suburban route then meanders through majority-white, low-density suburban areas to Eden Prairie.
The Metropolitan Council came to this decision because of a lot of factors, including the constraints of President George W. Bush’s cost-effectiveness rating system, which prioritized suburban transit options, and the appeal of opening up opportunities for city-dwellers to commute to suburban jobs. The issue is that the Council focused too much on cost-effectiveness and suburban business growth and too little on the massive benefits of connecting people of color in Minneapolis and St. Paul directly to the light rail transportation grid.
As a result of these misguided priorities, the new light rail could widen the already-existing gap in economic development between urban and suburban parts of the Twin Cities. Suburbs are already growing at much faster rates than Minneapolis’ and St. Paul’s urban cores, according to a 2017 data analysis from the Star Tribune. The Green Line expansion will likely invigorate this dynamic, whereas bringing a light rail line to lower-income neighborhoods could have instead revitalized the economies of places like North Minneapolis.
Evidence of the power of reaching low-income communities with the Twin Cities’ light rail system can be seen in the existing Green Line route from Minneapolis to St. Paul, which connects multiple lower income communities to economic hubs. Although local residents had valid concerns about the possible gentrification the original Green Line would cause, the project overall delivered a major boost in job opportunities for low-income residents by reaching them directly with the light rail.
Overall, while the Green Line’s southwest expansion will likely bolster economic growth in a macroeconomic sense, it might do less to alleviate disparities between Twin Cities residents than other routes focused on low-income urban neighborhoods. In other words, while the new extension might improve quality of life for some Twin Cities residents, its benefits might not reach the residents who need it most.
In fairness, the Metropolitan Council is now pursuing a Blue Line extension through parts of North Minneapolis to Brooklyn Center. This project, however, has been a second priority to the Green Line extension, even though its recipients are significantly more diverse than those of the suburban route to Eden Prairie.
With the Green Line extension set to cost about $2 billion overall — more than quadruple Metro Transit’s annual revenue — the Metropolitan Council should have used its limited resources to invest in public transportation options in a way that maximizes its impact on low-income communities. A transit-way to wealthy suburbs might not have been the best way to do that.