Central corridor line remains on track

Minneapolis and St. Paul leaders call for rapid expansion of transit networks.

Angela Gray

Twin Cities officials are working to add to the Hiawatha light rail line and build on its success with another transit line.

The central corridor proposal is for an 11-mile transit line connecting downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul and the University, as well as the businesses and residential neighborhoods in between.

There are three options for development of the corridor: maintaining the current bus routes in the area, which have the highest rider volumes in the state; creating a bus rapid transit system where buses would operate in an exclusive busway on portions of University Avenue and in mixed traffic in downtown St. Paul, downtown Minneapolis, and at the University; or creating a light rail transit system with short trains of quiet, electric-powered railcars operating along exclusive tracks to avoid competition with other traffic.

The Central Corridor Partnership was founded in January 2004 to promote funding and development of light rail transit in the Central Corridor.

The partnership consists of hundreds of businesses, organized labor groups, the University and local governments in a coalition effort to advocate for the transit line.

Rick Beeson is the president and chief executive of Park Midway Bank in St. Paul and co-chairman of the Central Corridor Partnership.

Beeson said this is a “huge” project that not only includes government officials, but also businesses and the community.

“People need ways to travel and get around. For example, people without vehicles and those who are dependant on public transportation,” he said.

Beeson said the new transit line would “throw cars off the road,” move along business goods, relieve parking and open up employment.

The opposition to the project is small he said. “There are opponents with every economic project.”

The largest challenge is to continue informing the community and businesses, Beeson said.

“It’s all about communication and education,” he said.

Beeson said there are many community businesses and immigrant communities that do not have time for meetings and the literature.

“We’re trying to change that,” he said. “We’re focusing a lot of our time educating them.”

Beeson said the partnership’s largest accomplishment has been having the ability to look at demographics, surveys and the Hiawatha transit line.

“We are at a good point to be looking beyond the Hiawatha line,” he said. “There are a lot of good lessons to be learned from the Hiawatha line and there is new technology we didn’t have 20 to 30 years ago.”

He said the central corridor transit line should have been built first because the rider volume is proposed to be higher than the Hiawatha line.

The current state government bill has $2.5 million set aside for the project.

“But overall it’s an $800 million project. In the planning phase we want to get that up to $50 million in the legislature this session,” Beeson said.

On University turf, Beeson said, the central corridor line would enhance the “brand of the University.”

“The transit line would run through campus, relieving congestion and invisibility,” he said. “That’s 40,000 daily riders going though campus that usually wouldn’t have.”

In regard to the new football stadium, Beeson said the transit line would be an inexpensive way for people to get to the games and get out faster.

Nancy Homans, director of policy for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said the transit line is the mayor’s “number one priority.”

“There is opportunity for economic development, increase in vitality of the St. Paul neighborhoods, and could change the face of the city for the next generation,” Homans said.

Homans said this is a citizen process for planning, with different levels of government involved.

“There is a city outreach process in development to ensure the project is “attractive,’ will improve the community, and make sure the investment of nearly a billion dollars will result in good things for the city,” she said.

Homans said Coleman is exploring economic development packages so they can expand and appeal to the transit-dependent population.

“We’re also looking into energy and green technology, it’s important, especially when roads are being dug up.”

She said there are “lots” of challenges and the major concern is not obtaining federal approval.

Homans said they need to show the Legislature the line will be cost-effective.

“(Then), the federal government kicks into process,” she said, “and we can start preliminary engineering, where we look at how the track will run, where the stops will be, what to do with busy intersections, and figure if we need to go under or over or around things.”

The process will take between 18 months and two years.

“There are a lot of concerns and we do not take them lightly,” Homans said.

“We’ve only just begun, but it is at an important time where there is (after 20 years), a consensus on the issue and we are not fighting for priority.”

Michael Kelleher, of the Dubliner Pub on University Avenue, said that in the 1950s there was a transit system right where the Central Corridor is proposed to be built.

“We had one of the most effective light rails in the nation and it was torn out,” Kelleher said. “If the new line results with businesses being rooted up and there are chances of it being torn out like the last, I do not support it.”

Dave Walters, manager of the Leaning Tower of Pizza, said he has not heard very much about the proposed transit line.

“I would hope that it would bring in more business, and if so, then I am in support of it,” he said.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he strongly supports the building of the Central Corridor transit line, but he said the city needs to move as quickly as possible.

“We can’t build one of these once a decade, we are falling behind and I would like to see us go even further and faster,” he said.

Rybak said there has been a great planning process with the community, led by Cam Gordon, Minneapolis City Council Ward 2 representative, which includes much of the University area.

“I am staying close with him, and I even told Mayor Coleman that I will do what I can do make sure this project gets the support it deserves,” Rybak said.

He said this region is “choking on exhaust” and needs to get serious about significantly improving mass transit.

“Any politician that says they are not for transit should be asked how they expect an area to compete if half the people have to spend half their day in traffic,” he said. “There are still politicians who are pretending we are in the Stone Age, if Fred (Flintstone) and Barney Rubble get to work in old-style commuting, it is ridiculous.”

Rybak said the project is feasible and he fully believes it will be built.

“The few people who opposed Hiawatha look like fools today,” he said. “Those people learned the hard way and need to stop arguing about something that has been proven to work.”