Council chooses light-rail transit

by Jim Hammerand

Light rail is closer to coming to the University after the Metropolitan Council rejected bus rapid transit to link downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The $930 million light-rail transit line would have a station at the West Bank and run underground in a tunnel along Washington Avenue Southeast between an East Bank station and a Stadium Village station.

Early proposals have the line crossing the Mississippi River at the Washington Avenue Bridge. Traffic lanes on the bridge would be reduced to one in each direction to accommodate the rails.

The preliminary engineering stage begins this fall and will last until fall 2008, and the line could be built as soon as 2014. The Metropolitan Council will need to meet federal standards to be able to count on matching federal funds.

Project costs would be split among the federal, state and local governments at a 3:2:1 ratio, respectively, according to the Metropolitan Council.

State funding could be the hairiest part, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said in a news release.

“If the Constitutional amendment (to dedicate 100 percent of the motor vehicle sales tax to transportation) does not pass this fall, we have to go back to the drawing board on this project,” Bell said, and even with the amendment, the project would need “some bonding dollars from the state.”

While not specifically endorsing one plan over another, University Vice President of Operations Kathleen O’Brien said the University is “in favor of strengthening our transportation systems.”

“The ‘U’ has been going in that direction for the past seven or eight years with the introduction of the UPass,” she said.

A conservative estimate would guess that up to a third of Central Corridor light-rail riders would be from the University, O’Brien said.

Frank Douma, assistant director of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs’ State and Local Policy Program, said projecting ridership for rail projects is a difficult task. The Hiawatha light-rail line, which connects downtown Minneapolis, the airport and the Mall of America, exceeded preconstruction ridership estimates by 58 percent in its first year.

“There’s something people trust more about riding a train than a bus,” Douma said, “and that’s the thing that, from a research perspective, is hard to nail down.”

That might have played a part in the Metropolitan Council’s decision, Douma said. The more important factor probably was capacity, he said.

“University Avenue doesn’t have the capacity to handle the growth with just buses,” Douma said.

A bus system would have been less expensive, but would not have been able to keep up with transit demands past 2020, according to a Metropolitan Council release.

In that year, the Metropolitan Council estimates, the University Avenue light-rail line would have about 38,000 riders a weekday.

The trains would take 35 minutes to travel the 11 miles between Minneapolis and St. Paul, with stops at the University, the Midway area and the Capitol.

Riders at any one of the proposed 16 stations could board a train about every seven minutes during peak hours. Unless there was additional demand, each train would be made up of two cars.

There is also debate over how light-rail transit will change the neighborhoods it serves. Light-rail supporters say transit encourages residential and commercial growth and increases property values. Critics, however, say the lines bring crime, hurt small businesses and rob other areas of development. Both point to the Hiawatha light-rail line to support their cases.

Gavin Poindexter, a state and local policy program research fellow, said that for most purposes, it’s too early to know what impacts light rail has had in Minneapolis. His goal is to establish set criteria to evaluate all transit on the same standard.

“You can’t take one and apply the same formula to the other,” Poindexter said.

Small businesses can suffer during construction phases of transit projects if they aren’t easily accessible, he said. But other factors, such as changes in local real estate markets and whether people live and work along the same corridors, require years of data before reaching even a preliminary conclusion.

Tom Stransky of Midway Rare and Used Books has spent the past two decades formulating his own conclusion.

Stransky has owned the University Avenue bookstore for 26 years, 20 of which he said he has spent fighting transit development. Light rail encourages big businesses at the expense of small businesses like his, he said, and he called his store’s outlook “not good” after the light rail was built.

“It’s hard for the little people to fight it,” Stransky said.