Light rail provides strong transit solution

After 30 years of debate, the state Legislature finally approved the first line of a light rail transit system. Needless to say, it’s about time. The Twin Cities needs a comprehensive public transportation system that integrates light rail transit, commuter rail and city bus services allowing for greater access to jobs in and out of the city. The initial route will run along Hiawatha Avenue from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America, which attracts nearly 40 million visitors each year. Significant crossings include the University, Lake Street and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. This is a good first step in meeting the transportation needs of the projected 21,000 riders per day and facilitating future expansion.
Opponents maintain that light rail is an inferior form of transportation because it forces businesses to set up only along fixed routes. The preference for adaptive bus routes has encouraged new businesses to set up wherever land is cheapest, which partially explains the phenomenal growth in the southwestern suburbs. However, if light rail transit is an integral part of the metro’s infrastructure, the established routes would serve as access points that would attract new business developments. The Citizens League, a Twin Cities-based independent non-profit organization that studies public affairs, has based its long-standing opposition to light rail largely on the fixed routes which are incompatible with the metropolitan area’s current trend of dispersed travel patterns. For many years the league has said that carpooling was the mass transit of the future and continues to recommend car-based solutions like express ramps and diamond lanes.
The current bus system covers a broad area with routes ranging from White Bear Lake to Mound and deep into the northern and southern suburbs. However, many of these routes run infrequently. Many routes are obviously set up for shift work and do not run on weekends. With the exception of some express routes, most people use cars to access remote areas. Those without cars or accessible bus routes are limited to where they can work.
Measures taken to alleviate traffic have failed. The five-minute wait at metered freeway ramps does little to ease congestion. Current projects such as the revamping of the crosstown highway are costly stop-gap measures at best. Even the closing of one single lane for minor construction can completely halt traffic during off-peak hours and cause havoc during peak hours. The average commute time is expected to double by 2005.
Federal funding is available for the light rail initiative, but there is little funding available for new highway construction, with the exception of maintenance funds. The purpose of public transportation is to make the Twin Cities more livable and accessible. A light rail system will significantly help bring this about. A clean and well-maintained transit system will help people get to and from their jobs and direct the growth of the metropolitan area. For light rail to thrive as part of the transit scheme it must strategically evolve to work in concert with buses and businesses to meet the needs of the Twin Cities.