Proposed transit worries businesses

by Cati Vanden Breul

Although the projected ridership for a transportation line running through the University campus is in the thousands, some local business owners are worried it would bring more harm than good to the area.

Under the current proposal, the Central Corridor line would connect downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul and run along Washington Avenue straight through Stadium Village.

The Central Corridor coordinating committee ” with members from Hennepin and Ramsey counties, Minneapolis, St. Paul, the University, the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Council ” is discussing whether the route should run along Washington Avenue or in an underground tunnel system.

The committee also has to decide whether the route should be a light rail or bus rapid transit line, said Nacho Diaz, director of Metro Transit services for the Metropolitan Council.

A bus rapid transit line typically separates buses from other traffic and gives them the right of way in their own lane.

Diaz said a bus line would be cheaper, but a light rail route likely would attract more riders.

“Our experience with the Hiawatha line indicates that a much greater number of people are willing to ride the light rail than bus alternatives,” Diaz said.

But Jim Rosvold, general manager of Campus Pizza and president of the Stadium Village Commercial Association, said having the light rail on campus would be detrimental to University-area businesses.

Heavy construction on Washington Avenue would make it harder for people to reach restaurants or stores on campus and may even put some out of business, Rosvold said.

“I don’t want to say we’d go out of business, but we would be in deep peril,” he said, “and they may have to provide us with working capital to get us through it.”

When the Hiawatha line was built in downtown Minneapolis, some of the businesses in the area were forced to shut down, Rosvold said.

A light rail line could also endanger students, he said.

“A lot of pedestrians around here are walking to class paying attention to their iPods and they could walk right into a train and that would not be good,” he said.

But University geography professor John Adams said the long-term benefits of bringing the light rail to campus would far outweigh the short-term costs.

“I fully expect that our Twin Cities area is going to add well over a million people over the next 30 years or so,” Adams said, “and if we plan our land use and transportation systems appropriately, then there is a strong argument for improving access to the University by means of rail transit.”

Although a few businesses would be hurt in the short-term, thousands of people would benefit in the future, Adams said.

“Whose interests should dominate? A few businesses in the short-term or the interest of a large part of community in the long-term?” he said.

However, Brad Mateer, owner of Harvard Market on Washington Avenue, said he is against having the light rail in Stadium Village because the traffic in the area is already congested.

“It’s a very densely populated area to begin with right now, and it would change the whole face of how people travel up and down Washington Avenue,” he said.

Both businessmen said they would rather see the light rail run through Dinkytown and utilize the existing rail line ” a proposal that has been discussed by officials for decades.

Minneapolis Ward 2 City Council member-elect Cam Gordon, who will represent the Minneapolis campus and surrounding areas starting in January, said he thinks the coordinating committee should consider the Dinkytown option when deciding the route’s location.

“We have to look at where the best alignment is,” Gordon said. “It’s important to keep our options open and we shouldn’t rule out anything.”

But Diaz said the Dinkytown location is not a possibility.

“It has never been intended to go through Dinkytown; it will service the Oak Street and Washington Avenue area,” he said.

If the committee decides to build at surface level, the proposed plan would keep two lanes of traffic open in each direction, so it would not close off traffic, Diaz said.

But Gordon said the committee shouldn’t rule out a tunnel system just because it would be more expensive ” the current estimate stands at $840 million.

“Designing tunneling underneath the “U’ should still be a possibility,” he said. “We’ll get in trouble if we just look at what’s cheapest and not what will pay off in the future.”

But Adams said having the light rail above ground on campus would work because advanced technology, such as computer-operated traffic lights, keep traffic running more smoothly than it did in the past.

The University and the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority studying which option would be best for the area, and likely will release results next month, said Jan Morlock, director of community relations for the University.

Diaz said the committee will not make any decisions before next year and construction on the Central Corridor route would not begin for at least three years.

Funding for the project would come from federal, state and local sources, he said.