Panel recommends Univ. Ave. rail line

by Michael Krieger

To assuage increasing gridlock on city streets and highways, a committee studying alternative transit options has recommended a new light rail system to run between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The suggested rail line, consisting of electrically powered trains separated from regular traffic, would link the cities along an 11-mile stretch of University Avenue.

If approved, the system could become the state’s second such rail project. But some elected officials and residents have criticized the proposal, calling it an expensive and ineffective way of reducing traffic congestion.

Hennepin County and Ramsey County officials released their preliminary recommendation this month, favoring the light rail over two similar forms of bus transit.

“The other two options simply can’t meet the demand for ridership in this corridor,” said Susan Haigh, Ramsey County commissioner and member of the Central Corridor Coordinating Committee.

Based on projected ridership, Haigh said, buses would have to run nearly every minute to meet the demand. This causes “bus-bunching” along densely populated areas, she said, and buses would not be able to load and unload passengers quickly enough.

“To make a substantial public investment for only eight years doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Haigh said.

Also, since the committee’s proposal for bus service does not call for a dedicated lane throughout the corridor, it would be subjected to worsening traffic congestion, said Jan Morlock, University director of community relations.

“Washington Avenue and University Avenue will be beyond capacity in 15 to 20 years,” Morlock said. “Light rail is still going to be viable in 2020.”

Light rail is also the most expensive transit alternative, with an initial price tag of $840 million and another $61 million annually in operating costs, according to the committee.

One of the state’s leading light rail critics, Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, said on Minnesota Public Radio last week that public transit only accounts for one percent of travel in the Twin Cities.

“The question in this debate is: Do we spend hundreds of millions of dollars in order to attract a very few people and a transit system that requires huge operating subsidies?” he said.

Committee members said the light rail cost includes infrastructure improvements along University Avenue and a dedicated rail lane, which are not included in the bus proposals.

“It would really be an opportunity for increased investment,” Haigh said.

But Krinkie said the state should focus on providing for automobiles, trucks, buses and other modes of transportation, which get people to their destinations faster and at less cost than building rail systems.

“For us to think that we’re going to solve any congestion problem with trains is just absurd,” he said.

Along with the debate on cost and necessity, residents and businesses along University Avenue have expressed varying degrees of support for a new rail line.

Light rail “definitely creates an energy” in the neighborhood, said John Hulkonen of the West Bank Community Development Corporation.

Hulkonen attributed recent property development in the Cedar-Riverside area to the state’s first light rail project, the Hiawatha line, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to the airport and Mall of America.

“I think it’s a great thing; it’s the beginning of a larger infrastructure,” he said.

But Dave Gagne, economic development coordinator with the Hamline Midway Coalition, said light rail construction along University Avenue could have a significant financial impact on businesses.

“There are a lot of businesses saying they’re not being heard,” he said.

Near the proposed light rail station on University Avenue and Snelling Avenue, Turf Club
manager David Ricker said he is optimistic. “I think the construction would be the most disruptive part of it, but it would eventually be good for the area,” he said.

Steve Banks, president of the Prospect Park and East River Road Improvement Association, said his organization supports the proposed light rail line but questions some aspects of the plan.

“The concern is how do we control development; how do we get development that augments the neighborhood?” he said.

Michael Krieger covers University
neighborhoods and welcomes comments at [email protected]