Light-rail transit system project gathering steam

Michelle Moriarity

The University’s role in Minnesota’s impending break into cutting-edge mass transportation will be minimal.
Since the mid-1970s, transportation planners have researched several potential routes for light-rail systems, which are electrically-operated, elevated trains, in the Twin Cities.
Early proposals for light-rail systems included an extension through the Central Corridor, the high-traffic path between Minneapolis and St. Paul that passes directly through the University campus.
That plan never left the drawing board.
While the University will continue to struggle with existing transit options, the Twin Cities has received national, state and local allocations for the Hiawatha Corridor light-rail project. Construction could start as early as next year.
The Hiawatha Corridor is the section of land from Minneapolis to Bloomington designated for the advanced transit system. The rail passage will include stations at the Metrodome, Minnehaha Park, the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America.
Bob Baker, director of Parking and Transportation Services, said Campus Connector bus routes will extend to the Metrodome to provide a University connection to the corridor.
“University folks will be utilizing the (Hiawatha) rail to access the campus,” Baker said. “We want to facilitate that access as best we can.”
State and University transit officials cite several reasons as to why Central Corridor plans failed while the Hiawatha project succeeded.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said the Hiawatha Corridor would service a much broader political constituency than the University. Such large-scale plans need representation from several legislative districts, he said, and the Central Corridor represents too narrow of a population dynamic.
“I think in the end it was judged to be a corridor that didn’t warrant the level of investment it required,” McLaughlin said.
McLaughlin emphasized that part of the funding originally intended for light-rail development has been allocated for improvement of bus transportation between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
These improvements include more buses running between the cities to alleviate crowded conditions and slow service.
University transit official Paul Tschida was a member of a committee that studied Central Corridor light-rail options. The committee disbanded two or three years ago, he said, because it believed the project would probably be neither popular nor affordable.
“The numbers weren’t really there,” Tschida said. “We didn’t have a lot to add to it from the University’s perspective.”
The University community lost more than just a transit option when Central Corridor plans fell through.
Karen Lyons, transportation planner for the Metropolitan Council, created a set of plans for the Central Corridor in 1995 that emphasized potential economic development in Stadium Village.
“You don’t do a rail system just for transportation,” Lyons said.
Lyons’ plan accounted for a line that would extend down Washington Avenue from downtown Minneapolis, arc northeast at Oak Street and turn eastward a block north of University Avenue.
A proposed East Bank station for the Central Corridor would have been located near the intersection of Ontario Boulevard and University Avenue. The station would have provided immediate access to existing businesses as well as several areas of future development, including the University Village apartment complex and the University Gateway complex.
McLaughlin said an area must have high population density for a light-rail to be justified. Projected daily ridership for the Hiawatha Corridor rail is 22,000, he said.
Meanwhile, 86 percent of the University’s 41,000 students are commuters struggling with parking and busing issues.
Rachel Zimmermann, a junior in Spanish and nursing, said she is frustrated with the inconvenience of the city buses. Transfers and crowded conditions have made her wary of taking the bus.
Karen Tellock, a senior in education who drives to campus, said she is frustrated with existing transportation conditions.
“Driving is ridiculous,” Tellock said. “Transportation in this city is awful. I hate it.”
Tellock said she would be willing to consider light-rail as an alternative to driving.
Baker said he supports the possibility of light-rail on campus, but that it is too soon to plan for it.
“I think it’s smart to think about different legs,” Baker said. “But I think we need to concentrate on getting the first leg of Hiawatha in.”