Thousands embrace light rail transit

by Emily Kaiser

After a weekend of free rides and celebration, Metro Transit light rail trains have begun their first week of regular service.

The first rush hour went “very well,” with trains operating on time and only minor malfunctions with ticket vending machines, said Bob Gibbons, Metro Transit spokesman.

Metro Transit estimates 95,000 people rode the light rail over the weekend – some waiting in lines for more than an hour. Approximately 11,800 people rode the trains Monday, Metro Transit reported.

Before the trains ran Saturday, several dignitaries – including Gov. Tim Pawlenty – spoke to riders anxious to get on the first trains.

“There’s a lot of water over the bridge and that’s how it should be,” Pawlenty said at the warehouse district/Hennepin Avenue stop, referring to political battles over light rail transit. “Let’s join together today and make it as successful as possible.”

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said he has been enthusiastic about the light rail since planning began.

“This is a dream come true for many of us who mourn the fact that this region dismantled one of the best streetcar systems in the world, and this is the first step of many that it will take to rebuild a great mass transit system in a region that desperately needs one,” Rybak said.

The first train to leave the warehouse district held only invited guests.

Mitchell Ogden, a fourth-year graduate student in the University’s English department, won a contest for U-Pass customers to ride the first train. He brought his wife, Christa Ogden, along for the event.

“It was very nice,” Ogden said. “I felt very privileged to be on the train with the Mondales, Norm Coleman, Tim Pawlenty and all the rest.”

The University took part in the events at the Downtown East/Metrodome station with the pep band, student-athletes and Goldy Gopher.

Although a stop at the University is planned for future stages of light rail expansion, Rybak said the University should have been included in the first rail line.

“I think it was a mistake that this first line did not include the largest source of traffic in the region and I believe the next step should absolutely include that,” he said.

Until additional lines are created, students will most likely use the current line to get from campus to the main stops along the line, said Lori Vicich, University Parking and Transportation Services marketing manager.

Jenna Dorn, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration and a speaker at the light rail’s opening ceremonies, said she supports the light rail line and the choices the Metro Area made in creating a rail line rather than building more freeways.

“Every community must have a wide array of transportation options, and in this community, a majority of the leadership and the public believe that the light rail was the right way to go at this time,” Dorn said. “Oftentimes there aren’t options to expand highways.”

Metro Transit aims to have 9,500 riders every weekday, but Gibbons said that is only an average, and daily ridership will not determine the success or failure of the project.

Metro Transit looks to create more lines in the future, but Pawlenty said he is cautious about projects to expand the service.

“I think Minnesota needs to move forward smartly,” Pawlenty said. “We need to look at each project, and if the numbers come out right, we’ll go ahead with it.”

Rybak, on the other hand, said he hopes to steer away from looking at numbers to determine the project’s success.

“There are going to be people looking at numbers, but that is missing the point,” Rybak said. “The real point is how well this line serves as a backbone for a new transit network that takes the best of the existing system and creates excitement for the next wave.”