Light rail transit ‘on track,’ but faces a setback

by Nathan Hall

Signs across the Twin Cities proclaim Minnesota’s long-awaited $675.4 million light rail project remains “on track.” Internal budget squabbles, however, might have temporarily stalled the project.

At one point, city planners proposed three separate Twin Cities lines, but the state’s largest and most expensive transportation project in history has been pared down significantly.

The Riverview Corridor – a planned light rail transitway that would link St. Paul and the Mall of America – has been scrapped, and neighborhood groups have rejected the express bus lines offered as a substitute.

“A busway solution (for the Riverview Corridor) was not implemented because the Legislature rescinded $40 million Ö that had been available for busway construction,” said Metropolitan Council chairman Peter Bell, who is also a University regent. “No decision has been made about which technology – bus or rail – would be recommended for the Central Corridor.”

The Central Corridor line is planned to rundown University Avenue.

The Hiawatha line will be partially open a year from now, with a full connection between downtown Minneapolis, the Mall of America and the airport by Dec. 31, 2004.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty is now proposing that Minnesota pay less than half of light rail transit’s basic operating costs. Bell, a Pawlenty appointee, said it is unfair for rural and suburban taxpayers to pay more than $120 million on something they potentially will never use.

Bell said Hennepin County should shoulder at least 60 percent of a completed light rail system’s estimated $16 million annual operating cost. That figure represents a financial burden county officials say simply is not feasible.

“In spite of the resistance on the part of Hennepin County, I am hopeful a solution can be reached,” Bell said.

Pawlenty’s initial budget proposal calls for a 64 percent overall reduction in transportation funds until 2005.

“Emphasis is on significantly decreasing administration and overhead costs Ö (while) minimizing the impact of service,” Pawlenty said in a prepared statement included in the budget recommendations.

Several government agencies currently fund light rail transit.

“Federal, state and local dollars have been committed for construction of the Hiawatha rail line and will not be affected by state budget reductions,” Bell said.

Light rail proponents point to proposed business developments along the new lines as visible proof light rail transit benefits the Minnesota economy, not just the Minneapolis business community.

At a recent Metro Transit hearing, citizens said many of their regular bus routes might be replaced with a longer trip requiring both a bus stop and a light rail transfer.

“The Hiawatha line alone cannot relieve congestion,” said Barb Thoman, program director for the nonprofit Transit for Livable Communities. “The Hiawatha line is only one leg of what we hope will become a larger regional rail and busway system.”

“No transit system in North America can be expected to make a profit,” Bell said.

Transit requires public subsidies like those road construction receives, he said.