State, city officials tout economics of rail transit

Funding cuts could hurt planned public transit projects in Minneapolis.

by John Hageman

Robert Lilligren hasnâÄôt owned a car since 1980.
The vice president of the Minneapolis City Council got rid of his car as a way to save money on insurance. But 31 years later, he has made it a way of life, relying instead on public transit and his own two feet to get around.
As the state House moves to cut a significant chunk from state transit funding, Lilligren, along with county and state government officials, shared his vision for a comprehensive transportation system in the Twin Cities at a forum in south Minneapolis last week.
That vision includes an integrated rail system, along with the resurrection of a streetcar network throughout Minneapolis. In addition to $300,000 of its own money, the city received $900,000 from the federal government in December to conduct a study recommending whether to build a streetcar network.
The city will hire a consulting team later this year, and the study should be completed after 18 months, according to Anna Flintoft, a transportation planner for the city.
Last year, the City Council prioritized a line running through Nicollet Mall and Central Avenue at the heart of downtown as the best place to implement a streetcar network.
The long-term proposed plan also includes a line on the University of Minnesota campus along University Avenue.
The city has a rich history of streetcars populating its streets, but they were phased out in favor of buses after World War II. At its peak, the streetcar system carried 240 million riders a year, while the current transit system carries about 90 million, according to Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin.
Streetcars, a cleaner and quieter form of transit, are expected to be an economic boon despite being just seven feet longer than a bus. Peter Wagenius, transportation policy director for Mayor R.T. Rybak, said developers are more willing to invest in rail corridors because of its relative permanency.
âÄúThere is a rail bias,âÄù Wagenius said. âÄúA lot more people ride it, and developers are more interested in building next to it.âÄù
But during the recession, some are looking to scale back on transit funding.
The Republican-controlled House passed a transportation finance bill in March that would cut $130 million in general funding to the Metropolitan Council over the biennium, while the Senate proposed cutting about a fourth of that.
Gov. Mark Dayton has recommended no cuts to transit funding after the latest motor vehicle sales tax projections, which is a significant portion of transit funding.
The bills are set to go to conference committee in the coming weeks.
Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, who authored the transportation finance bill, said he isnâÄôt fundamentally opposed to rail transit. But during a time when the state is facing a projected $5 billion deficit, he said transit money is best spent on existing systems.
Transit for Livable Communities, a nonprofit transportation advocacy group, handed out postcards at the forum opposing transportation cuts.
âÄúItâÄôs really an important time to stand up,âÄù Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis, said.
But even with the proposed cuts to transit funds, the group of policy makers seemed confident in their vision for public transit in the Twin Cities.
With the Full Funding Grant Agreement set to come through next week, which will obligate the federal government to pay for half of the Central Corridor light-rail line, rail transit in the Twin Cities is set to take a major step.
âÄúAmidst this chaos, we have to keep fighting and making the arguments,âÄù McLaughlin said. âÄúWeâÄôve never had more momentum than we have now.âÄù