Light-rail transit could benefit the University area

Coralie Carlson

State and federal lawmakers are laying tracks to fund a light-rail transit system which would connect the West Bank area to downtown Minneapolis, the airport and the Mall of America.
The $400 million system is riding on financing from Congress and the Legislature. While neither body has finalized funding, legislators are climbing on board.
The light-rail transit system, which could be operating in five years, would run from the Metrodome to the Mall of America along Hiawatha Avenue with stops near the West Bank.
Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St.Paul, who carried the bill though the House, said the University’s commuter buses would stop at the rail station and there is a possibility of extending commuter rail onto the West Bank in the future — at no cost to the University.
“The West Bank will be served in many ways,” she said.
In the state’s bonding bills, the House earmarked $49 million for the light rail system and the Senate approved $50 million.
On Friday, the Capital Bonding Conference committee heard testimony from Peter McLaughlin, Hennepin County commissioner and long-time light rail transit proponent. Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Kalis, DFL-Walters, assured McLaughlin there was no change of heart concerning light rail funding.
“I’m feeling very optimistic; we’ve never been as close as we are,” McLaughlin said.
He added that $70 million was already secured from the community, but the committee would need to appropriate another $50 million in the next bonding session to finish the project.
With local support coming together, Congress appears ready to come through with $200 million in federal funds.
Congress is reauthorizing the federal highway and mass transit programs, which will fund projects for the next six years by allocating revenue from the federal gasoline tax.
Two Minnesota Congressmen sit on key committees that will decide light rail’s future. Jim Oberstar, DFL-Minn., is the ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure committee which is drafting the legislation. Martin Sabo, DFL-Minn., who represents Minneapolis, sits on the appropriations committee which will fund projects in the bill.
The 1998 bill increases funding for every state, including a 50 percent increase for Minnesota according to the latest House draft. The House — which, unlike the Senate, lists specific projects — directs some money for a light rail system in the Twin Cities.
Congress is under pressure to finish the reauthorization act by early April. The Senate passed its bill three weeks ago and the House version should be on the floor early this week.
If politicians continue to smile on light rail, it could end 30 years of discussion and abortive attempts at legislative authorization.
City officials first considered light rail in the 1970s. In 1987 an environmental study concluded that light rail was the optimal transit system for the Hiawatha Avenue Corridor. The electric train system would reduce pollution and traffic gridlock when compared with plans for an eight-lane highway, but the funds were never available.
“Suddenly, you are beginning to put together a financial package,” said Nacho Diaz, director of Transportation and Planning for the Metropolitan Council.
University officials say it’s too early to determine light rail’s possible effects on parking and transportation at the school, but University Assistant Director for Transportation Roger Huss said an improved transit system along Hiawatha should attract more commuter use.
“Whatever it is, it will be faster than city buses that stop at every street,” Huss said.