Ababiy: The Blue Line Extension blunder

The best response to a $129 million mistake is to not make that mistake again.

by Jonathan Ababiy

Imagine you have $129 million to plan how you will build a light rail line from the Target Field station to an industrial park in Brooklyn Park. There is a giant Target office, two factories and a Tesla office at this industrial park.

Then, imagine directly in between those two locations, 13 miles apart, there is a nearly 45,000-person neighborhood with a high population density and some of the highest transit usage in the state. Also, imagine that the neighborhood has been historically ignored and divested by politicians.

And, just to make sure you spend every dollar of that $129 million, imagine also trying to negotiate with BNSF Railway, an entity that the state and federal governments have lavished with immense legal power for centuries, to let you put your trains full of people on the tracks they use to move oil. This is after you “grabbed” land the railway was going to use to expand its operations, then lobbied the state to pass a law protecting you from the railroad’s legal power to take it back. As a result, BNSF is a little mad at you.

Furthermore, imagine that you own most of the busy roads between Brooklyn Park and Minneapolis. Finally, imagine using that $129 million to study putting the light rail on that railroad’s tracks around, not through, the streets you own, in that transit-dependent neighborhood.

You actually don’t have to imagine anything because Hennepin County, the Met Council and partner cities did just that. They spent $129 million planning a Blue Line LRT extension that went around north Minneapolis. Luckily, leaders admitted negotiating with BNSF wasn’t possible and abandoned the alignment in August.

It’s important now to ensure that an alignment through north Minneapolis is pursued. Believing a negotiation with BNSF could be successful was a tactical and strategic blunder, but the old alignment’s side step of north Minneapolis is inexcusable. Nearly 45,000 people live in north Minneapolis, more than any other city on the line, besides Brooklyn Park. The neighborhood’s main commercial street, West Broadway Avenue, turns into Bottineau Boulevard, the core of the LRT’s route.

The LRT could serve as a valuable tool to connect north Minneapolis residents to amenities and jobs in the suburbs. It would also open up two-way access to the neighborhood from other parts of the city. The neighborhood is currently walled-off from the rest of the city with two freeways.

But an idea that bad doesn’t die easily. At the Blue Line Extension Corridor Management Committee meeting on Oct. 8, multiple committee members tried to revive negotiations. The mayors of Golden Valley and Robbinsdale attempted to pass a motion that directed the Met Council and County to exhaust all possible options with BNSF first, despite the $129 million spent on doing just that. Committee members saw through it and voted 11-6 against it.

An alignment through North Minneapolis is the best option. The Blue Line should be extended through North Minneapolis, not around it. It’s the right thing to do for ridership and equity. We should have never spent $129 million fiddling around with BNSF. The Blue Line extension has the same amount of physical track it had a decade ago: none.