Is the Twin Cities’ New Light-Rail Line an Urban Planner’s Dream?

Civic leaders in Minneapolis and St. Paul hope a new train will attract billions of dollars in economic growth.

This weekend, a new train connecting the Twin Cities will welcome its first riders.
National Journal
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Sophie Quinton
June 11, 2014, 8:16 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on the Twin Cit­ies.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Start­ing this Sat­urday, for the first time in gen­er­a­tions, it’ll be pos­sible to ride a train from down­town St. Paul to down­town Min­neapol­is. Test trains are already glid­ing up and down the new light-rail line, which runs past the state Cap­it­ol, past im­mig­rant-owned busi­nesses and va­cant lots along Uni­versity Av­en­ue, and through the Uni­versity of Min­nesota cam­pus. 

The Green Line, also known as the Cent­ral Cor­ridor, has been over 30 years in the mak­ing. The may­ors of the Twin Cit­ies hope the nearly $1 bil­lion pro­ject will at­tract many bil­lions more in private de­vel­op­ment and lure res­id­ents and busi­nesses to the re­gion’s urb­an core. They want to prove that trans­it can be about grow­ing neigh­bor­hoods, not just speed­ing com­muters past them.

“Cent­ral Cor­ridor is go­ing to prove that pub­lic in­vest­ment at­tracts private in­vest­ment. It already has,” Peter Wa­geni­us, Min­neapol­is May­or Betsy Hodges’s policy dir­ect­or, told trans­it ad­voc­ates gathered at a Min­neapol­is craft-beer bar last week. Ac­cord­ing to the Met­ro­pol­it­an Coun­cil, the re­gion­al plan­ning agency, de­velopers, and con­tract­ors have already spent $2.5 bil­lion in con­struc­tion and re­devel­op­ment pro­jects over the past five years with­in a half-mile of the new line.   

From the be­gin­ning, civic lead­ers thought of this train as more than just an en­gin­eer­ing pro­ject. That’s why plan­ners wanted the line to run through urb­an neigh­bor­hoods in the first place rather than along the high­way. And be­cause the train runs through sev­er­al miles of low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods, the re­spect­ive may­ors were both fo­cused on equit­able growth. For the Green Line to really suc­ceed, in the eyes of the two may­ors, it will have to gen­er­ate eco­nom­ic op­por­tun­ity for the people already liv­ing along the line.

The Green Line will bring the re­gion’s total num­ber of rail trans­it lines to three. There’s a light-rail line con­nect­ing Min­neapol­is to its south­ern sub­urbs and the Mall of Amer­ica that opened in 2004, and a com­muter train con­nect­ing Min­neapol­is to its north­ern sub­urbs that opened in 2009. The re­gion is plan­ning an ex­pan­sion of light rail and fast buses that will be fo­cused more on down­town areas. The new line will be a leis­urely, urb­an train with lots of loc­al stops — not ex­actly the ap­proach the sprawl­ing Twin Cit­ies have em­braced be­fore.

At the craft-beer bar, the first ques­tion from the audi­ence was about speed. It’ll take the Green Line al­most hour to com­plete its 11-mile length, a jour­ney that can take 20 minutes in a car. (The Met­ro­pol­it­an Coun­cil ar­gues that most people aren’t go­ing to be rid­ing the Green Line all the way from one city to an­oth­er).

Wrangling over this line took years. State fund­ing only came through after the 2007 col­lapse of the I-35 bridge, a tragedy that spurred law­makers to in­crease fund­ing for trans­port­a­tion in­fra­struc­ture. The Le­gis­lature au­thor­ized the met­ro­pol­it­an area to raise taxes to pay for trans­it. (A 0.25 per­cent sales tax across a five-county area paid for 30 per­cent of the Green Line’s cost; fed­er­al grants paid for 50 per­cent; and oth­er state and loc­al sources covered the rest.)

From the be­gin­ning, civic lead­ers thought of this train as more than just an en­gin­eer­ing pro­ject. That’s why plan­ners wanted the line to run through urb­an neigh­bor­hoods in the first place — rather than along the high­way. And be­cause the train runs through sev­er­al miles of low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods, the re­spect­ive may­ors were fo­cused on equit­able growth.

Still, some long­time res­id­ents in those com­munit­ies were skep­tic­al. They re­mem­ber the chaos caused by con­struc­tion of In­ter­state 94, which ripped Rondo, a his­tor­ic­ally Afric­an-Amer­ic­an neigh­bor­hood, in two. “Once that com­munity was des­troyed, dis­rup­ted, folks dis­placed, houses torn down, busi­nesses dis­solved — that com­munity nev­er really re­covered,” says Nieeta Pres­ley, head of the Au­rora St. An­thony Neigh­bor­hood De­vel­op­ment Cor­por­a­tion, a com­munity de­vel­op­ment agency.

Ini­tial plans for the Green Line didn’t in­clude sta­tions for three low-in­come St. Paul neigh­bor­hoods de­pend­ent on trans­it. AS­ANDC joined some 20 oth­er groups to lobby for their ad­di­tion. It took time, but ad­voc­ates found sup­port­ers all the way from City Hall to the De­part­ment of Trans­port­a­tion; in 2010, the fed­er­al agency changed its fund­ing rules to al­low for the ex­tra stops.

Twelve loc­al and na­tion­al found­a­tions also had formed the Cent­ral Cor­ridor Fun­ders Col­lab­or­at­ive. To date, the group has spent $10 mil­lion on con­ven­ing civic lead­ers and fund­ing their strategies for sup­port­ing people and busi­nesses along the cor­ridor. One ex­ample: the cre­ation of a for­giv­able loan fund to help fra­gile small busi­nesses sur­vive the line’s con­struc­tion. CCFC, the city of St. Paul, and the Met­ro­pol­it­an Coun­cil made more than $3.5 mil­lion in loans to more than 200 small busi­nesses. In the end, more busi­nesses opened than closed dur­ing the con­struc­tion peri­od.

CCFC has also worked to make it easi­er for de­velopers to start af­ford­able-hous­ing de­vel­op­ment along the line, and to con­nect stu­dents liv­ing along the line to in­tern­ships. Pres­ley is cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic that with so much plan­ning, the train will be­ne­fit — rather than dis­rupt or dis­place — Rondo and neigh­bor­hoods like it. “I feel we’re some­what ahead of the curve,” she says.

If civic lead­ers can nudge in­vest­ment along the Green Line in the dir­ec­tion of shared prosper­ity, rather than gentri­fic­a­tion, they really will be able to point to the pro­ject as a sin­gu­lar suc­cess for urb­an trans­port­a­tion.   

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this art­icle mis­stated the gov­ern­ment agency that changed its fund­ing rules to al­low ad­di­tion­al stops to be ad­ded to the Green Line.

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