Searching for glimmers of reality in the fantastic LRT debate.
An alien from another planet would conclude from observing state politics over the last half-decade that Minnesotans are most at odds about three inflammatory topics: abortion, guns, and public transit. One of these things is not like the other.
“There is an almost religious opposition to LRT,” says former Metropolitan Council chairman Ted Mondale, under whose stewardship the line took root. On the right, you have fiscal conservatives, mostly suburban and rural, who saw LRT’s big price tag and that it didn’t benefit them. On the left you have the Citizens League, good-government types, and advocates of other technologies who argued that rail was not the best transit use of the dollars.
In the middle you have the silent majority, the 58 percent of us who identify transportation difficulties as the biggest problem facing the metro area. (Crime comes second at 13 percent.)
Opponents argue that only five percent of all the commuting trips in the metro area each day are by transit, and only four percent of us use transit period.
But advocates say that 40 percent of the trips to downtown Minneapolis each day are by transit. They note that we are the fifteenth largest metropolitan area in the 2000 U.S. Census and had the Hiawatha Line not been built, we would be the only one of the top twenty-three without rail transit in operation or under construction. Cincinnati, a million people smaller at number twenty-four, now holds that distinction.
Either Hiawatha is the first step down a path toward addressing the area’s mobility problems, sprawl, and livability issues, or it’s the boondoggle of its era. We’ve spent the last four months talking to people across the USA to try to clear up that puzzlement, and a few others.
SHOULD I CARE ABOUT TRANSIT?
Yes, you should, whether you use it or not, it benefits you. Think of the world’s great cities—Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Buenos Aires, Sydney. What makes them so wonderful? A lot of it is the way they feel, their vibrant twenty-four-hour cores, pedestrian orientation, parks, and boulevards. Rail transit is part of the fabric of livable cities, especially those like ours, with metro populations in excess of three million.
“We made every urban mistake in America,” says Ted Mondale. “We tore up a great streetcar network, we put industry on our river, we neglected the central city, built lots of highways. When we saw the 1990 census we realized we had a development pattern like Detroit’s. And the one thing we haven’t yet addressed is transit. We fund it at half the level of similar metropolitan regions.”
WHY DID WE TEAR UP THE STREETCAR NETWORK?
After the 1940s, arguably the peak of the American city, the Twin Cities boasted 573 miles of streetcar track, one of the largest networks in the U.S. It included long stretches to Stillwater and Excelsior that ran at fast speeds on dedicated rights-of-way. But the network had been starved for resources, struggled through the Depression and war, and fell into the hands of investors who looted it. This coincided with the era of the suburb and the auto—streetcars seemed archaic. (Despite the bus’s vaunted flexibility, the routes they served were virtually identical to the streetcar system’s for the rest of the century.) Buses seemed like progress—most every other American city went their way as well.
BUT BUSES ARE CHEAPER TO BUILD AND OPERATE THAN TRAINS.
“That’s true,” explains Paul Weyrich, chairman/CEO of the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative public policy think tank based in Washington, D.C.. “But people in North America don’t like buses. The bus has a stigma and it doesn’t attract riders like a rail system does.
“Every single major city is turning to LRT,” Weyrich continues. “Dallas was the bus poster child, with many of the same commuting patterns as the Twin Cities [multiple downtowns, suburb to suburb], and they now are building LRT and commuter rail. It is bringing in ten to twelve times the number of new riders that buses are.”
Weyrich points to another sprawling, low-density city, Los Angeles: “The Pacific Electric abandoned its Long Beach line in 1961 when it was carrying 12,000 passengers a day,” he notes. “The bus that replaced it carried 8,000. The new Long Beach LRT is carrying 73,000 riders a day on a virtually identical route.”
Twin Cities transit ridership has declined continually since 1949, when the conversion to buses and suburbanization hit stride. Every short-term jump in funding and resources was followed by large-scale cuts in hard economic times. Each round of cuts drove away passengers. It’s hard to see a productive end to the pattern.
WHY BRING BACK AN OUTMODED TECHNOLOGY?
Although chief legislative opponent Rep. Phil Krinkie (R-Shoreview) refers to it as “eighteenth century,” LRT is a streetcar only in that in can run on the street. Sleek, modern, and quiet, the train will pass cars on Hiawatha because it has a higher speed limit.
And LRT will benefit the bus system. “Once there’s a critical mass of a [rail] system,” predicts former Met Council chairman Curt Johnson, “the politics will have shifted and you won’t be able to slash and burn the bus system when there’s a deficit.”
WHY ARE WE SO LATE TO THE PARTY?
The answer lies in our community’s preoccupation with process instead of outcomes. A big sticking point for transit advocates—when half the U.S. was investing in LRT twenty years ago—was the Citizens League’s dour pronouncements on rail transit. Curt Johnson led the charge back then.
“My argument was it was not an efficient use of resources,” Johnson recalls, “which is technically true. Think of what $100 million could do to improve the bus system. But they’d never spend $100 million on the bus system. It’s an effete argument—‘why won’t you folks just wise up?’
“The agonizing conclusion I came to after many, many years,” Johnson continues, “was it was simply an impractical intellectual conceit to expect efficiency to carry the day. We needed a way to break out dramatically—something that would demonstrate the possibilities.”
BUT WE’RE NOT LIKE OTHER METRO AREAS, RIGHT? THE SOLUTIONS THAT WORK THERE WON’T WORK HERE.
This myth is particularly alluring to the critical mass of Twin Citians who have never lived outside the Upper Midwest. Call them “The Exceptionalists.”
They believe rail transit can’t work here. We have two downtowns, all these suburbs, crazy commuting patterns. . . . “I’ve heard the we’re not like other places argument everywhere,” says Paul Weyrich. “San Diego, Portland, Houston, Salt Lake. They’re saying human nature is different in Minneapolis. Look at L.A.—it’s low density and very few people commute downtown.”
Without the insistence of Gov. Ventura, who had lived in Atlanta and was familiar with its congestion and its rail transit system, the debate would still be going in circles. “What happened in the twenty years the Citizens League opposed LRT?” asks Peter McLaughlin, Hennepin County Commissioner and one of Hiawatha’s prime movers. “Face facts . . . nothing else’s worked.”
WASN’T THE FIRST LINE SUPPOSED TO CONNECT MINNEAPOLIS AND ST. PAUL?
Yes, and no. Back in the 1970s the counties convinced the Legislature to authorize the creation of “regional rail authorities” (RRAs), largely to subvert the Met Council’s refusal to authorize rail transit initiatives.
Walter Mondale condemned the Hiawatha right-of-way on in 1961, as attorney general. The plan was to build a six-lane freeway. It never happened, but the space for the new traffic lanes remained unencumbered.
Though the Minneapolis to St. Paul corridor offers great ridership potential, an inability to obtain a consensus as to its route (I-94 or University Ave.), a higher cost, and the necessity to balance the needs of two counties and their elected officials drove rail advocates to Hiawatha. The space for the tracks was there, the environmental impact statement had been executed, it was in a single jurisdiction, and it was no longer just the route to the airport, but also the Mall.
“Hiawatha was first,” Peter McLaughlin says, “because it was ready.” There was horse trading to do, though—Anoka County was slated for Northstar commuter rail and Ramsey for the second LRT line, to obtain their support.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS IT WILL BE A COMPLETE FAILURE?
Slim to none. The list of successful LRT starts is voluminous. Since Minneapolis began debating LRT it’s been built in Portland, Baltimore, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, Edmonton, Calgary, San Jose, San Diego, Los Angeles, New Jersey, Tacoma, Houston, Sacramento, and Cleveland. It’s under construction in Charlotte, Phoenix, and Seattle. Every city that’s started running LRT in the last quarter-century, except Buffalo, has affirmed its expensive decision by extending its line and/or building new ones.
If that doesn’t convince you it’s a low-risk venture, try these numbers on for size. “There were 170 transit proposals up for funding in competition with Hiawatha,” says Ted Mondale. “Eight moved forward. The FTA doesn’t fund boondoggles.”
That’s the Federal Transit Administration, a division of the Bush administration. They signed off on Washington’s half-share of the tab. “We’d like to think we’ve got the most rigorous evaluation process out there,” says Sean Libberton, the FTA’s chief of planning analysis. FTA “scores” funding requests using criteria such as mobility improvement, environmental benefits, cost effectiveness, and land use. Each year it rejects many valid proposals because funding is limited.
The FTA’s criteria gets tougher every year. Previously it was enough that rail options offered greater ridership potential than a bus, but for 2004 the FTA also requires a speed improvement. Says noted transit skeptic, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, “It’s hard to argue [FTA] are biased, and it’s hard to argue they are not rigorous.”
EXPLAIN ALL THE OPPOSITION, THEN.
Well, there’s really not all that much opposition. It’s not like abortion or guns, despite what you hear on the radio. There’s the House GOP caucus, KSTP-AM, and that’s about it.
“They feel government is too big, that’s the heart of the argument,” says Curt Johnson. “It’s a big government program” which reminds riders every day how important the role of government is.
And “it looks like a Minneapolis thing,” Johnson notes. And nobody likes that. “Why should the greater number of people be taxed for the benefit of the few?” asks Rep. Phil Krinkie.
There’s a paranoid quality to the opposition that is repudiated by LRT’s success nationally. A defiant orthodoxy of right-wing suburban politicians, ideologues, and academics disseminating distorted facts and selective reasoning. “It’s the same boilerplate in city after city,” says Paul Weyrich.
Phil Krinkie is unconvinced. He says he never recovered from watching St. Paul ridiculously plan to build a people mover through downtown in 1978. He’s angry the Ventura administration underestimated, willfully he believes, Hiawatha’s cost; discounts LRT’s rampant North American success, accusing transit systems of paying “bribes” (parking, free transfers, etc.) to attract riders; and says LRT is a stalking horse so Minneapolis and Hennepin County can redevelop blighted sections of the core.
HUMOR US—WHAT’S THE BEST CASE AGAINST LRT?
The best argument against LRT, the most intellectually honest one, devoid of ideological orthodoxy, is that it’s expensive and won’t demonstrably lower congestion. Because drivers flock to open freeway lanes like bees to cinnamon rolls, rail transit has been notably ineffective at mitigating road congestion.
“So it’s an inefficient use of our dollars,” says Rep. Krinkie, “and it will take money away from roads.”
Projections have it that Hiawatha will attract 19,300 riders next year and roughly 25K by 2020. Planners will be satisfied if only a third of those riders are new transit users. That’s a lot of money to spend to take 6,000 car trips off I-35W. “The yield is just too poor,” Krinkie maintains.
But the argument breaks down from there.
For example, adding a lane to I-94 between Minneapolis and St. Paul would cost well over a billion dollars and require the taxpayer-paid relocation of thousands of people and businesses. (Enlarging an urban freeway costs roughly $100 million a mile.) Rebuilding the I-35W/Crosstown interchange will cost even more. And it will be at capacity the day it opens.
That’s the problem with enlarging freeways—there’s an inexhaustible demand for the space. Add capacity and people move out to where the freeway’s clear and fill it up. Look at the I-394 experience. That’s why it was probably the last new freeway this community will ever build.
Congestion is inevitable, rail transit is an alternative that makes the community more livable and attractive.
IF IT’S EXPENSIVE AND WON’T SOLVE CONGESTION, WHY BUILD IT?
“The traditional cost benefit analysis for transit is flawed,” says Ted Mondale. Lines like Hiawatha throw off a variety of economic benefits buses and freeways don’t.
Look at it this way: “We got bigger by adding wings to the house, if you will,” says Curt Johnson, former Met Council chair under Gov. Carlson, and currently a principal with the Citistates Group. “But it’s very expensive to keep growing the area outward [building roads, sewers, utilities]. If we could just get a portion of those people to live and work where we already have infrastructure the savings are in the billions.” Johnson is talking about projects like the Bloomington Central Station, a direct result of LRT.
Phil Krinkie sees the economics argument as part of the scam. “It’s all about economic development now, not about moving people, which should be the point.”
But that’s to deny reality. “Conservatives won’t see the big picture,” asserts Paul Weyrich, one of the nation’s most conservative ideologues. “LRT spurs massive economic growth around stations, that’s been true everywhere. In Dallas they say the sum is in the billions. It’s jobs, its wages, its small business. It promotes orderly economic development.”
“We were losing the congestion argument,” recalls Peter McLaughlin. “But I’m an infrastructural determinist, and we got some traction when we added development to the package.” So it’s become part of the sales pitch. “We’re one of the first [systems] to really think this out,” contends Ted Mondale. “There are development opportunities of some scale at every station. Bloomington Central was the biggest.”
Property values rise near rail transit. Dallas officials point to 53 percent higher commercial property values and 39 percent higher residential values near LRT lines. San Diego boasts 46 percent condominium premiums near commuter rail transit, and up to 72 percent jumps near its LRT lines. Portland officials say homes near LRT stations were worth an average of 10 percent more.
Even non-users benefit. Weyrich says 44 percent of fans at Baltimore Orioles games go by LRT, not competing for downtown parking or rush hour freeway access with commuters.
IS RAIL CHEAPER THAN EXPANDING A FREEWAY?
It costs roughly half as much to build and can be readily expanded. And Hiawatha’s actual cost to the community has been distorted.
Of the roughly $715 million, $424 million came from federal taxpayers and would have gone to other cities had Hiawatha not been built. State taxpayers spent $120 million, Hennepin County an additional $84 million. According to Ted Mondale, the state saved $113 million by not building a freeway, as had been planned for Hiawatha Ave. That’s virtually the entire state contribution. (The $87 million in Metropolitan Airports Commission bonds is not germane since they will be repaid by general airport concession revenue.)
THERE HAVE TO BE SOME FLIES IN THE OINTMENT.
Yeah, there are. Foremost is the issue of parking. “Not many people live within walking distance of these lines,” explains Paul Weyrich. So they drive their car to the station, and leave it for the day.
So inadequate parking acts as a literal cap on ridership. Each space is an additional weekday rider or two. Hiawatha will have roughly half the recommended (4,000) spaces of a line its size, most of them in Bloomington and at the airport (see map). “The city couldn’t find the land,” says Ted Mondale. The city decided not to find the land is more like it. The consensus, say insiders, was that with so many opponents already gunning for LRT, it was imprudent to inflame neighborhood sentiment in south Minneapolis by condemning homes and businesses to create parking. It would be, perhaps, the straw that would break the line’s back.
Hiawatha project office chief of staff Mark Fuhrmann calls the demand for park and ride “potentially limitless.” Mondale notes “ridership estimates are lower than they might be because of the lack of parking.”
The issue is so critical that LRT officials have been scouring Minneapolis in search of even a few spaces. Thirteen were found on LRT land behind the Cardinal Bar at the 38th St. Station. But the line’s contingency fund lacked the $43,000 to pave and stripe the space, so the bar was persuaded to foot the bill on the premise their customers would benefit as well. A similar effort is underway for twenty-four spaces next to the Cabooze near the Franklin Station.
Sizable parking lots on the line include the 880 spaces available at the Ft. Snelling Station, and 600 near the 28th Ave. Station in Bloomington. Most will be available by December and serve suburbanites cruising in on freeways from the south and east. At press time, Hiawatha officials were negotiating for 800 spaces in the airport’s underutilized Humphrey Terminal ramp, though they will carry a fee, and be a healthy walk from the station. A few hundred spaces are likely to materialize around the Lake St. Station as well, though not necessarily adjacent to the platforms.
HOW CAN WE JUDGE LRT’S SUCCESS?
Some would argue the $600 million Bloomington Central project, well in excess of the local cost, has rendered the line a success before it’s opened.
For others, though, the only true measure of the line’s value will be its ability to bring new riders to transit. That’s a surprisingly difficult number to divine, since many bus lines will be realigned to funnel riders into LRT and other lines will disappear entirely. Riders at the airport will be boarding just to transfer terminals or ride to parking because LRT will replace airport shuttles. Probably the only gauge of new rider impact will be to compare Metro Transit’s revenues from 2005 to 2003’s.
Still, the ultimate, and only meaningful measure of the line’s success will be in the court of public opinion, statistical nuances will not carry the day. Riders will test it out and decide whether it’s an urban amenity they’re content to leverage their tax dollars to buy. If other cities’ experience is any guide, the earth will veritably move. “By the end of 2005,” says Ted Mondale, “there will be an uncritical rush for these lines all over the region.”
“And then,” says Richard Lukin, a Chicago-based transportation consultant, “Krinkie will have to move on to another issue, because his constituents in Shoreview will want to know when he’s getting them their line.”
“It’ll still be a battle going forward,” says Peter McLaughlin, “because it’s still a lot of money. But before Hiawatha, the political base was insufficient to build a consensus. This will elevate transit in the mind of the consumer and we won’t have to fight the arguments about ‘people won’t ride; redevelopment won’t happen; it’ll kill the bus system.’”
SO WHO’S GONNA PAY THAT BILL?
If Hiawatha changes the political consensus on transit, there remains the question of funding. Current Met Council chairman Peter Bell, despite solid conservative credentials, has called for establishing a dedicated funding source, since transit doesn’t pay for itself, just like roads or bridges.
Without one, says Curt Johnson, “you have ad hoc arguments and it subverts any rational planning.” Houston and Denver could not overcome their states’ anti-transit legislatures, so they established dedicated sales tax funding by referenda, which could happen here.
“Stable and predictable funding sources are especially key with the cruel lead times you have with major transit projects,” Johnson continues. “You have to think in five-to-eight year chunks and get the politicians to agree to spend on something they won’t likely get credit for when it opens.”
At press time, Metro Transit was not sure whether Jesse Ventura would even be invited to Hiawatha’s grand opening.
THE GOVERNOR IS THE MAN.
Ventura’s role on Hiawatha cannot be overestimated. “There was once exceptional business community leadership and spirit, which had an influence on the debate; the Metro Council’s role was not as controversial” recalls Curt Johnson. “All that is largely gone, we are in a fuzzy leadership transition and nothing moves unless the Governor pushes it.”
Despite Gov. Pawlenty’s recent vow of support for Northstar commuter rail, his lieutenant governor and transportation commissioner, Carol Molnau, remains so vociferously opposed to public transit that she refused to appear with Pawlenty when he announced his change of heart on Northstar. “We’ve agreed to disagree,” she told the Star Tribune. Though LRT may become politically popular in the metro, it will remain anathema to legislators from outstate and exurban regions. When figures like Moluau—a farmer from Chaska who makes public statements defiantly ignorant of transit’s role in thriving cities—are entrusted with the future of the metro area’s mobility, it begs obvious questions about motive. (At press time, it appeared the state Senate would not confirm Molnau as transportation commissioner, forcing her to relinquish at least the title, if not the influence.)
“If your entire experience is suburban or rural,” says Curt Johnson, “Transit seems like a foreign country. The people who ride it are not your people.”
PART THE CURTAINS THEN; WHAT’S THE GRAND PLAN?
Phil Krinkie has a vision: “The spider web they want to build will cost billions of dollars to build, hundreds of millions to subsidize,” he predicts.
Though his subsidy forecast are outlandish (unless you’re budgeting time in hundred-year increments), the only way to have a genuine impact on congestion is to build a rail transit network.
“You create a parallel mobility system,” explains Curt Johnson. “One that connects the maximum number of destinations. That’s the right strategic direction. If Hiawatha makes that attractive then the region wins—we avoid huge expense and further congestion.”
WHAT’S THAT SYSTEM LOOK LIKE?
Here’s the anticipated project lineup, which may also include busways along U.S. 10 to the northwest and MN 77 to the south.
• Northstar: The line, from downtown Minneapolis northwest to Big Lake, is next in line and likely to be funded in the current legislature, now that the Governor supports it. High capacity, double-deck commuter rail cars, like Chicago’s METRA system, will operate largely in rush hours, with widely spaced stops several miles apart. Hiawatha LRT will be extended a third of a mile to connect to Northstar’s terminus near the Warehouse District. $265 million.
• Greenway: Part of the Southwest Corridor (see below), Hennepin County owns the rail trench in the Midtown Greenway between Hiawatha LRT and Chowen Ave. S. The Midtown Greenway Coalition advocates a historic streetcar line connecting Hiawatha with Uptown. Costs are estimated at only $53 million, as right-of-way acquisition is unnecessary. Could happen fast, or never at all.
• Central Corridor: Ramsey County’s piece of the pie, connecting the downtowns, Capitol, and the U. It’s likely to cost nearly $850 million, operate largely on University Avenue, and have a big redevelopment component for the gritty arterial. Opponents will complain the line offers minimal time savings over the #16 bus, which is a potential impediment to federal funding. Technically, the Met Council has not selected rail as the preferred mode. 2009 is a ballpark estimate for operations.
• Southwest Corridor: Hennepin County controls this old rail corridor connecting downtown with Eden Prairie and Hopkins. Another likely candidate for LRT, though questions fester about whether the route’s lack of access to suburban hubs like Eden Prairie Center is a fatal flaw. This line is a long-term play, probably a decade out.
WHAT ABOUT THE TRANSIT STRIKE?
No matter how you cut it, the anticipated labor action is bad news for transit users. After the last strike in 1995 it took a year to return ridership to pre-strike levels. Because people adapt to the lack of bus service, strikes feed perceptions that transit is a frill, not a necessity.
Ted Mondale fears a long strike could risk the stability of the management team Metro Transit assembled to operate LRT. “We could lose those people to other systems if we appear to lack a commitment to this line.”
The strike threat led the Met Council to preemptively postpone Hiawatha’s April 3 grand opening. If the dispute is protracted, the Council may just wait until the airport/Bloomington extension is ready in December to start any operations. More likely, though, four to eight weeks after the dispute is resolved the line will open as planned, to Fort Snelling.
The Hiawatha Line: A User's Guide
Fifty years ago this June, Twin City Lines pulled the last streetcar off the Como-Harriet line, ending a storied epoch of one of the nation’s most admired transit systems. The ensuing half century has been one of massive change to the area’s urban fabric, rooted in the postwar mobility trend brought on by widespread ownership of the automobile. Twin Cities transit ridership has declined steadily since 1949.
This spring, with the inauguration of Metro Transit’s Hiawatha Line, rail transit returns to Minneapolis and Bloomington, and with it, many believe, a second transit renaissance. In the ensuing pages Mpls.St.Paul explores the myriad controversies that came with Light Rail Transit (LRT), debunks some widely held myths, validates a few rumors, and offers predictions about the future.
For those just wondering—where does the train go, when does it run, and how can I use it?, what follows should answer all your questions.
What is LRT?
Light Rail Transit is a late twentieth century hybrid, distinguished from streetcars in employing widely spaced stations, higher operating speeds, and operation in dedicated rights-of-way. It is distinct from “heavy rail” (like Chicago’s “L”), in that its vehicles can operate in street traffic and board passengers at curbside as well.
When does it start operating?
Tough question. Hiawatha’s opening has been twice postponed, first from last November, for reasons of cost, and now from April 3 due to the threat of a Twin Cities transit strike. Once that threat passes or a labor action is settled, a new opening date will be set, likely out four to eight weeks. The line’s southernmost stations, at the airport and Mall of America, will not open until December 4 or 11.
Where will it go?
In a nutshell, from downtown Minneapolis, past the Metrodome, Cedar-Riverside (closest stop to the U), and then along Hiawatha Avenue to the VA Hospital, Fort Snelling, the airport’s two terminals, east Bloomington, and the Mall, with stops roughly every half-mile along the twelve mile route.
Why that route?
The route choice was a political and monetary expediency after decades of wrangling. Much of Hiawatha was cleared for a six-lane freeway (never built) beginning in the Kennedy Administration. That space offered a dedicated right-of-way enroute to several of the area’s biggest destinations. In essence, the route picked itself.
What will the trains be like?
They’re cool, almost futuristic, nothing like Twin City Lines’ turn of the century classics that run at Lake Harriet under the auspices of the Minnesota Transportation Museum. They’re high-tech, with circuit boards, digital read-outs, and self-diagnostics that should tell mechanics exactly what’s broken, when something fails.
Built by Bombadier Corp. of Canada, the cars are of the new low-floor design, meaning passengers do not have to ascend steps to reach the platform or from the platform to the train. That makes boarding quicker, and easy for the elderly, kids, folks with strollers or packages, and will cut down on the lengthy delays that occur when wheelchairs enter. To accommodate low floors, most of the car’s mechanical equipment rests on its roof.
Interiors are a cheery Swedish light blue and yellow, with large windows, vivid route maps, and a clearly audible recorded public address system that will identify stations.
Each trainset can hold 190 passengers, though they contain only sixty-six seats. The capacity is similar to three standard buses or two articulated buses.
So they’re run by computers?
No. The street-running and grade crossings demand a human operator.
What did they cost?
$3 million apiece. They will need mid-life overhauls, but should last thirty-five years.
When will Hiawatha operate?
Frequently. Initial schedules offer service every 7.5 minutes in rush hour, every ten minutes midday. Fifteen minute headways will be the rule in the evening, thirty minutes after 9 p.m. and before 6 a.m. There will be no service between 1 and 4 a.m. Because LRT will replace the airport’s inter-terminal shuttle bus in December, those off-hour headways will likely shrink some. If there is sufficient demand, the line’s signaling system can handle five minute separation between trains, though Metro Transit would need to buy more cars to operate that frequently.
How fast will LRT go?
Fast, but not as fast as Metro Transit would like. The cars’ top speed is fifty-five mph, but they’d only reach that along the dedicated speedway on Hiawatha Ave. During testing last winter neighbors objected to the horn the operators must sound at grade crossings, so Metro Transit agreed to silence the horns, which could only be accomplished by dropping speeds under forty mph. That will add just over one minute to the estimated running time of twenty-three minutes to the airport and thirty-five to the Mall of America.
What will rides cost?
$1.25, except during weekday rush hours, when they’re $1.75. All Metro Transit passes and stored value cards will be good on LRT. Transfers are free, and good for 150 minutes for return trips or bus connections. Tickets will be available from machines at each station. Boarding will not be controlled with proof-of-payment turnstiles, but will instead be on the honor system, enforced by random Transit Police inspections, who will issue tickets and assess fines on the spot.
What could go wrong?
Not much, actually. LRT systems operate in fifteen other North American cities and the technology is standardized and proven. The biggest uncertainty is the effect of the cold—Minneapolis is the coldest city in North America where LRT will operate (Buffalo is the snowiest). These are Bombardier’s first low-floor cars for North America, but are basically knockoffs of units the company has been building Köln and Stockholm for years.
The biggest problem the system is likely to encounter is a lack of parking.
Parking? What for?
Perhaps counter-intuitively, experience across North America indicates driving to the train station is enormously popular. Hiawatha will have roughly half the recommended (4,000) spaces of a line its size, most of them in Bloomington and at the airport (see map). Another potential problem is airport travelers occupying that parking for days at a time.
I’m a bus rider. What will LRT mean for me?
Probably not a lot, though forty-six Metro Transit routes will serve the stations, as will some suburban lines, particularly those that already serve the Mall of America and/or Highway 77. Metro Transit is eliminating only one route, the #180 Mall of America express, in December—LRT will supplant it, though with a slightly longer ride. Route 7, serving most of the line’s territory, will be restructured and terminate in south Minneapolis. Route 8, serving east Franklin Ave. and downtown will run only from Prospect Park to the Franklin LRT station. Certain limited-stop rush hour trips on Routes 7, 19, 20, and 22 will be eliminated as well, since LRT duplicates their service. One suburban route, MVTA’s #471, will terminate at the 46th St. station beginning in December, instead of coming downtown.
Are there extensions or new lines in the works?
The most likely extension, if you don’t count the one to the airport/mall, is a mere third of a mile through the Warehouse District to the terminus for the Northstar commuter rail line just shy of downtown. Northstar has been approved for bonding by the Pawlenty administration and is expected to clear the legislature this spring. The Federal government has already expressed its willingness to fund as well. The LRT extension is part of that package. Operations are not likely until 2007.
Hiawatha should rightfully have been built deeper into Bloomington, but will probably not be extended south of the Mall. Instead, a dedicated busway is in the works for Hwy. 77 in the Minnesota River Valley, which will connect to LRT. If a second LRT line is built, it must, by statute, serve Ramsey County, and the likely route would be along University Avenue, connecting the Capitol, the two downtowns, and the U of M.
So what’d it all cost?
Roughly $715 million dollars, $424 million of which came from the federal government and would have gone to other cities had Hiawatha not been built. State taxpayers spent $120 million, Hennepin County residents an additional $84 million. The state and county will split the annual operating subsidy. Some consider the $87 million the Metropolitan Airports Commission spent on its share of the line (the tunnel under the runways, plus two stations) to be taxpayer funding, but that’s tenuous, since MAC LRT bonds will be repaid by general airport concession revenue.
TRANSIT TOWN: BLOOMINGTON CENTRAL STATION
A repeated mantra of LRT advocates is its capacity to spur economic development. Though land speculation begins well before the first train runs, rarely does such development pre-date a line’s operation. But just before Christmas, a full year before the Hiawatha Line would reach Bloomington Central Station, McGough Companies announced a $600 million residential and commercial development astride the LRT station there.
“It was a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” says McGough principal Greg Miller. “To find forty-five acres that could be master planned—this close to the Mall of America and airport, with this kind of access?”
McGough’s project took root in 2001 when HealthPartners asked for proposals to refurbish its troubled high-rise off 34th Av. S. Though McGough is primarily a builder, it decided to buy the building and largely vacant land surrounding it. Though only a half-mile from the Mall, the site was perceived as too distant to work in tandem with the commercial megalopolis.
McGough’s initial plan was to build an office park and perhaps a hotel, but Miller says lenders were generally unenthusiastic. A pension fund advisor encouraged the company to take a look at transit oriented developments across North America, suggesting a built-in rail link to the mall, airport, and downtown offered huge potential. “He told us we didn’t know what we were doing,” Miller recalls.
Miller and partners traveled North America and found thriving residential and commercial developments surrounding LRT lines—the lure of built-in tenants, shops, and a ride to work proved compelling to businesses and individuals.
So McGough supplemented its plan to include 1000 to 1500 high-rise residences (priced from $175,000–$250,000) on the east end of the project, outside the airport’s sixty-five decibel noise shadow. A waterpark, a hotel/resort complex, restaurants, and residential amenities came aboard as well. Miller says LRT’s presence accelerated the timeline from “a ten-year play to two to three” years.
Nearly 100 residential reservations are on the books even though occupancy is two years away. The units are atypical by Twin Cities standards, smaller, to keep the price down, but amenity filled, in an architecturally striking glass tower of a design already successful in downtown Toronto and Vancouver. Miller says the bulk of prospective tenants requested city and airport views, as opposed to river valley sightlines.
“They are younger people, with experience in big cities” says Miller. “They’re not choosing us for proximity to the country.”
Miller expects some tax-increment financing from Bloomington, but the total investment will be nearly equal to the cost of the LRT line, and three times the local taxpayer commitment.
“LRT changes the entire dynamic of East Bloomington,” Miller insists. “We want to next bring this housing concept to downtown Minneapolis. If it wasn’t for all the blocks taken up with parking ramps, we might be able to build now.”