Strangulation on the Green Line

Public officials and planners made a huge mistake when they chose to place the Central Corridor “Green Line” Light Rail Transit (LRT) on University Avenue. Enchanted by federal money and obsessed with dreams of economic development, they forgot the obvious purpose for a light rail train: better mass transit. We must recognize this huge error as well as the lesser shortcomings of the successful Hiawatha “Blue Line.” We must reform our transit planning process. Otherwise we’ll continue to blunder and spoil our prospects for good transit.

What’s Wrong with the Green Line?

When federal money became available for LRT to connect St. Paul and Minneapolis, the train seemed destined for I-94, along highway and Soo Line railroad right of ways. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement released in 1993 compared three routes: Burlington Northern (along Pierce Butler), University Avenue, and Soo Line/I-94. The Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority apparently favored the route along the freeway for many reasons, including fastest travel time, least impact on local access, fewest environmental concerns, lowest energy consumption, lowest cost of relocating utilities, and fewest traffic diversions. University Avenue was clearly least desirable on those counts. Most significantly, the study stated that the Soo Line/I-94 alignment would have the highest ridership, 33% more than University Avenue. But, the study got waste-basketed by new commissioners who preferred a train in the middle of University Avenue.

Good or Poor Transit?

It’s pretty clear that higher transit speed using the freeway alignment would have attracted the additional 33% of riders, including many commuters. University Avenue had 25 stop lights plus many additional intersections on the 6.1 miles between Huron Avenue in Minneapolis and Rice Street in St. Paul. On such a busy commercial street, a surface train must stop for red lights at the many major intersections: a thwarted train. In contrast, the Blue Line’s Hiawatha Avenue is a spacious divided highway with only eight stop lights on the four miles between Lake Street and Highway 62, and the train has priority at those lights, permitting relatively high track speeds. Unfortunately, tunneling or elevating the Green Line tracks was considered too expensive.[1]

Consequently the train will have a transit speed only about the same as the present Route 16 bus, but with 46 fewer places to get on and off. It’s likely to run more slowly, on average, than the Route 50 limited stop bus, which had at least eight more passenger stops. The 50 was dropped when the new train started operating, the 16 service has been significantly reduced, and, importantly, the Route 94 express bus service was eliminated outside of rush hour–even though it gets from downtown to downtown far more quickly than the train. These service reductions seem calculated to force riders onto the train and cut costs, but will hardly help the mobility impaired who may have to wait longer for the bus or else roll a wheelchair an extra half-mile or more to or from a station. It appears that by most measures, addition of the new train will result in poorer service, and a step backwards for public transit.

Trains are not Streetcars

Light rail vehicles (LRVs) appropriately function as commuter lines and connectors for long urban distances. To fulfill that purpose efficiently they should either operate along limited access highways, or along existing rail right of ways, or in tunnels, or on elevated structures. In contrast, if the purpose were to provide surface rail service on University Avenue, a modern streetcar line would seem the obvious choice, not a train. Streetcars run with the automotive traffic and often stop at corners to pick up and discharge passengers. A modern streetcar closely resembles a single LRV. A University Avenue streetcar should travel at nearly the same speed as the 16 bus. At the time of Central Corridor planning, few cities pursued aid for streetcar development, but at a cost per mile of about 1/3 that of LRT, installing a streetcar line would have cost state and local government significantly less than the roughly 50% match needed to get the federal LRT dollars. But the decision makers didn’t understand the difference between streetcars and trains; consequently we’ve got a train that can’t run as a train should (to get commuters off the freeway and provide rapid point to point transportation) and yet can’t provide the good local service of a streetcar.

At this point, we should recognize the unequivocal advantages of the Green Line over local bus service: 1) easier, more frequent service between the University of Minnesota main campus and Downtown Minneapolis; 2) easier physical entrance to and exit from LRVs, compared to buses; 3) brighter and shinier than buses. But these would be advantages of a modern streetcar line as well!

And the Thwarted Train Brings Other Problems

One factor that kept St. Paul and Ramsey County from discarding the I-94 route even sooner was the prevailing LRV design that required passengers to climb up several steps within the cars in order to reach the passenger floor. But planners and officials thought the University Avenue route feasible when a new car design made boarding easy, with the passenger floor approximately at curb level. Unfortunately they did not realize, until too late, that the infrastructure for a train on the street meant elimination of most on-street parking along the route. That’s how the project cost University Avenue businesses 1,000 parking spaces. For many businesses access became more difficult because LRT barriers permanently severed secondary streets that used to cross University Avenue. And of course the long construction period also made life very difficult for many businesses with University Avenue storefronts.

The high costs of on-street installation eventually ruled out a planned LRT tunnel through the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota under Washington Avenue Southeast. Consequently that part of Washington Avenue became permanently closed to private automotive traffic, which in turn eliminated automobile traffic from the Washington Avenue Bridge except for westbound from Pleasant Street or eastbound to East River Road, greatly diminishing automobile access to and from the West Bank.

Safety issues accompany a train on the street. Illuminated semaphores, including turn/don’t turn arrows, control the four-way crossings at the major intersections along the Green Line. We won’t see any gate bars that raise and lower, like those on the Blue Line. Given the number of intersections, all the pedestrian, bicycle and automotive traffic along the route, and the fact that the train makes several turns from or back to University Avenue, we can expect lots of Green Line accidents. By May 2014, three collisions had already taken place during several weeks of runs by test trains.

Interference on the Tracks

What will happen when Green Line trains begin using the same set of tracks as Blue Line trains in Downtown Minneapolis? To help answer this question, I performed a study on five weekdays in May and June 2008, by riding the train back and forth from 4:00 to 6:00 PM between the Metrodome and the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue Station (then the western terminus) equipped with a stop watch and note pad. At that time, two car trains were supposed to run at seven minute intervals in each direction, requiring a minimum average terminus relay speed of nearly 6.9 miles per hour (i.e., the speed necessary for a train to always arrive or wait at the terminus to maintain the schedule) over that .8 mile distance. The data suggested that during peak hours, trains barely kept the schedule of seven minute intervals traveling at an average speed of 7.3 MPH on the downtown rails.

At that time, the Metropolitan Council and Central Corridor Project office asserted that the additional (Green Line) train would run at the same frequency as the existing line, so that during peak hours a train from one line, then one from the other, would run every 3.5 minutes in each direction. But I had observed a variation of more than plus or minus 2.36 minutes (35%) in the time it took trains to travel that .8 mile stretch. In order to avoid congestion and overtaking on the joint track, trains would have to travel at a much higher average terminus relay speed: clearly not feasible in the downtown gauntlet of semaphores and traffic.

At first I thought that ample train docking facilities at the yet to be constructed Target Field Stadium station might help ease the problem, combined with extreme system coordination. But the data showed the problem occurred in both eastbound and westbound directions: how to keep a 3.5 minute interval, in view of the range of 4:23 to 9:12 measured travel time over that downtown stretch! And what about the vagaries of schedule to be encountered by the new line, with all its intersections, red lights and traffic along University Avenue and in Downtown St. Paul? And what would happen with three-car trains?

I predicted that in all likelihood during peak times the Blue Line would have to run less often than every 7 minutes, and the Green Line less frequently than unrealistically planned, otherwise there would be no capability for scheduling.[2] Planners and officials never discussed this very basic question in public, but when I raised the issue face to face (once with an official of the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, once with a project engineer) the answer was, “It’s a problem, alright!”

In fact, the Blue Line now operates at 10 minute intervals with three car trains during afternoon rush hour. I have not measured the present transit times between Target Field Station and what’s still called Downtown East/Metrodome Station, but the previous data strongly suggests schedule problems and a possible slowing of the whole system when the Green Line joins the Blue Line on those downtown tracks. It appears that running trains at five minute intervals in each direction may work under perfect conditions, but we’ll see what happens in practice.

Severe Limitation of Capacity

Those figures suggest that the Blue Line currently runs at roughly maximum capability during peak hours, a limitation created by placing the tracks on a busy Downtown Minneapolis street grid where the train must stop at semaphores. That’s one of the shortcomings of the Blue Line project: nickled-and-dimed, rather than have the dollars needed to tunnel the system downtown. As a friend originally from the East Coast says, “They do everything half-assed around here.” The other shortcoming: traffic queues at the Hiawatha Avenue crossings where the train has priority, a problem that could be remedied by future over- or underpasses for cars and trucks. But practically the entire 11-mile Green Line track runs on the surface of streets where its trains must stop at many red lights.

In 2008 planners anticipated 42,170 Central Corridor LRT riders on weekdays by 2030.[3] Then Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell stated even higher figures.[4] While those expectations may be overly optimistic for such a slow transit connection with poor local service, they appear to represent maximum capacity or thereabouts, with three car trains. What then? Operating at grade level, four car trains would block intersections, and don’t expect a significantly more frequent schedule. In other words, a continuous conveyor choo-choo won’t work! It seems even the planners anticipate operation of only fifteen years or less until the Green Line is seriously overcrowded. And during that period we’ll still lack an adequately speedy trunk line between the two major cities to provide an attractive alternative to driving congested I-94. We’re looking at transportation strangulation!

How and Why did it Happen?

St. Paul contains most of the Green Line’s 11 miles, and St. Paul and Ramsey County officials and planners—having assured themselves that the legislature would support their bid for the state’s second LRT line—made the key choices and decisions. When I asked St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in 2009 about any studies that showed LRT should go on University Avenue, he responded in a very clear manner:

“Ramsey County undertook at [sic] study in the mid-1980s…which concluded that I-94 represented the fastest option. A subsequent analysis by the Metropolitan Council and Saint Paul Planning Commission raised the concern that an I-94 alignment would not support the city’s economic development goals, leading to a renewed interest in University Avenue.”[5]

In other words, it’s LRT for possible economic development, not for rapid transit. In a January 2006 Minnesota Public Radio interview, the former City Council member and newly elected Mayor Coleman concedes that on the Hiawatha line, LRT is “really treated more like a train.”[6] He rightly states that to properly plan a transportation system, “We have to start doing those things from a metropolitan-wide perspective…because you can’t address the issues…from a St. Paul versus Minneapolis perspective,” although he later adds, “St. Paul can’t be the red-haired step child to Minneapolis when it comes to transportation. We have to be an equal partner on transportation issues if we’re going to be equal in this region.” St. Paul would not care to be a “red-haired step child” with a mere streetcar line, when Minneapolis has an LRT line. But “me-too” St. Paul thwarted “its” train, frustrating any chance for the region to have a vital trunk line between the two cities for many years to come.

Coleman sounds correct when he says, “we are not going to be able to accommodate the kind of growth that we’re going to face in the cities—in the Twin Cities and the Metropolitan Region–unless we have a truly multimodal transit system that includes light rail as the anchor.” But the thwarted Green Line train amounts to an anchor against progress. Coleman’s remarks highlight the contradictory thinking behind the Central Corridor plan, although the key decisions had been made before he became Mayor.

A Crucial Study

The 1999 Annual Report of the Saint Paul Planning commission stated,

“With Ramsey County’s reconsideration of Central Corridor LRT recommendations, the Planning Commission undertook a short and intensive study to see if LRT on University Avenue is viable with respect to physical, economic, and construction impacts. The results, which generally conclude that LRT would complement activities on University Avenue, were discussed with the community in a series of open houses and constituent group briefings. Simultaneously, the Midway Chamber of Commerce undertook the same line of inquiry. Recommendations of the Planning Commission and Midway Chamber of Commerce resulted in the City Council not only endorsing the Central Corridor for LRT, but concluding that University Avenue was the only reasonable alignment within the Corridor.”[7]

According to the “short and intensive study,” (“Light Rail Transit on University Avenue: A Review of the Potential,” 1999), previous issues about the University Avenue alignment—design and construction impacts on businesses and opposition of University Avenue businesses—no longer seemed so relevant because of “techniques” that had “substantially changed,” meaning the belief that a design for tracks in the center of the street would be fine. The study expects that “for most of University Avenue engineers anticipate there will be two lanes of traffic each way, and one lane for parking,” which ultimately ended up as a badly mistaken assertion.

Much later, when businesses learned of the loss of 1,000 parking spaces, I queried whether the Midway Chamber of Commerce would have still supported the plan, and the Chamber’s president thought it likely. She said there had been vacant buildings along University for many years, and the owners had been waiting for LRT to help solve their problem. Asked about all the Asian business owners who now felt endangered by the project, the Midway Chamber of Commerce President responded, “Oh, they’re newcomers!”[8]

The study sensibly states, “In order to attract riders, LRT must have an overall time faster than driving and parking a car,” but as we know, the Green Line falls far short of meeting this requirement (unless the parking gets removed). An argument for LRT as development stimulator gets substituted for the former notion that “speed of travel between downtowns was paramount.” Apparently for these planners, transit speed is not a transit need. They say that St. Paul government had long favored the University Avenue route “because it best promoted economic development/redevelopment and served the transit needs better than the other two alignments,” but:

“Why build Light Rail Transit (LRT) when the central corridor has the best bus service in the region. Transit systems evolve as ridership increases. A typical progression of transit service from lowest to highest is the following:

• Small circulator vans
• Buses
• Articulated buses (extended buses that bend in the middle)
• Light rail (street car)
• Heavy rail (subway)”

and there, in black in white, we see that the St. Paul planning department conflates light rail trains and street cars, a grievous error. On the above list, streetcars belong on the line with articulated buses because of similar passenger capacity and transit speed.

Then the planners state, “This progress occurs as it becomes impossible to use existing vehicles to serve the demand.” They point to “a limit to how many buses holding 60-80 people can depart in the course of rush hour,” lauding the capacity of an LRT car, but they fail to acknowledge the severe limits imposed on a surface-mounted University Avenue train by the traffic semaphores. They do not mention the restrictions imposed by the downtown surface routes, especially the capacity limits imposed on the joint Blue and Green Line track in Downtown Minneapolis.

Thwarted Train a Bulldozer?

As to development, the authors of the lightweight and faulty “short and intensive study” believe “a light rail line needs to penetrate the highest of existing activity centers. If investment follows investment, then locating LRT on busy and important commercial streets allows for the greatest positive impact,” but the planners admit that development is most likely within a quarter mile of stations.[9] They call for substantial public investment, expecting with LRT only, $1 of private investment for every $1 of public investment, for LRT plus public improvements $6 of private investment for every $1 of public investment, and “in some locations ratios of $20 to $1 have been achieved.”

In 2009 Ed Goetz, Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, observed, “University [Avenue] is already a well-developed corridor with a lot of activity centers and attractions.”[10] Obviously the LRT-beleaguered Asian businesses in particular lend a great deal of growth and vitality to the street. Tom Stransky, a critic of the Green Line, owns Midway Books, a respected business on University Avenue for 44 years; he also owns the property. At one of those “open houses” or “constituent group briefings” where planners displayed pictures of the University and Snelling intersection, Stransky saw an eight-story building on his corner. He asked,

“’Where’s my book store?’ The planner said, ‘Oh, this is low income housing, don’t worry, just something we’re thinking about. You can have your bookstore underneath.’ At another meeting a friend of mine with a property on University Avenue saw empty space instead of his building. He was told it was green space.”[11]

At a meeting between St. Paul city officials and some 40 business and property owners along University Avenue on December 10, 2009, the city was accused of “taxing out the small businesses” with a special assessment of $54.39 per frontage foot, plus an additional annual maintenance fee of $1.70 per foot to maintain new lighting. The levies would help pay for the Green Line “streetscape” improvements. The Pioneer Press quoted Long Hur, owner of New Fashion clothing:

“when he bought property in 1996, he paid $3,000 in property taxes. ‘Now, it’s $30,000,’ he said. ‘And now the assessment.’”[12]

An official also recommended that businesses install new sanitary sewer connections at $3,500 and up, in order to avoid a possible future charge of perhaps $25,000 after completion of Green Line construction.

In April 2011, St. Paul changed the zoning along University Avenue to permit taller and denser construction. But before considering development prospects and what has taken place, let’s continue the story of the decision-making.

Consequences of the “Short and Intensive Study”

Decisions took place in stages and at many points, but it seems that St. Paul Planning’s study played a key role on the process of siting LRT on University Avenue rather than along the freeway. At the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority (RCRRA) Board of Commissioners meeting of November 16, 1999, Commissioner Susan Haigh moved to

“eliminate the alternative of LRT along the I-94 corridor for the Central Corridor Transit Study contingent on the adoption of the report by the City Council. She said that we shouldn’t put our money into something that the City of St. Paul doesn’t agree with. She also remarked that we should target the resources on University Avenue.”[13]

Several RCRRA staffers then remarked that the previous 1993 study preferred the I-94 route, and that a “whole range of alternatives” needed study because of federal requirements. Commissioner Janice Rettman “felt that no alignment should be eliminated until it is explored to the fullest.” Apparently these were mere perfunctory quibbles. The main author of the “short and intensive study” argued for the supposed economic benefits of a University Avenue alignment, stating “that it does not appear that the economic benefits that rail would make on University would be the same on I-94.”

Then, by a vote of 7 – 0, the Commissioners approved Haigh’s motion “to authorize staff to negotiate a contract with BRW for the Central Corridor Transit Study and to amend it by eliminating the alignment of LRT along the I-94 corridor contingent upon the adoption of the [“short and intensive”] Planning Commission report by the St. Paul City Council.”[14]

Shortly after release of the report, St. Paul City Council Member Jerry Blakey sponsored a City Council resolution that acknowledged the report, affirmed the importance of LRT planning and “improved technology,” but resolved “to continue to review alternative alignments carefully and continue to clarify our intentions concerning potential light rail development in order to participate appropriately in regional decisions.”[15] [Italics added.] At the City Council meeting of December 8, 1999, Blakey expressed concern

“from talking to a number of businesses on University Avenue. The Midway Chamber of Commerce is supporting it [University Avenue route] but they do not have overwhelming support. The Asian business community is not aware of the issue. Blakey said he is concerned that the Council will decide what is best for the businesses, a study will be done, and it will be narrowed down to only one option.”[16]

But then Councilmember Chris Coleman amended Blakey’s resolution to focus entirely on University Avenue. Coleman argued strongly against alignments other than University Avenue, remarking that I-94 was “useless for light rail.”

“Councilmember Coleman said in a conversation with the head of the Metropolitan Council, he was told that it’s a waste of everyone’s time to be looking at any areas other than University Avenue because it would not be built anywhere else based on ridership projections.”[17]

Coleman’s assertion completely contradicts the official 1993 DEIS. The City Council then approved the amended resolution, but Blakey, who represented the eastern section of University Avenue (the location of many of the later worried Asian businesses) voted against it. Blakey had favored the I-94 alignment.[18]

Later decisions followed suit; for example, a memorandum of July 30, 2001, from RCRRA staff to Central Corridor Coordinating Committee Members, reported that a number of “public scoping meetings” had taken place as well as meetings of officials from various public entities, and “based on the testimony, written comments and supplemental meetings, the Project Management Team made the following recommendations at its meeting on July 25, 2001: 1. Light Rail Transit on I-94 should be eliminated from further study or environmental analysis…”[19]

Development along the Green Line – Prospects and Reality

Acting in her current role as Chair of the Metropolitan Council, Susan Haigh extolls the $2.5 billion in development that has or will take place, supposedly because of the Green Line. Others say that much of that development would have occurred without the new LRT line–such as housing near the University of Minnesota, the Downtown East development in Minneapolis, and renovation of Union Station–or simply resulted because of improvement in the economy. Scholarly studies abound concerning possible effects of LRT on development; the conclusions vary widely. One noted expert on transportation policy and planning, Professor Robert Cervero of the University of California at Berkeley, was quoted by Chris Havens in the Star Tribune:

“’Past experience suggests the economic developments of LRT in all but the most fast-growing, economically robust settings are oversold.’ While light rail might bring better mobility for poor people, he added the line by itself likely won’t invite new outside investments.”[20]

A few scholars have considered our one local example, the Blue Line. The Humphrey Institute’s Ed Goetz looked at results after more than four years of the Blue Line’s operation, in 2009. He found that locales within range of some stations saw increased creation of housing and a rise in property values.[21] That line’s speedy convenience apparently attracts commuters and residents but has not stimulated a great deal of commercial development. Goetz doubted whether the University Avenue line will have a major impact. He observed that in other cities, property values increased near LRT stations but decreased at locations on a line that were not near a station.

Advocates of a train on University Avenue cited examples in Dallas, Salt Lake City, and other cities as great economic development successes, including Portland, Oregon’s projects intended explicitly for economic stimulus.[22] The latter, however, were notably streetcar lines, not LRT, and the distinction between those modes of transit is fundamental. Most of the cited LRT projects bear little resemblance to the Green Line’s addition of such a painfully slow train to a street that was served by frequent buses, a train that merely increases capacity between relatively few points, accompanied by a significant reduction of local bus service. (See the appended table of comparisons with cities cited by project planners)

A Recent Study, and Current Results

Of course the Blue Line has not seen the kind of strenuous efforts carried on by a St. Paul determined from the beginning to make a thwarted train seem an economic cornucopia. Nor has the Blue Line enjoyed the sort of benevolence sprinkled along University Avenue by the likes of the charitable Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

Very recently Xinyu “Jason” Cao, with Dean Porter of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, studied anticipation-related development on the St. Paul portion of the Green Line by examining the timing of building permits and their value versus the timeline of planning and project financing. He saw a significant rise in building permits and a steep rise in their value around stations, coincident with the approval of funding for the LRT project. Those changes were clearest in Downtown St. Paul, however, and Cao says it’s not clear how much they relate directly to LRT. St. Paul also changed the zoning along University Avenue at that time, to permit taller structures, denser development and mixed use projects. And the City of St. Paul and the Metropolitan Council take their belief in the attraction of private money by public investment along transit routes very seriously; the Star Tribune recently cited a figure of $80 million or more in “seed money” planted along the Green Line, consisting of government grants. Additional funds have come from foundations and other charities. I would add that another factor must be the propaganda carried on tirelessly by St. Paul and the Metropolitan Council as well as boosters such as the Pioneer Press, a self-described “strong supporter and cheerleader” for the project. Cao concluded,

“in addition to LRT investment, proactive land use planning policies, public subsidies and public funded projects are important contributors to building activity,” and that his study “cannot tell whether the building activities represent a net growth in the region or just a redistribution of growth within the region.”[23]

A discordant note sounded in 2009, when development advocates and St. Paul Council Member Dave Thune actually denounced one project clearly related to the Green Line. Thune asked whether people would have invested in Lowertown if they had known an LRT maintenance facility would end up there. Mayor Coleman and then Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell had to lobby energetically in order to keep the facility on track and keep the overall LRT project out of jeopardy.[24]

At this point, housing projects—including a lot of units for low or moderate income renters—clearly dominate Green Line development: some subsidized by direct means such as the $80 million cited above, with almost all of the large projects subsidized by a far greater amount in tax increment financing, limited partnership tax shelters and tax breaks on loans. Contradictions abound; does economic development along an arterial street mean housing, especially if constructed on what would appear to be rather prime commercial space? Does economic development mean low income housing, and if so, does it mean increasing the concentration of low income households and minorities? As housing for families, does it make sense to put children on or near such a busy street? (And as to the agencies approving such financing, why does it rarely include apartments of four or more bedrooms, which has been the unsatisfied need in the Metropolitan area for decades?)

A Fundamental Contradiction

The preoccupation with trying to use the Green Line to achieve development contradicts the repeatedly stated concern for helping the people already there. As Mayor Coleman admits, “how do we enhance the people that have already invested in that corridor, not how do we replace them with somebody else.”[25] Indeed, how do you enhance the municipal tax base without indirect displacements or direct replacements? How do you keep Tom Stransky and Long Hur in place while presumably trying hard to raise their property values and taxes? But thus far, there’s been little commercial development planned or completed; investment in commercial development takes longer to materialize than in housing. Few examples come to mind: a new Culver’s near the Snelling Avenue intersection, a Walgreen’s moving several hundred yards closer to that same intersection.

It’s still too early to tell whether Green Line development will come to pass as St. Paul and the Metropolitan Council hope, and it may never be possible to tell why. Except for the likely concentration of activity around stations, as hinted by Culver’s and Walgreen’s, stimulation by the LRT itself appears questionable. In my opinion, even with all the development incentives showered along University, a fast rail link between the two downtowns and points between would have ultimately benefited St. Paul development more. Whatever the case, the key question remains: did planners and officials have sufficient justification to undermine a key element in a metropolitan rail transit system by thwarting the train?

A Demonstrably Bad Process

Granted, sensible transit planners should keep an eye on economic development, but surely they should never lose sight of the main purpose: better public transit, within the frame of regional transportation. Green Line planners failed this basic requirement. To make things worse, at every stage and level, government failed to exercise good oversight.

An early study for the Ramsey and Hennepin Rail Authorities reported in 1990, “Economic/Land Use Impacts of LRT in the Midway Corridor,” demonstrated the preoccupation with development that ultimately prevailed. The report expected positive effects from each of the three possible alignments, Burlington Northern/Pierce Butler, University Avenue and I-94/Soo Line, with greatest development benefit along University, but less transit value to the region. The higher transit speed along I-94 would provide greater benefit to downtown St. Paul and provide good residential service and transit connections. The report includes a transcribed forum on September 11, 1990, apparently one of the few occasions when the public could weigh in meaningfully concerning the merits of the three alignments.

In 1995 the Metropolitan Council published “Economic Development Potential Around Central Corridor LRT Stations,” a document interesting for its consideration of development within the context of the then favored I-94/Soo Line route. But with its relatively good anticipated downtown to downtown transit time of 28 minutes, even that route had been badly compromised by lack of tunneling around the University Transit Center and from there to I-94 near Highway 280, in addition to the lack of tunneling in both downtown areas. And then, as we have learned, the Ramsey Regional Rail Authority, St. Paul planners and St. Paul City Council chose to try use the new line primarily as a questionable development tool, moving the line to University. The Metropolitan Council fully supported those decisions. The Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Rybak enthusiastically deferred to St. Paul, and Hennepin County proved an all-out booster of the thwarted train plan with Commissioner Peter McLaughlin leading the charge. Where was the public?

I was stunned to learn of the University Avenue route by accident when I asked questions at a meeting of the Cedar Riverside Business Association where a University of Minnesota consultant described the route then planned through the University of Minnesota main campus and across the river. Later, in 2008, I mentioned the fact to Professor and former State Representative Myron Orfield, a noted expert on metropolitan governance; even he was quite surprised to hear of the change of route.

By the time the ill-informed public could testify at meetings and hearings from 2006 on, notably at locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul in May and June 2008, there could be no major change of plans without a mass uprising. In the voluminous and opaque Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that appeared in July of 2009, public comments got responses—often merely numbered and indexed—that tend to state courses of action or decisions rather than directly answer the questions raised. Most witnesses simply supported mass transit and LRT. The FEIS briefly notes that an earlier Draft EIS (the one that got waste-basketed) considered other alignments, but the FEIS offers no explanation for the choice of University Avenue.

Criteria Disabled, Fudged or Disregarded

Meanwhile the Central Corridor thwarted train proposal encountered problems at the Federal Transit Administration because of difficulty satisfying the Cost Effectiveness Index (CEI) requirement, as one might expect. Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar who then chaired the House Transportation Committee, repeatedly grumbled about the supposedly onerous restrictions placed on the Central Corridor LRT project by the CEI calculation. He pushed for changes in the CEI, not for changes in the cost effectiveness of the thwarted train. In May 2008, he applauded a newly passed bill’s weakening of the CEI to include more subjective factors (dare we say “political?”) such as presumed stimulation of development.[26] According to one of Oberstar’s former aides, he just wanted “to get something done.”[27]

On August 19, 2009, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued a Record of Decision approving the FEIS. With that approval in hand, the Metropolitan Council determined the project’s CEI to be $24.45, a number achieved by trimming features, by not including a number of associated costs, by not including the cost and effects of the stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western that had been added because of pressure from groups representing minorities and other residents, and by tinkering with details to project an even more optimistic total transit time of 39:13–reduced by 62 seconds from previous estimates.

The new CEI calculation barely passed beneath the federal bar of $24.49, and the Metropolitan Council then submitted its application to the federal agency prior to the deadline of September 5. “With a nod and a wink” aptly characterizes much of the application process on both local and federal levels. Major construction bids went out before the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued final approval.[28]

Who Dares Criticize?

So far, the magnitude of the Green Line transit fiasco—a nearly $1 billion expenditure for what’s probably the most expensive public works project yet completed in Minnesota—hasn’t dawned on the public. In the current blizzard of adulation, optimism and self-congratulatory publicity, it’s not yet clear for the public to see the Green Line’s failure to provide a vital regional transit trunk line between our two major cities. If anything, the Green Line presents a distorted model that encourages some to clamor for Southwest Corridor LRT service in Uptown without demanding tunneling or elevation of the line so as to preserve rapid transit train function in a dense area.

A local friend of mine waited for the southbound Blue Line train at Government Center. Next to him stood a well-dressed stranger who could see the headlight blocks away as the train slowly advanced between stop lights, on its surface tracks. The stranger said, “Why is the train so slow here? I’m from Mexico City, and it’s fast there.”

Meanwhile our metropolitan area continues to lag far behind many others in the U.S. at establishing good rapid transit. In January 2011, several organizations (Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, Transit for Livable Communities and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy) assessed our status, finding fault with the decision-making process and calling for reforms. Their “Planning to Succeed?” report notes that “the metro area has slipped into a role of underachiever among its peers.” They cited four key problems: lack of accountability; lack of vision and mission; lack of efficiency, sustainability and connectedness in transportation and land use; and outdated funding mechanisms. Much of their concern focused on the Metropolitan Council. The report could just as well serve as a critique of the Central Corridor LRT process, but significantly, it contains not one word of direct criticism.

Also in January 2011, the Office of the Legislative Auditor published a critical report, “Governance of Transit in the Twin Cities Region.” It contains no direct criticism of the Central Corridor LRT process, but like “Planning to Succeed?” it urges reforms, particularly by restructuring the Metro Council as a first step. (As of June, 2014, the legislature has not acted on this recommendation). It lists nine principles of effective governance:

(1) Accountability;
(2) Consensus building and participation;
(3) Credibility;
(4) Effectiveness;
(5) Equity;
(6) Flexibility;
(7) Stability;
(8) Strategic vision; and
(9) Transparency.

“For example, an effective transit governance structure should clearly identify who is responsible for what (accountability), encourage local involvement (consensus building and participation), have the necessary legitimacy and expertise to make decisions (credibility), and prioritize and focus resources on efforts of regional significance (strategic vision). To the extent possible, a governance structure should balance all nine of the effective governance principles.” [29]

Although it doesn’t discuss rail transit, the Legislative Auditor’s report provides an additional basis for criticizing the Central Corridor LRT process. The process that gave us the Green Line essentially fails on all nine points of governance.

A year later the Itasca Project issued “Regional Transit System: Return on Investment Assessment,” which outlines the beneficial direct and indirect impacts of good regional transit, from the standpoint of return on investment. The Itasca Project consists primarily of CEOs, public-sector leaders, and leaders of major local foundations. Like the two reports just cited, Itasca’s puts the Central Corridor LRT in a bad light but makes no direct comment. Nor has Itasca co-chair Charlie Zelle spoken out on the matter since his appointment as Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation.

To Solve this Mystery

The Legislative Auditor’s report appends letters responding with comments and objections from other agencies. One came from the Metropolitan Council, signed by the current chair, Susan Haigh, who—as we saw above—bore significant responsibility for choice of the University Avenue route in her previous role as Ramsey Regional Rail Authority commissioner. Another came from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, signed by its chair, Green Line enthusiast Peter McLaughlin. It agrees that the Metropolitan Council needs to be restructured, but expresses concern about the nine principles for effective transit governance:

“No discussion is given to whether these principles, which make sense from an administrative and policy standpoint, are achievable in the current political context.”[30]

Sadly, it’s quite clear that no public (and few private) officials will admit that a huge and very foolish mistake was made by choosing University Avenue for a surface LRT route. In the land of Minnesota Nice, no one’s guilty if no one will recognize the crime. But some of us who can only fret on the sidelines see that mistake very clearly.[31] As Sheldon Gitlis said in a letter of November 2009, to the Minnesota Daily,

“Connecting the two downtowns, the University of Minnesota, the State Capitol complex and the Midway area with rapid transit makes sense. An 11-mile 45-minute route, placing 265,000 pound trains designed to go 70 mph in the middle of the street is ludicrous.”[32]

The emperor has no clothes! How can we develop a fine transit system if officials don’t recognize such obvious errors? Long ago, Boston recognized the deficiencies of its compromised early urban rail lines and wisely built for the future by installing tunneled heavy rail.

And that raises a related issue, one that transit decision-makers here seem incapable of grasping and promoting, the need for tunnels in areas of dense development and street grids. Much of the ground beneath the Twin Cities consists of sand and sandstone, with underlying limestone. Soft material with a good foundation. Should be easy to tunnel, to achieve truly rapid transit. Why can’t we, when Atlanta tunneled through solid granite?

Heart of the Mystery: Not Who Dunnit, but Who Can Do It

Commissioner McLaughlin points to the current political context as a conundrum. The still unreformed Metropolitan Council doesn’t do the job. In order to create a good metropolitan transit network, do we need some kind of a larger than life public works czar, like New York’s Robert Moses (with all the associated problems)? Other regions seem to succeed fairly well without one. Must we have a governor of the stature of Floyd Olson or Harold Stassen to do the job? A pair of really strong, far-sighted mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul might fill the bill, but Coleman has failed with the Central Corridor’s primary issue of transit, and Minneapolis’ recently-elected Betsy Hodges struggles with her depressing inheritance of the Southwest Corridor, a $1.68 billion project vexed by secondary issues and uncertain transit effectiveness.

Without strong leaders who perceive and understand issues, forthrightly admit errors, and wisely advocate better ways, the general public has a problem. Lesser leaders will go from office, vanish from the arena, unmissed. Unlike Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, their hearts will not burn to truthfully tell their “ghastly tale.” No, the public will bear the albatrosses.

And a big one is the Green Line’s thwarted LRT, the little train that can’t.

Notes & Sources

[1] A Good King of the Metro might have celebrated the millennium by decreeing that tunneled heavy rail go beneath University Avenue to provide good transit between Minneapolis and St. Paul for at least 100 years!

[2] David Markle, appendix of letter to David Warner, Federal Transit Authority Region V, Chicago, September 5, 2008.

[3] Metropolitan Council, “Project Facts,” May 23, 2008.

[4] “Midday,” Minnesota Public Radio, May 27, 2008.

[5] Mayor Christopher B. Coleman, letter to David Markle, September 15, 2009.

[6] “Midday,” Minnesota Public Radio, January 6, 2006.

[7] 1999 Annual Report of the Saint Paul Planning Commission, Department of Planning and Economic Development, St. Paul, p. 2.

[8] Laurie Fritz, President, Midway Chamber of Commerce, telephone conversation with David Markle, November 20, 2009.

[9] The study expects “infill along the length of the route” but “no where else will redevelopment be as intensive as near the stations.” In effect, the “short and intensive study” argues for dropping transit speed as a consideration in the $1-billion project, to try to promote development around intersections of University Avenue at Raymond, Fairview, Snelling, Lexington and Dale.   The remaining St. Paul stations include only those downtown, near the Capitol, and one near the Minneapolis city line. Soo Line/I-94 had been considered the most beneficial for downtown development. As noted previously, stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western were only added under pressure from groups advocating for residents, and were not included in the application.

[10] Edward Goetz, “Understanding the Impacts of Transitways – The Hiawatha Line: Impacts on Land Use and Residential Housing Value,” Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota, 2009. This is a research brief from an ongoing study begun in 2007, “The Economic Impacts of Transitways.”

[11] Tom Stransky, telephone conversation with David Markle, November 10, 2009.

[12] Dave Orrick, “University businesses balk at rail amenities,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 11, 1009, p. 1B.

[13] Minutes of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority Meeting, November 16, 1999.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Council File #99-1164, Green Sheet #104491.

[16] Summary Minutes of the Saint Paul City Council, Wednesday, December 8, 1999 – 3:30 – 5:00 P.M.

[17] Ibid. Councilmember Mike Harris also voted nay.

[18] Jerry Blakey, telephone conversation with David Markle, December 14, 2009.

[19] Central Corridor Memorandum, Kathryn DeSpiegelaere and Steve Morris (RCRRA staff members) to Central Corridor Coordinating Committee Members, July 30, 2001.

[20] Chris Havens, “Central Corridor isn’t just about moving people,” Star Tribune, March 14, 2010, p. B1.

[21] Goetz, op. cit.

[22] The value of new streetcar lines has also come into question, as in a study by Florida State University Professor Jeff Brown, who looked at examples in Portland, Seattle, Memphis, Little Rock and Tampa. See Marlys Harris, “Add streetcars? Demolish decrepit buildings? Not too fast …” in MinnPost, May 20, 2014,

[23] Xinyu (Jason) Cao and Dean Porter, “Real Estate Development in Anticipation of the Green Line Light Rail Transit in St. Paul,” Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, May 2014.

[24] Jane McClure, “All aboard: St. Paul allows controversial maintenance facility in Lowertown,” Villager, March 25, 2009, p. 4.

[25] “Midday,” Minnesota Public Radio, January 6, 2006.

[26] Laura Yuen, “Central Corridor finds an ally in Washington,” Minnesota Public Radio News Q, March 12, 2010.

[27] Deven M. Nelson, told to David Markle, March 2010.

[28] Chris Havens, “St. Paul gears up for rail work,” Star Tribune, March 11, 2010, p. B3.

[29] Office of the Legislative Auditor, State of Minnesota, “Evaluation Report: Governance of Transit in the Twin Cities Region,” January, 2011, p. 30.

[30] Counties Transit Improvement Board by its chair, Peter McLaughlin, letter to James Nobles, Office of the Legislative Auditor, January 13, 2011, p. 5.

[31] I personally leafleted everyone in the State Legislature during two sessions and spoke with many at the Capitol, to no avail; only those who simply opposed transit expressed any concern. The letters, written critiques and objections I sent to elected officials got no response at all, except for a pro-forma generic reply from Congressman Keith Ellison concerning federal transportation policy. Analyses sent by certified mail in September, 2008, and March, 2010, to the regional office of FTA and USDOT, respectively, went unanswered. A subsequent detailed complaint to the Inspector General of the FTA obviously achieved nothing.

[32] Sheldon Gitlis, “Central Corridor light rail a classic con,” Minnesota Daily, November 18, 2009, p. 7.

City of St. Paul’s Cited LRT Examples

Data as available from the various transit authorities; all recent, but for Twin Cities buses, the No. 50, 16 and I-94 bus line figures are pre-Green Line. The No. 50/16 bus route was 10.23 mi. eastbound, 10.67 westbound; No. 50 had 30 stops eastbound, 33 westbound. The smaller No 50 trips/week day figure is downtown to downtown, the larger is all trips including downtown to University environs. All the Metro Transit ridership figures date from April, 2014 for both rail and bus.

LRT Comparison TableLength (miles)StationsTransit Time one-way runStations Per Mile [1]Average Speed (mph)Trips (weekday, each dir.)Weekday Ridership
Dallas DART
Blue Line28.821660.6926.2128 - 3 [2]22,500 unlinked
Green Line28.724750.823114 - 28 [2]25,100
Orange Line36.228840.7525.949 - 92 [2]20,700
Red Line27.725650.8725.6122 - 11 [2]28,600
Portland MAX
Blue Line32.546991.3819.748861,630
Green Line14.322481.4717.928221.18
Red Line232462122.327621,450
Yellow Line [3]7.717352.0813.229216,250
Portland Streetcar
North-South Loop85070 (+ break)6.126.917,000
Central Loop9.347844.956.65,500
Salt Lake City TRAX
Green Line1518461.1319.6140Combined lines
Red Line2425112414059,835
Blue Line1924521.2121.9140
Buffalo Metro Rail [4]6.216222.4216.911622,500
Gold Line22.431591.3422.813521,225
Blue Line1625481.52013523,950
Green Line2.110114.2911.560335 [5]
San Diego Trolley (LRT)
Blue Line18.823751.171520947,400
Orange Line20.723531.0623.414831,171
Green Line19.318670.8817.315237.461
Twin Cities
Blue Line12.319401.4618.523030,585
Blue Line outside downtown11.315301.2422.6
Green Line112348213.8132
No. 16 Bus10.4569456.5113.921814,348
No. 50 Bus10.4531.5402.9215.778-1265,470


David Markle

About David Markle

David Markle, a native Minnesotan, has spent most of his life in Minneapolis, aside from a year in Boston, and several years in Europe courtesy of the US Army, where he enjoyed the subterranean Parisian and London heavy rail and the streetcars of Nuremberg and Copenhagen. He does acoustical design and writes.