The Long Road to Light Rail in the Twin Cities

From the first expression of interest to the actual hauling of passengers, the gestation period for light rail transit in Minneapolis/Saint Paul turned out to be 44 years. When the Twin Cities Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) was created in 1967, the prevailing vision for rail transit was what we now call “heavy rail”, completely grade separated subway and elevated trains. Although historically the model was the New York Subway or the Chicago L, new systems under design in the San Francisco Bay Area and Washington DC were updating the concept with computer controlled trains and a higher level of passenger amenities.

The discussion of rail transit began in earnest after the purchase of the privately owned Twin City Rapid Transit bus system in 1970. MTC wanted to build rail and began making plans. However, the Metropolitan Council opposed heavy rail, arguing that the Twin Cities lacked the density to support it. Thus began a turf battle for control of long-range transit decision making. All through the 1970s the Met Council and MTC fought each other to a standstill. Numerous studies were undertaken, none resulting in any construction.

Automated People Movers

During the 1970s rail planning was temporarily diverted by the sideshow of automated people movers. Although they would become a staple of airports and other short distance applications with simple route structures, proponents foresaw something much more ambitious. Everyone was watching a demonstration project in Morgantown, West Virginia, where small, automated vehicles could be programmed to go directly from one station to another without intermediate stops, and there were routing options.

In the Twin Cities the concept was dubbed Personal Rapid Transit, or PRT, and was promoted with messianic zeal by a University of Minnesota engineering professor named J. Edward Anderson. He argued for small four-person vehicles on elevated guideways that would largely duplicate the arterial street system. The vehicles would choose the most direct path through the network and conventional stop-and-start rail transit would become obsolete. A small local test track was even built. Nothing came of it, but it further stalled rail transit.

In a similar vein, the City of Saint Paul competed for and won a federal grant for a Downtown People Mover, roughly one mile of elevated guideway from downtown to the state capitol. Anticipating it, the Town Square development at 7th and Cedar was built with a diagonal slot between its two towers for a people mover station.

The project would have been extremely expensive on a per-mile basis. Labeling it a boondoggle, a Saint Paul newspaper columnist asked his readers to suggest alternate ways to use the same amount to transport people up to the capitol. One reader proposed a fleet of Rolls Royces, another two 747s taxing up and down the hill. A local referendum killed the project in 1980. It was built in downtown Detroit instead, where it runs today.

The indecisive legislature

By 1980 it was clear that no heavy rail system was ever going to be built, despite the 1976 opening of Washington’s Metro and Atlanta’s subway in 1979. However, modern light rail on the European model crossed the Atlantic and appeared in Edmonton in 1981. North America transit planners soon pivoted to LRT, attracted by its greater flexibility and much lower construction cost.

The MTC proposed doing an LRT study in 1979, but the Met Council prevented it. That same year the City of Minneapolis and Minnesota DOT jointly studied light rail in the Hiawatha Corridor, where citizen opposition had recently stopped a freeway from being built.

Over the Met Council’s objections, the state legislature in 1980 directed them to study light rail. When the study was completed two years later, the Met Council changed its regional policy plan to remove the prohibition on fixed-guideway transit. Meanwhile, Calgary and San Diego had opened light rail lines. Clearly a shift was underway.

The ongoing feud between MTC and the Met Council landed in the state legislature’s lap, and resulted in the worst possible attempt at a fix. In 1984 the legislature created a third agency, the Regional Transit Board, as a buffer between the two. That was one bad decision, followed by another in 1985, a law banning any expenditure of public funds on light rail. Ever fickle, the legislature again reversed itself and removed the LRT ban in 1987. By then Buffalo, Portland and San Jose had opened.

Unwittingly, the legislature about this time created the tool that would eventually get light rail funded through the back door, the county rail authorities. The 70s and 80s saw the abandonment of most of the state’s rural railroad branch lines and the rail authorities were the mechanism created to rail bank them. What no one foresaw was that the Twin Cities metro area counties would preserve abandoned rights of way for light rail, especially Hennepin County.

The rail authorities began doing light rail studies on their own, and the legislature directed the Regional Transit Board to do the same. Now there were too many cooks, so the legislature created a Light Rail Joint Powers Board in an attempt at coordination.

The RTB was not known for competence. In 1994 it expired in highly publicized fashion following the disastrous rollout of new dial-a-ride software during which the RTB staff left town for a conference in New Orleans. This service meltdown caused the legislature to abolish the RTB in 1995 and shift its powers to the Metropolitan Council. In the process it folded MTC into the Council. Meanwhile LRT lines opened in Los Angeles, Baltimore, St. Louis and Denver.

A word about the organization’s name—the Metropolitan Transit Commission was always abbreviated to MTC, which cynics derided as Empty Seats. When it was folded into the Met Council, it was renamed Metropolitan Council Transit Operations (MCTO). This was just different enough to be confusing. Incoming General Manager Art Leahy decided that a rebranding was needed and that led to the name Metro Transit, which seemed like a better idea to everyone.

The 1990s ticked on, and it seemed light rail was going nowhere for lack of political consensus and funding. The Met Council had given up on it. This writer was a Metro Transit planner and was assigned to work with MnDOT engineers to design a Hiawatha busway that would be convertible to rail if the unlikely ever happened.

In 1998 the unlikely did happen. Doing an end run around the Met Council, Hennepin County Commissioner and Rail Authority chairman Peter McLaughlin and Congressman Martin Sabo secured federal and local funding for a Hiawatha light rail line. Recently elected Governor Jesse Ventura (yes, Jesse Ventura) played hardball with the legislature to secure the state funding and suddenly, against all odds, the Hiawatha busway planning turned into LRT. Before it could be completed, the Salt Lake City and Hudson-Bergen (New Jersey) lines opened. The Twin Cities arrived late to the LRT party.

Aaron Isaacs

About Aaron Isaacs

Aaron retired in 2006 after 33 years as a planner and manager for Metro Transit, where he worked in route and schedule planning, operations, maintenance, transit facilities, light rail and traffic advantages for buses. He's an historian of transit, as a 40+ year volunteer with the Minnesota Streetcar Museum. He's co-author of Twin Cities by Trolley, The Streetcar Era in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and author of Twin Ports by Trolley on Duluth-Superior.