Central Corridor: Collaborative seeks benefits “beyond the rail”


I took a ride along the future Central Corridor Light Rail Line. (Can we get a new, Hiawatha-like and less colonic-sounding name, stat?) My guided bus tour was sponsored by the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative to highlight some of the big picture issues associated with the new line, scheduled for completion in 2014. Fittingly, it began in St. Paul’s Frogtown and ended at Prospect Park in Minneapolis, the neglected middle of the route linking the two downtowns.

In many ways, it’s the stretch with the most to gain or lose – where small businesses will thrive by reaching more customers or go under because their current customers get diverted by the construction; where residents will find it easier to get to jobs and other opportunities in the metro area or be driven out of their homes by higher rents; where the ethnic character of the area gets enhanced or scattered, just as happened when I-94 was built.

Growth and Justice is a progressive economic think tank committed to making Minnesota’s economy simultaneously more prosperous, fair, and environmentally sustainable.

The Funders Collaborative is a group of local and national funders exploring ways to promote planning and collaboration to ensure that adjoining neighborhoods, residents and businesses broadly share in the benefits of public and private investment along the Central Corridor Light Rail Line.

The Collaborative supports the building of the light rail line, but it recognizes these big public infrastructure projects get planned, funded and built with a focus on ridership and construction and operating costs. How the investment benefits the local businesses, surrounding neighborhoods, and the people who live, work and access opportunity along the line is a secondary consideration.

It’s not that small business success, affordable housing, and the quality of the places that grow up around transit lines are overlooked entirely. But the federal funding formulas that decide where transportation dollars go don’t weigh these issues with the same gravity – even though they are arguably far more important for the community over the long run. It also means the parties responsible for getting the line built – in this case, the Met Council – can’t get sidetracked by niceties or they risk losing the funding because a competing and more spartan project shows better numbers.

What happens next is predictable. Big institutions (MPR and U of M) get comparatively more attention to their needs, while poor neighborhoods are told to wait. Less powerful groups file lawsuits. Various advocates feel shut out of the process and compete with each other for scarce resources. And public officials who have tried to enlist broad participation tear their hair out.

Turning the Central Corridor into a place of opportunity – especially for the people who already live and work there – is a far more noble goal than getting more people to use transit. And most of the businesses, neighborhoods and public officials connected to the line would agree that’s the goal most worth pursuing.

But no single government entity is in charge of the big picture for the whole line. Coalition-building is not the way most residents want to spend their spare time. Community-led planning doesn’t rate many news stories. And nascent efforts by barely established groups don’t fit the way foundations traditionally give out grants.

Until the Funders Collaborative came along, no one had accepted the role of helping the promise of transit-oriented development happen on a comprehensive, corridor-wide scale. 

The rail line has yet to be built, and the efforts of the Funders Collaborative and its community partners have yet to spread the benefits “beyond the rail.” We won’t see the results for a decade or more, so today’s tour was hardly stop-the-presses news. But it’s a good start.

– Charlie Quimby has done some consulting with the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative