The Central Corridor light rail line linking the downtowns of the Twin Cities will greatly benefit anyone and anything lucky enough to be located near the tracks – with improved access, increased commercial traffic and sharply higher property values.
So why is all the controversy and litigation holding up construction of the project focused on the alleged detriments of 21st century transit for its neighbors? The University of Minnesota, Minnesota Public Radio and residents and businesspeople along University Avenue in St. Paul are seeking compensation from taxpayers for mechanical and economic harm they say light rail will inflict on them.
These claims are arguable at best, especially considering that the plaintiffs have already won millions of dollars worth of concessions over train vibrations and station access.
But in a sane transit development process, the roles of the disputants would actually be reversed. At least part of the significant taxpayer investment in light-rail infrastructure would be reimbursed by those who reap the most from it. Instead of the U of M demanding $25,000 daily penalties if sensitive laboratory equipment is compromised by light-rail operations, we would be discussing how the university and other property interests along the line pay their fair share of the project’s near-$1 billion cost.
The U’s own Center for Transportation Studies, in a report to the Minnesota Legislature last year, outlined various ways this can be done: tax increment financing, development impact fees, transportation utility fees and several kinds of public-private partnerships – for example, a real estate developer paying to build a transit station in exchange for zoning upgrades. What’s missing is much movement by transit agencies such as the Metropolitan Council to implement these ideas.
Still, it’s not too late to start, even with the long-planned Central Corridor, said Elwyn Tinklenberg, former state transportation commissioner. “The Met Council must lead in engaging the private sector as a funding partner,” he said.
The time for action could hardly be more propitious, given the shift of federal transit funding rules away from a Bush Administration focus on projected ridership and travel-time savings to a broader recognition of how the right infrastructure can promote efficient, livable development.
“We’re investing in reshaping the future with projects like light rail, just as we shaped the suburban future decades ago by building the freeway ring,” Tinklenberg said. “Every transportation investment is a kind of social engineering. There would be no reason to spend the kind of money we do if it was just about moving people today.”
To prove the point, another Center for Transportation Studies report, released in February, found that homes and apartments within a half-mile of Hiawatha light rail stations in Minneapolis increased in value by $47 million after the line opened, appreciating about 20 percent faster than comparable properties further away. Light rail also boosted nearby residential construction by 183 percent above rates in the larger south Minneapolis area, the study noted. “It is likely that greater land use changes may occur in the future” as development rebounds from the recession and the city completes planning and rezoning of more station areas, the report said.
Like other light-rail lines built around the country under the Bush rules, the Hiawatha has far outstripped its ridership projections, leading to overcrowded trains and calls for new investments in more rail cars and longer station platforms.
Little private money has gone into the Hiawatha, despite its financial windfall for adjacent landowners. Some city and state officials, however, are looking to correct that oversight as development proceeds on a streetcar plan approved by the Minneapolis City Council. Six trolley lines are envisioned over the next 30 years, radiating from downtown and along the Midtown Greenway on the South Side.
Each one is projected to cost $75 million to $100 million. That’s a lot cheaper than light rail, but still a significant bite on the public purse. With the help of Washington’s new development-oriented approach to transit plus tax-increment financing changes under consideration in the Minnesota Legislature, it could turn into a real bargain.