Central Corridor Line faces stiff opposition in St. Paul

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Government and city supporters of the proposed Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Line linking the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns are optimistic that the new mode of transportation will bring economic growth to University Avenue, the thoroughfare that will support the new transit line.

But the people who live in the St. Paul neighborhoods along University Avenue, particularly those in Frogtown and the historic African American Rondo community, would like the train to travel elsewhere.

The Metropolitan Council co-hosted a recent community meeting on June 18 in St. Paul — one of many public meetings — to hear what the citizens have to say about the proposed line. Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell provided a brief update on the project at the meeting and defended the Met Council’s positive position on the proposal.

He faced many challenging interrogations from a group of small business owners and community residents who want their neighborhood to be left alone. Nobody liked the idea of the proposed line — at least if they did, they didn’t speak up.

“We’re not getting a dime from this project!” exclaimed an outraged community resident in attendance. “It doesn’t put any meat on the table for us.”

“How could you ethically move forward with this project knowing we’re so against it?” asked another attendee.

And, “We need a commitment, a monetary commitment, that shows you are doing this to benefit us,” insisted another neighborhood citizen.

Bell assured residents that the Met Council is working with businesses by assigning outreach coordinators to talk with each business owner about their needs and help them through the challenging construction phase. These outreach efforts are being conducted in the form of public meetings, business surveys, and one-on-one meetings with business managers.

Planning for the rail line started as early as 2001, long before gas prices hiked to their current record levels. Even before the influence of high fuel prices, participation in mass transit was becoming more popular as more Minnesotans started hopping on trains and busses for their daily commute rather than sitting in traffic.

Weekday ridership for the Central Corridor line is projected to serve 38,100 riders by 2020 and 43,300 riders by 2030.

The $909 million project won’t be ready for riders until 2014, with construction to begin in a couple of years. This is the largest public works project in the history of Minnesota, with resources required from local, state and federal levels to secure the necessary funding.

The 11-mile stretch of tracks will connect Minneapolis with St. Paul, traveling via University and Washington Avenues. It will wind through the State Capitol Complex, Midway area and University of Minnesota. These areas contain almost 280,000 jobs, and by 2030 are projected to house 345,000 workers.

“The days are gone when people said the Twin Cities have fallen behind the rest of the nation when it comes to mass transit,” said Bell. “When it opens, we will have more transit service than any other corridor in the state of Minnesota.”

The train will stop 15 times as it journeys between St. Paul and Minneapolis. But, in an area where more than 40 percent of the population doesn’t own cars and depends on bikes and physical ability to get to bus stations, a light-rail stop every mile or so isn’t enough, according to neighbors.

In response to this issue, the Met Council has proposed including the infrastructure of three additional stops during construction. If enough funding is allocated, the extra stops will be added.

Minority business owners are especially concerned that their businesses will not be able to withstand the loss of customers during and after the construction process. Parking spaces will be lost to make room for the rail line on University Avenue. Snow removal will be challenging; there will be less room for the snow at the curbside, since lanes for traffic and a lane for the train will have to be accommodated.

Additionally, many citizens are concerned about the safety issues and sound disruption the light rail train may add to the neighborhood’s discomfort level.

“We take these concerns very seriously,” noted Bell. “I’m aware of what they are. We’re looking at other parts of the country to see how this can be addressed. That’s not to say there won’t be any business interruption, because there will be. But, it is our responsibility to minimize that in every way possible.”

Even aside from all of the physical changes that will take some honing by engineers to get just right, there is an obvious emotional loss that the people along University Avenue are already feeling. “This line isn’t being built for us,” said Veronica Burt, a local cultural organizer who works with the community to bring awareness about changes in the neighborhood.

“It will drive us out of the area,” Burt said. “Second and third minority and immigrant generations are still here because it’s one of the few affordable places to live in the area. Don’t sacrifice us for the sake of the region.”

While preparations for the Central Corridor route are already well underway, federal funding for the project has yet to be formally approved. Construction planning remains in the preliminary phase, allowing opportunities to still influence government and civic leaders, as urged by Burt.

For updated information on the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit plan, visit www.centralcorridor.org. There is also a link available at this site that shows upcoming community meetings. Direct questions and comments to the Central Corridor Public Question & Comment Line, 651-602-1645.

Felicia Shultz welcomes reader responses to fjubratic@comcast.net.