Civil rights complaint could derail Central LRT project


Will a recent discrimination complaint filed against the Metropolitan Council derail the Central Corridor Light Rail project?

The Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee (PBHRC), a group representing St. Paul residents and businesses, filed a civil rights complaint in June with the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), alleging that the Met Council has failed to analyze adverse effects the new light rail project might have on the communities of color on and near University Avenue.

“Our complaint has created an investigation” by the FTA, says PBHRC spokeswoman Veronica Burt.

The PBHRC further asserts that the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit (CCLRT) project will result in business interruption, displacement, gentrification, increased property taxes and neighborhood isolation. The potential effects of the project have been compared to those of the I-94 construction nearly 50 years ago, which ultimately divided and displaced the historic Rondo neighborhood and businesses.

However, according to Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell, such comparisons are unwarranted.

“To say a quarter-mile hole down the middle of the community, which took numerous houses and divided the community, is the same as tracks going down University Avenue, where no houses are going to be taken, and to make that comparison just doesn’t hold water,” he says, adding that his family was among those displaced by I-94.

The CCLRT project “is the largest public works project in the history of the state of Minnesota,” proclaims Bell. “It’s not going into Edina, Richfield, Eden Prairie or Lakeville. It’s coming into a low-income, minority community.”

The PBHRC complaint could have an effect on the project’s implementation; construction is scheduled to begin in 2010, believes Bell. “It could delay or derail the project, or have no effect on the project,” he surmises.

“Sometimes,” says Bell, “I get the sense that when they talk about I-94 going in, they want compensation of some sort — not dollars, but…they think the Central Corridor should pay for the sins of [Interstate] 94.”

Burt strongly disagrees with Bell’s assessment of the complaint’s impact: “We are not very sure about that. As far as we know, this is a smokescreen by the Met Council.”

Burt says the Met Council is not taking her group — or, for that matter, the community — as seriously as they did when they addressed and resolved problems raised by the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).

“We have been trying to get their critical attention for the past couple of years,” she claims, which prompted the civil rights complaint. “We have to enter into another level of conversations to see if maybe there can be some mutually agreeable outcomes.”

PBHRC did nothing different than what the U of M and MPR did when they voiced their concerns, Burt adds. “While the process got slowed, it still didn’t stop any show. So, we’re at a point, too, of trying to engage the Met Council in some real critical discussion. If that means that the project is slowing down to do that, so be it.”

However, Bell told the MSR last week, “I think that this notion of we don’t listen [to PBHRC] is not credible.”

On the contrary, he says, the Council has “listened” to PBHRC. “There is a long list of things that we have done to address some of their concerns,” including moving the Snelling Avenue station and several power substations. “We have made numerous other changes that they have requested, but sometimes people think if you don’t agree with them, you didn’t listen to them.”

Furthermore, Bell argues, “I don’t know if this group is speaking for a small segment of the community or the entire community.”

PBHRC “is a respectable collection of groups in this community that deals directly with neighborhood folk,” Burt reaffirmed, adding that her organization also includes the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP and the Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp.

Last month, both Twin Cities daily newspapers published editorials in response to PBHRC’s suit. “We believe it is important to move forward on time and on budget… Their [PBHRC’s] complaints should not prove to be a show-stopper,” said a June 10 St. Paul Pioneer Press editorial.

A June 12 Star Tribune editorial said that they agree with Bell, who considers the complaint without merit, but added that PBHRC should “continue to work with the Met Council” and settle the complaint.

Burt says she wasn’t surprised that both dailies came out in support of CCLRT, “but they diverted a lot of attention from the poor planning of the Met Council, especially on how it will impact our community and other low-income and minority communities within this corridor,” she adds.

“I think they are playing a dangerous game,” says Bell of PBHRC, adding that their actions ultimately could hurt the community in the long run. “A billion dollars that is going to be invested in a low-income, minority community doesn’t come along every day in this economic environment.”

Last week, the MSR also talked with several affected small business owners, residents and others on the CCLRT project.

Steve Smith, who has owned a barber shop, Phazez, on University Avenue for five years, says he doesn’t see the new train system as an economic boom for small businesses in the neighborhood. “People won’t be able to get off and get a haircut when they got to get off at Rice Street and come all the way down to Milton. So is that beneficial for me?”

Fellow barber Kelly Hall adds, “We go by walk-ins and by appointments. If the light rail construction is out there, how are we going to have any walk-ins? That is going to make it worse for us.

“[Also], a lot of people take the bus,” says Hall. “Why they want to take away the bus? That is going to mess a lot of things up for the people, and the businesses, too.”

Two patrons of “Johnny Babys” restaurant and bar on Chatsworth and University openly questioned how many jobs the CCLRT will provide for community residents.

“What the Met Council says, they ought to be backing it up,” says Eric Coleman.

“They are supposed to be representing the community, but they don’t.”

Adds Edward R. Burch, “My only concern is the inconvenience that it is going to cause the community. Will there be enough economic stimulus to balance the inconvenience that we will be going through during the construction of the light rail and the detouring of the buses, slowing down traffic and all that?”

Kelly Brown of St. Paul believes the CCLRT will increase the number of small businesses in the area. “We need [more variety of] businesses for the African American community besides just hair shops.”

The light rail project “can be a good employer” for the young Black men he works with, says Kirkland Johnson, Resource Employment Action Center’s Young Dads program director.

Joyce McGee-Brown, who works in the area, says the new light rail “probably would curb a lot of the transportation issues that the people in this neighborhood do have.”

“The Central Corridor light rail line will enhance the transit service that already exists in that corridor,” Bell concurs. “Additionally, it will likely provide a huge catalyst for economic development that has the potential to revitalize that part of the Twin Cities.”

But Burt insists that the issues PBHRC has raised with the Metropolitan Council must be resolved before the light rail project goes forward: “That’s where things stand at the moment.”

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