Debbie Gibson bundles up her three small children to protect their little faces from the frigid cold as they wait to catch the #21 bus in Saint Paul. They then take the long bus ride to connect with the Hiawatha light-rail station to attend a job-training program in Minneapolis. It is a time-consuming process most people would avoid if given the opportunity. Gibson, however, doesn’t have that luxury. As a single mother of four children, three under school age, Gibson is “transit dependent.”
The proposed Central Corridor LRT project running from Saint Paul to Minneapolis could make travel for Gibson easier—if the Metropolitan Council adds a stop at University and Victoria, the closest major intersection to her home. Without a Victoria stop, she and her children would need to walk six blocks to catch the train. “I’ll do it,” she said, “I’ll have no choice.”
Dennis Presley Sr., 58, recalled the last major transportation project in this area. In the 1960s, Presley watched Interstate 94 slice through the heart of the Rondo neighborhood. The construction decimated Saint Paul’s vibrant, tight-knit, African American community. He saw many of the businesses shut down and families, including his own, displaced. Presley believes approving the current light-rail proposal will result in the same devastation and lead to the disenfranchisement of people of color again. “Will the light rail do that again to our neighborhood? I think so, no matter what our government says. I’m not happy with this at all.”
At a January 28 community meeting at Camphor United Methodist Church, Gibson, Presley and others voiced their concerns regarding the proposed Central Corridor LRT project. Veronica Burt of Just Equity and Central Corridor Equity Coalition organized the meeting, stating that the high number of transit-dependent riders in the area makes this an “environmental justice” issue. According to Burt, “federally funded projects must take into effect adverse impacts on minorities.”
With the Met Council preparing to make its final decision regarding the Central Corridor LRT plan by February 27, 2008, Burt knows community involvement now is imperative.
She is part of a team of community organizations frantically working to keep two major issues to the forefront.
First, they are fighting to add light-rail stops at Western, Victoria and Hamline Avenues. These three stops along, with the already-approved stops on University, would make the distance between stops a maximum half mile apart, which is on par with the other residential areas along the route. Advocates of this alternative plan can justify the additional stops. The Frogtown and Midway neighborhoods have a high concentration of low-income residents who are dependent on public transportation. “It should benefit not just freeway drivers but also those who are transit-dependent,” Burt said.
Reports from the Met Council indicate it would cost an extra $5.5 million for each additional stop. They believe the extra stops will not increase ridership, but will only shift riders away from the other nearby stops. Also, the additional 30 seconds needed at each stop to board riders would actually deter some people from using the light-rail. For a project that is already over budget, Met Council research indicates adding stops is not cost effective.
Burt disagrees. Considering the extra $250 million for a tunnel at the University of Minnesota and another $30 to $50 million for additional track to Union Depot, Burt sees the request for three more stops on University as minor. “It’s about fair share of the light-rail, regardless of cost.”
The second pressing issue is convincing the Met Council to maintain the current frequency of bus #16 once the light-rail is operating. This concerns many community leaders because the #16, averaging 380,000 rides per month, has the second highest number of riders in the Metro Transit system. Considered the lifeline of the community, the #16 bus currently travels along University Avenue every ten minutes during peak times. Once the light-rail is functioning, the wait time will be 20 minutes during peak times; 30 minutes for non-peak times. Met Council’s rationale for reducing the service is they believe many riders currently using the #16 will opt for the train.
Met Council Representative Kirsten Beach, who attended the meeting, was sympathetic to the concerns of the residents. As a long-time transit user living within the Central Corridor area, she recognizes frequent, reliable public transportation on University Avenue is vital. Beach intends to relay the concerns shared at the meeting to the full council. “The majority of Met Council are suburban dwellers,” she said.
She stressed however, that the most effective way to guarantee that the Met Council will listen to their concerns is to attend one of the three listening sessions currently scheduled. At each listening session, Metropolitan Council members will be present to hear from any person wanting to express their feelings regarding the plan.
However, with two listening meetings scheduled in Minneapolis and the third in downtown Saint Paul, Burt questions Met Council’s sincerity in listening to the voices of people like Gibson and Presley. According to Beach, the council is looking at adding another meeting site along University Avenue.
In case that does not happen, Burt recognizes a large turnout to the listening meeting is essential and therefore is arranging carpool rides for the February 11 meeting at the Metropolitan Council Chambers in Saint Paul. Her goal is not to derail the project but to make sure it is fair to all. “How can this be a win/win for everyone? Right now it is a win for some and a loss for others.”
For details regarding carpooling or additional meetings, contact Veronica Burt at 651-222-0399.
Deb Pleasants worked as a probation officer for 15 years prior to becoming a stay-at-home-mom. In addition to caring for her son, she is a freelance writer and citizen journalist. She resides in St. Paul with her family.