Q&A | Joan Vanhala on community engagement with LRT development


Joan Vanhala has been with the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability for five years — a Twin Cities coalition that focuses on racial, economic and environmental justice issues. Their work varies from closing the digital divide in Minneapolis, to organizing conversations on affordable housing.

Vanhala’s work has revolved mostly around equity and environmental issues surrounding light rail transit ways. She worked on the Stops for Us campaign, which secured three additional stations on the Central Corridor LRT at Hamline, Victoria and Western. On the Southwest LRT, also known as the green line extension, Vanhala has been working with different community groups to make sure the communities know about the project, are connected with the planning and decision making, and understand how such large projects operate, so they can secure desired benefits while investment and planning is still being discussed.

We spoke with Vanhala about her work on the green line extension, which will travel from downtown Minneapolis all the way to Eden Prairie, and about how communities can better prepare and engage in the developmental and decision making process as the state plans for additional LRT lines. [The transcript of this interview has been edited for length.]

Nieeta Presley, executive director of the Aurora Saint Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation and Joan Vanhala. The ASANDC was part of the Stops for Us campaign.

How is the green line extension coming along?

The Southwest light rail transit… is currently entering into the preliminary engineering phase… They’ve just published their draft environmental impact statement and are currently receiving public comment on that. That project, I believe, will begin construction in 2018. (According to the Southwest LRT website, depending on federal and local funding, they can only tentatively estimate operation by 2017.)

So someday, yes, you’ll be able to get on the LRT train out in Eden Prairie and ride all the way down to downtown St. Paul without a transfer, for the same cost as the bus fare, on a system that’s going to be running every seven to 10 minutes. That’s pretty exciting! Especially for suburban, low-income communities of color, who have very limited public transit access.

The LRT controversy was first over how the currently implemented Blue line would kill small business and areas with low-income families, and now the controversy seems to have spread to needing to get the new Bottineau line into areas with low income families. Just how complicated is this transit project turning out to be, and what are some key things the Alliance is doing to address it?

They are big complicated projects. So, how do communities manage the complexity of these? I think that’s a really good question. The first piece is really to gain a good understanding of what are the impacts, and what are the benefits, and what benefits are worth the impacts. So, I help people to understand the decision making process, which is really three-tiered: the environmental study, applications to the federal government, and then the land use planning.

I go out and help educate communities about how that all fits together, where their line is in the process, and make sure their community is getting organized and up to speed, and a base of leaders can interpret that information… and that they’re positioning themselves to be at the right place at the right time when important decisions are going down.

Do you have any tips for communities on how to better prepare for or how to better engage with these projects?

People are always welcome to call me, and I can connect them to many different resources. Not like I know all the answers, but I’m connected to a network of resources that can help communities. I really recommend that folks also reach out to Central Corridor community experts, because they’ve been all the way through the planning and now the construction… and can give lots of very good advice and experience and lessons learned.

My main advice is really, get involved. This is like a once in a lifetime opportunity for your community to influence [such large projects].

Are there any areas that seem to be a sort of model for how transit planning should be implemented within the community and how it’s being executed?

It’s never our role to prescribe to a community how they should organize, or what they should advocate for. It’s really our role in the community to educate them on the opportunities, assist them with the technical knowledge on how to influence the decision, and provide them with organizing support on how to make sure they win some community benefits.

I’ve organized a group called the Community Engagement Steering Committee, which is made of low-income communities, communities of color, leaders and staff of their organizations that meet once a month. And they’re throughout the region, they’re from all these corridors.

So, all these leaders and organizations come to a monthly meeting, and at that point they get an opportunity to share their work with each other, share their lessons learned, but they’re also formulating some recommendations for setting standards for community engagement for our entire region.

Also in the Daily Planet:

Connecting around equitable transit and safe, livable communities (Kristoffer Tigue, 2012)

Minorities moving to the suburbs: Alliance for Metropolitan Stability roundtable focuses on transportation, affordable housing and race (Kristoffer Tigue, 2012)