The last several months have painted a grim picture for construction of the Central Corridor light rail line beginning this summer as previously thought. Two lawsuits — one filed by the University of Minnesota in September 2009, and another just filed by Rondo neighborhood in January — might result in a stalemate.
These lawsuits will definitely be resolved at some point, but any delay in the project results in an increase for materials and construction. Sadly, what both the U of M and the Rondo neighborhood don’t seem to understand very well is the deadline imposed on the Metropolitan Council by the Federal Transportation Administration. If the mess isn’t resolved by late February with a Memorandum of Understanding from both parties, then the whole process will have to wait another year and risk funding competition from other projects nationwide, thereby putting the project’s existence at stake.
The right question to ask is not why should we build the Central Corridor, but what will it do for the Twin Cities? The answer is multi-fold: it will bring development, decrease traffic congestion, create new jobs, bring private investment, remake University Avenue into a more pedestrian-friendly street, and increase transit use by traditional auto-users. The argument for the corridor is not an argument of trains vs. buses vs. cars, but an argument of what the train will provide. For instance, publictransportation.org states that for every $1 invested in public transportation, $4 is generated in economic returns. Benefits like these are foolish to ignore.
The beauty that density provides along the University Avenue corridor is that individual travelers can choose the best mode for each trip, which is not possible in automobile-dependent communities. Transit-competitive trips, that is, trips where transit can compete with auto trips, is where transit, and most specifically rail transit is needed. People won’t use the Central Corridor just from getting downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis, but from downtown St. Paul to the airport, from the University of Minnesota to the Mall of America, and between many other places. Not linking the densest parts of the state by rail transit would be foolish and would not be tolerated in other parts of the world.
Fixed-guideway transit such as light rail spurs development and captures more riders than buses. Rail transit tends to provide better service quality that attracts more riders, particularly discretionary users. For example, a free bus line to downtown Tacoma, Washington attracted less than 500 daily riders, but when it was replaced with a light rail line, ridership increased to more than 2,400 a day. Here in the Twin Cities, 62 percent of Hiawatha Line riders are choice riders, whereas 52 percent of bus ridership comes primarily from captive riders – riders who have no other choice.
Attracting more people to transit is one of the things that the Central Corridor light rail line will accomplish if it is built.
There is good news that might make it possible to start construction this summer. On January 13, 2010 U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced new guidelines for transit projects to based on livability issues such as economic development and environmental benefits, in addition to ridership and trip times. “Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” LaHood said. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”
It’s time for both the U of M and the Rondo neighborhood to work out their differences with the Met Council so that the Central Corridor can break ground this summer. It is said that change is inevitable; thus, with a little work, both the University and St. Paul’s Rondo neighborhood can benefit tremendously, if they evolve and embrace the changes about to come their way.