Metropolitan Council President Peter Bell has a unique perspective on charges that the Central Corridor light-rail project is comparable to the construction of Interstate 94 more than 50 years ago.
About 650 families in St. Paul's historic Rondo neighborhood, most of them black, were displaced to make way for I-94. Bell lived in one of those houses, and he remembers his father explaining that the home needed a thorough cleaning to look its best for the appraisal.
So Bell empathizes with those who fear the Central Corridor line will have a similar impact on low-income residents and small-business owners along University Avenue. But his understanding extends only so far. Bell believes a civil rights complaint filed against the Met Council by the Preserve and Benefit Historic Rondo Committee is without merit. We think he's right.
The complaint to the Federal Transportation Administration (FTA) alleges that the Met Council has ignored the potential negative impact of the line on low-income residents and minority-owned businesses during and after construction. The complaint alleges that the light-rail line -- unlike I-94, which cut a physical path through Rondo -- will force out homeowners, renters and small-business owners because of rising property values. The committee believes the low-income residents and minority business owners who now live along the 11-mile line will be priced out of the expected economic development rather than benefit from it.
"We should be able to stick around for the boom and not have the boom blow us up,'' said Veronica Burt, the spokeswoman for the committee, which includes the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP, Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp. and the Community Stabilization Project. Burt also argues that the residents and business owners her group represents were excluded or ignored in the decadeslong planning process for Central Corridor -- a claim Bell persuasively denies.
The Met Council has met with more than 25,000 people at more than 1,100 public meetings since 2006. Council representatives have gone door-to-door to meet with business owners who will be disrupted by the construction. The council has responded by making specific changes to the project -- for example, by moving the Snelling Avenue station. Plans are in place to help businesses with parking and signage during construction.
And Bell makes a critical point when he argues that a high percentage of the residents and business owners along the corridor will benefit from the project if and when property values increase. In other words, not everyone will be priced out of the neighborhoods along the route. Many will prosper.
As part of its FTA complaint, the Rondo Committee alleges that the Met Council has gone to great lengths to address the concerns of nonminority institutions such as the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio, which each had a variety of objections to the project. But that argument ignores that neither the university nor MPR succeeded in getting what it asked from the council.
The well-intentioned members of the Rondo Committee are correct to worry about gentrification along University Avenue. In fact, they should continue to work with the Met Council and city of St. Paul on creating more affordable housing alternatives in the neighborhood. A recent $1 million grant from the council is a start.
In Bell, the Rondo Committee is dealing with a public official who understands the need for transit service and economic development that benefit low-income residents and minority businesses in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Committee members should continue to work with the council to quickly settle the FTA dispute and continue the detailed planning needed to ensure that the Central Corridor line delivers on that promise.