What's not to like about a billion-dollar investment in the heart of the metropolitan area? You'd be surprised. Apparently there's plenty to gripe about if you're a major beneficiary of the Central Corridor light-rail line. The old wisdom about not looking a gift horse in the mouth? Inoperable. Even the Obama administration's recent rule change aimed at helping the beleaguered project has only encouraged those bent on pecking it to death.
Start with the baffling lawsuit filed last week by a coalition from St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood. The largely African-American group is part of a broader alliance feeling slighted that the rail line had skipped over some black and Asian communities. They wanted additional stations at Victoria Street and Western and Hamline avenues and, thanks to the Obama rule change on transit livability, at least two of those stations are all but assured, enhancing the prospect for new investment and opportunity.
But now comes the Rondo suit complaining about, of all things, new investment and opportunity. Redevelopment, as it turns out, is actually bad because it prompts higher property values (and taxes) and might gentrify the district, forcing some people to move. In other words, light rail should be prevented from doing what it does best: add value to urban neighborhoods. More stations might be OK, according to the suit, but only if nearby residents and businesses are insulated from the ravages of prosperity. At least that's the drift of the argument.
The Rondo group claims that the Metropolitan Council, builder of the line, failed in its environmental impact statement to analyze the harm that redevelopment would surely bring. It notes that the council has busily negotiated financial remedies with other complainants (the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio) while ignoring poor and minority communities. The suit asks for no specific financial remedy, urging only that the project be halted and that financial redress be investigated.
To add emotion to its argument, the suit retells the story of Rondo's evisceration in the 1960s when hundreds of homes were taken down to make way for Interstate Hwy. 94. It portrays the Central Corridor line as a repeat offender. Light rail, in this sad narrative, becomes just another destroyer of the community fabric and a vehicle for the collection of reparations for the mistakes of 50 years ago.
This narrative is keenly felt but seriously misguided. It wasn't the freeway construction itself and the tearing down of homes that destroyed Rondo and hundreds of other urban neighborhoods across the country, both black and white. It was the fact that freeways made it easier for people to flee the cities and take their wealth, talent and jobs with them. That was the tragedy. Rail transit, by contrast, seeks to inject wealth, talent and jobs back into cities. It is the recompense. No neighborhoods are destroyed. Rather, housing, prosperity and racial and economic diversity are restored. What St. Paul and other cities need most is not the perpetuation of status quo poverty but new opportunity.
Will rents and property values rise with the arrival of light rail? We hope so. Will some people have to move? Probably. But that's the nature of cities. They are in constant flux. Rondo, as an African-American community, dates only to the 1930s. Taken to the extreme, redress for gentrification would halt nearly every ongoing urban transit project in the nation. And it would repudiate the promise President Obama made last week to end the isolation of depressed urban communities and encourage "smart development linked by quality public transportation."
Rather than threaten the central line, the Rondo group should redouble its efforts to get the St. Paul City Council and Legislature to ensure that affordable housing is included in the corridor and that temporary help for businesses disrupted by construction is established. The Met Council lacks the statutory authority to supply the remedies that the Rondo group seems to want; the council cannot control rents or lower property taxes near stations. (It has, however, allocated $1 million for affordable housing and met with neighborhood groups hundreds of times.)
The inner city has plenty of political enemies, but light rail isn't one of them. Time is running out for the Central Corridor line. Minnesota Public Radio is back in the fray with more complaints and more threats about noise and vibration. The U, the biggest single beneficiary of the line, is still haggling over vibration liability and the ridiculous claim that light rail threatens its core mission. If the project continues to falter and fails to make it into Obama's budget next month, and if Republicans capture Congress next year, as now seems likely, then it may be a very long time before trains roll on University Avenue.