Lileks: Back to the future: Light-rail woes

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2014 - 8:33 PM

– The Southwest Corridor light-rail line was opened for riders today, decades after it was first proposed.

The tortuous path to completion was a long and twisted tale, which we will now recap to remind riders of the obstacles the line faced. Records of the era are spotty, due to the great solar flare of 2027 which wiped out most digital files, so we have to reconstruct events as best as we can.

Some of this is from the reborn print edition of the Star Tribune; some consists of scripts used by town criers who disseminated the news until the Internet was rebuilt.

As far as we can piece it together, the line was born in controversy; at first, people balked at the price tag, but were assured the money would come mostly from somewhere else, possible in the form of large bags of cash raining from the sky. The opposition coalesced around two objections:

The Train will pass through my neighborhood.

The Train will not pass through my neighborhood.

The first group was worried about noise; studies showed that 87% of the neighborhood dogs would hear the bell and rush to the window and bark like idiots, and a sizable percentage of children would mistake the prerecorded train bell as the ice cream truck and run outside with money in hand, only to find an enormous piece of fixed-rail transportation infrastructure.

Backers of the train noted that the trains could be covered with illustrations that made them look like enormous squirrels, terrifying the dogs into silence, and that children would eventually be instructed by continued, crushing disappointment.

At this point the story gets murky — there was talk of putting the train on some tracks used by freight, and moving the freight trains elsewhere; one proposal put the freight lines through Kenwood, and required a suspension bridge across the Lake of the Isles.

This was opposed by residents, one of whom told the City Council:

“I’m just a colorful old cliché who don’t want change, but it’s quiet enough here at night to hear a titmouse toot, and that’s the way we like it.”

Stiff opposition led to new plans, and eventually the Met Council proposed turning the freight line into a mass-transit system, with passengers treated to “an exciting authentic hobo experience” of huddling in cars and singing Woody Guthrie tunes, but this lacked the panache of a new idea: tunnels.

In April of 2014 or 2015 — again, records are incomplete — the Met Council proposed putting a tunnel under a body of water, a clear sign that previous proposals simply had not cost enough money or presented sufficient engineering challenges.

In this plan, the train would descend under the estuary that linked the Lake of the Isles and Calhoun, emerge on the beach, hook up with the old streetcar line that ran to Harriet, then enter another tunnel that would go for as many miles as it took before the Federal Government realized what they were up to, at which point it would go back up street grade.

We can deduce from these records that getting light rail to the Uptown area was intended to revive a part of town no one visited, or avoided for lack of roads.

The entire line seemed in jeopardy when the City Council rejected tunnels completely, and proposed putting the tracks 75 feet in the air, with the supporting pylons disguised as trees. The plan was paused for a year while studies were made on the effect on birds, and whether they would confuse girders for appropriate nesting locations, and the deleterious effects of light-rail vibration on eggshell formation.

During this period the suburban cities that would be served by the line built out their own system of buses and streetcars, all with Wi-Fi and coffee bars, powered by zero-emission HyperDrive maglev repellent systems that allowed them to float, thus negating any impact on the roads or the need for rails.

By 2030 the plans were complete: the line would follow a corridor from downtown to Eden Prairie — a six-block-wide path carved through the cities by the Tornado of ’29. Construction began, and the North Side of the Metro was informed that they would get light-rail too, as soon as they were lucky enough to be devastated by a remorseless twister.

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