When light-rail trains begin picking up riders in St. Paul, the city will enter the realm of 21st-century transit using the basic technology it rode to prosperity more than 100 years ago: rails.
When light-rail trains begin picking up riders Saturday in St. Paul, the city will enter the realm of 21st-century transit using the basic technology it rode to prosperity more than 100 years ago: rails.
It’s hoping that a similar boom results, in ways both tangible and symbolic.
From the Union Depot, the newly renovated train palace overlooking the Mississippi, to the State Capitol and then along University Avenue — the ancient path of ox carts and streetcars — the Green Line is said to represent St. Paul’s best shot in years to turn around a stagnant downtown and revitalize what was once the Twin Cities’ busiest strip.
Of the $2.5 billion in investment that the Metropolitan Council credits in part to the 11-mile Green Line (7 miles of which is in St. Paul), $681 million is for current or planned projects in downtown St. Paul and $218 million is for projects in the Midway district from the city line to the Capitol.
Mayor Chris Coleman said downtown and University Avenue already look different: “The rapid change that we’ve already seen and the investment that’s already occurred, I think, has been pretty striking.” The Green Line is significant in other ways for St. Paul. The $957 million project not only underscores University Avenue’s historic role as the oldest link between the Twin Cities, it recasts University as a gateway for the city’s neighborhoods, ethnic dining, music scene and sporting events.
The line will make it easier for nearby residents, many making low to moderate incomes, to reach jobs elsewhere. And it simplifies travel to St. Paul’s many colleges and medical centers, as well as the state government.
“More and more people are getting exhausted with the automobile,” said John Diers, a former Metro Transit superintendent who has written histories of the Union Depot and the local streetcar system. “I don’t predict the suburbs are going to be abandoned anytime soon, but with light rail you’re going to see much more attention to St. Paul.”
LRT as game changer
It took longer than expected. Back in the 1990s the Central Corridor — the popular name for the line before Metro Transit gave it a color — was widely thought to be the best place for the region’s first light-rail line, given its ridership projections.
But St. Paul proved unable to top the strong case made for the Blue Line, which could run on land along Hiawatha Avenue and link downtown Minneapolis with the airport and Mall of America.
Now, 10 years after the Blue Line opened, it’s clear that building another line in the west metro would have been disastrous for St. Paul, said Nancy Homans, Coleman’s policy director.
“It would have been like the towns that died on the prairie when the railroad passed them by,” she said. “The region would have developed to the west.”
What makes the line a game changer, said St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer, is its convenience and reliability. “For the first time people can stay in St. Paul and get on the train to go to anything,” he said.
Coleman agreed. “The Super Bowl comes to Minneapolis, and you have now a direct link from downtown St. Paul on a first-class transit system that will take you right to the front door of the stadium,” he said. “It connects us in a way that we probably haven’t been since streetcars, but in a much better way.”
The trail of the ‘Interurban’
Connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis with a road was considered so important in the 1870s (and a natural step toward what people thought was the inevitable merger of the two cities) that the Legislature ordered it done.
University Avenue — named for its proximity to the University of Minnesota and Hamline University — has been there since.
By 1891, electric streetcars rumbling along University between the two downtowns had replaced horse-drawn trolleys and commuter trains. The “Interurban” streetcar line was one of the busiest in the Twin Cities, said local historian and nonprofit leader Brian McMahon.