It was the best of times Saturday as light-rail trains began the historic connection between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis
It’s taken all of her 94 years for the retired hardware store clerk from northeast Minneapolis to warm up to the notion of regular visits to that other twin city.
“I remember getting motion sickness from the smoky streetcars as a girl, so I’d only get to St. Paul two or three times a year to visit Como Park,” she said. “But this is so easy and such a smooth ride, I think a lot of us will probably start exploring the other city more often now.”
After 30 years of talk and $957 million of public money, that’s precisely what transportation planners and giddy elected officials hope for as the Twin Cities’ second light-rail line began connecting the two downtowns, the University of Minnesota and myriad neighborhoods amid a rain-soaked series of speeches, concerts and free rides along the 11-mile route.
More than 45,000 riders jumped on the trains between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., far exceeding what’s expected to be normal Saturday ridership. Operators were swamped at Metro Transit’s service center with calls about light rail and revamped bus service, Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland said.
The first Green Line train left Union Depot 11 minutes behind schedule Saturday morning, thanks to politicians at the ribbon-cutting ceremony who were still talking at 10 a.m. when the train was scheduled to go.
“This is about having a transportation system … that connects the hearts of two great cities,” said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, “that connects families and friends whether they’re on Western Avenue or Hennepin Avenue.”
“Now, finally, after all these speeches, it’s ready to roll,” Gov. Mark Dayton said.
Half the funding for the line came from the federal government, with the rest divided among the state and local governments. About a dozen sign-carrying protesters along University Avenue in Frogtown complained that the money could have been better spent, and others grumbled when the first Green Line trains rolled late and wind and rain scuttled much of the festivities.
But Day 1 went off largely without a hitch along the tracks. Light-rail traffic was slowed midafternoon in downtown St. Paul when a car got stuck in a rail switch near Robert and Minnesota streets. Trains were able to pass the car, and the driver was expected to be cited.
If there was a theme to the day, it was how the line would help dissolve the boundary between Minneapolis and St. Paul. “We’re tying our two cities back together, our two counties back together,” Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said.
“There’s always been a certain snootiness on both sides of the river and I think this will start bridging that gap,” said Bob Velander, 65, of Minneapolis, as he leaned over his seat. “I already hear friends talking about jumping on the train to St. Paul for the Farmers Market or going to the U.”
But the old rivalry still managed to surface. “There’s a person in St. Paul who wants to have fun for a change, who will come over to Minneapolis,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Jacob Frey, among the speakers at Target Field Station. To which Minnesota Twins President Dave St. Peter quipped: “There are a few good bars in St. Paul and I’ve found most of them.”
Opening day moments
Idling in her light-rail train engine on University Avenue about a half-hour before rolling, operator Lorna Sheehan was full of anticipation. A bus driver for 11 years, she switched to light-rail operating in October.
“I love it. It feels like home,” said Sheehan, who is from St. Paul. “This is a lot different than the Hiawatha Line, because you’re right along the traffic the whole way.”
She has been training extensively for the new route.
“It kind of makes me feel old, though,” she said. “It’s really changed the face of University Avenue.”
Such historic changes had some neighborhood activists worried, remembering how Interstate 94 devastated the Rondo area when the freeway came through in the 1960s. Initial Green Line plans didn’t include stations at Victoria Street and two others in low-income St. Paul neighborhoods dependent on transit.
A few protesters
About 20 groups rallied to get the Green Line stops in their neighborhood, which added time for riders trying to go downtown-to-downtown, but added convenience and vibrancy to their stretch of University.
As Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” blared in the background at the corner of Victoria and University, Nieeta Presley, executive director of the Aurora/St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corp., said this day was “a victory for the Rondo neighborhood.
“It’s a symbol,” she said. “It’s a symbol of the pain. It’s a symbol of the healing. It’s a symbol for the great legacy that built this community. And it’s a tribute to the future.”
Voices of protest
A block away, at the corner of Avon Street and University, the mood was decidedly more sour. A group of about a dozen foes of the Green Line and other transit expansion efforts held signs expressing that opposition.
“Nobody’s going to ride it,” said Sharon Davis of Brooklyn Park. The millions of dollars spent on the Green Line and similar projects would be better spent on fixing roads and other infrastructure, she said.
“What does this do for me?” she said. “I need my car.”
Steve Ellenwood, of Woodbury, who organized the demonstration, said midday ridership on the Blue Line is sparse and predicted the same with the Green Line. “People aren’t going to stand out here when it’s 40-below waiting for a train,” he said. “It makes no sense.”
Waiting for the ‘money train’
But for business owners along the line, who have endured years of construction, Saturday was a day to rejoice.
Mike Hatzistamoulos, owner of the Best Steak House at University and Victoria for 27 years, opened an hour early. He lost about 20 percent of his business during three years of construction, but has since regained what he had lost and has seen a 20 percent surge.
“We like to call it the ‘money train,’ ” he said, chuckling.
While the line was being built, the street outside Jerry Blakey’s Lowertown Wine & Spirits was torn up 27 times. “Going through the process was touch-and-go here for six months. Fortunately, the neighbors kept us going,” said Blakey, a former City Council member.
Now, he added, “There should be a lot more people coming in. As much as we went through, it has to be a good thing.”
Amid the hoopla over connecting the downtowns, the Green Line’s service through Dinkytown and the University of Minnesota has been largely overlooked. For engineering researchers Matt Sheldon, Paul Diebold and Joe Vantassel, who boarded a westbound train at Stadium Village, practicality trumped history.
“I needed a new pair of workout shoes, so we’re going to the Mall of America,” said Sheldon, of Petaluma, Calif., who is studying earthquake-proof walls for the summer. He told his buddies where to switch trains at the Downtown East Station.
Downtown East was the scene of some light-rail slowdowns Saturday, as Blue Line trains waited for five minutes for stoplights and Green Line trains to pull through the station.
There were a few other glitches. Signs on trains headed to Union Depot read “DOWNTOWN ST.,” leaving no room for the most identifiable part of St. Paul’s name. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison suffered a slip of the tongue as he roared, “Let’s get on the bus, everybody!”
Among the first riders at Union Depot was Douglas Schiedel, a sculptor who moved from Minneapolis six years ago to set up his studio in a Lowertown building overlooking the tracks in downtown St. Paul.
“It’s a watershed moment,” he said. “It only goes forward from here. It’s only the future from here.”
While the new line satisfied most customers, 2-year-old Leo Galt-McAvey was a little let down. He showed up at the Target Field Station wearing a train engineer’s cap and cradling a toy train car, but shrugged as he boarded the first eastbound Green Line for a trip to the Children’s Museum in downtown St. Paul.
Said his mom, Alex Galt: “He thought it was going to be a green train.”
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