The first light-rail trains linking the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis will rumble along University Avenue beginning June 14, doubling the size and scope of the Twin Cities’ 10-year-old light-rail system.
“This is just such an exciting day, I don’t even feel cold,” said Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh, who announced the long-awaited start-up date Wednesday outside Union Depot in downtown St. Paul as windchills dipped below zero.
Transit officials are counting on balmier weather June 14, when the kickoff weekend for the Green Line, formerly called the Central Corridor, will be marked with celebrations and free rides at light-rail stations along the 11-mile route.
The project, which cost $957 million — half of it supplied by federal funds, with the balance divided among state, regional, county and city governments — includes 18 new stations in addition to five to be shared with the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis.
By 2030, the Met Council projects, more than 40,000 people will be boarding the Green Line each weekday. The bus lines that now travel the same stretch, Routes 16 and 50, carried 24,000 riders on an average weekday in 2010.
The June starting date beats the federal deadline for completion by nearly six months and also ensures that fans can take the Green Line July 15 to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Target Field.
With 98 percent of construction complete, it looks as though the Green Line’s opening will avoid the confusion that marked the start 10 years ago of the Hiawatha line, now the Blue Line. That opening date was pushed back five months to help fund the state’s deficit. The line eventually opened in two phases, eight months apart.
Officials heralded the economic development promised by the Green Line, which will link the two downtowns and the University of Minnesota via University Avenue. The Met Council estimates that the line so far has yielded $1.7 billion in private development already built or still to come.
“This is really going to pay off,” Haigh said.
However, about 30 percent of the Green Line development counted by the Met Council also is along the Blue Line in downtown Minneapolis. The analysis is mostly based on published reports in daily, weekly and business newspapers.
Haigh said that the project is on budget, but she expects little money to be left over.
Many businesses along University were forced to close or lay off employees during construction, when customer access was restricted. The light-rail line removed 85 percent of University Avenue’s on-street parking spaces.
Officials say that customers now can either take the train or park nearby on cross streets and in off-street lots. Still, some business owners are unsure whether the Green Line will build their bottom lines.
“I’m hoping that people will hop on, so they can see our store and stop by,” said Ne Dao, who owns Ha Tien Grocery near the Western Avenue station. After losing business and having to cut employees’ hours during the height of construction, she said her store now is “OK … we are doing fine.”
Bruce Delles, who owns Twin Cities Reptiles, was ambivalent even though his store near the Raymond Avenue station has largely rebounded from the losses he suffered during construction.
“Am I looking forward to it? No. Am I against it? No. It is what it is,” he said. “Do I hope it will increase my business? Yes. Do I think it will? I don’t know. The proof is in the pudding.”
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a key transit advocate who chairs the Counties Transit Improvement Board, on Wednesday called the Green Line “a transformative investment” that will “re-twin the Twin Cities” by bringing light rail to St. Paul. He said that it’s cleaned up University Avenue, which “has not looked as good as it does today.”