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.”