Light-rail line advocates are anticipating new development along University Avenue, although they acknowledge it will take years.
But speed isn't the point.
As the line gets closer to becoming reality, the reality is that the transit project is as much --or more -- about economics as it is about moving people. It's seen as the key to economic development, new investment and neighborhood revitalization.
The federal government also is paying more attention to what happens off the rails than what happens on them. Recent rule changes for funding big transit projects put a higher priority on economic benefits.
Cities across the nation that have built light-rail lines, from Salt Lake City to Charlotte, N.C., have reported billions of dollars of economic investment and increased land values along the tracks. A recently released University of Minnesota study showed that houses near Hiawatha light-rail stops in Minneapolis gained about $5,000 in value after the line went into service.
"Light rail is an attraction and carries a caché," said Susan Kimberly, interim president of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce.
The 11-mile, $957-million line that will connect the downtowns awaits a federal commitment to pay, which is expected in September.
In Phoenix, the 20-mile METRO has seen $7.4 billion in new development -- a mix of public and private -- along the line, said spokeswoman Hillary Foose.
The project cost was $1.4 billion.
But she's quick to note that the route and demand for transportation were critical. "If we didn't have the ridership we're developing and exceeding, we probably wouldn't have the development we're starting to see," she said. "One doesn't work without the other."
It will take more than tracks
Roll down University Avenue today from St. Paul's western border to the State Capitol, and you'll see a lot of concrete and asphalt, along with a patchwork of businesses, housing and vacant lots.
Some say the stretch is drab or rundown. Others say it's an active area ripe for renewal.
"There's already a 'there' there, but the 'there' is a little bit edgy and a bit of a hodgepodge and doesn't have an identity," said City Council Member Russ Stark. The line, he said, will help build a more organized identity.
Assessed commercial values on University have been relatively constant over the past three years, said Ramsey County Assessor Stephen Baker. Values shot up in the years before, but Baker said he doubts much of that was because of anticipation of the Central Corridor. Real estate values in general were growing. That said, as those values have fallen in most places around the city, the Central Corridor has helped to keep values on University stable.
The land along University is the third-most valuable in St. Paul behind downtown and Grand Avenue, Baker said.
The avenue is fundamentally a great piece of real estate with a great geographic location that has been underrated for years, said Tanya Bell, vice president for acquisition and development at developer Wellington Management Inc.
It also goes through some of the most transit-dependent and poorest areas of the metro area. Some residents are worried they will be forced out by rising rents and increased property taxes.
Business owners along University are concerned about surviving construction, higher taxes and dealing with a loss of 85 percent of street parking.
Robert Cervero, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, said that light rail is often sold as a quick fix to revitalize neighborhoods, end cycles of poverty and lower crime.
"Past experience suggests the economic development impacts of LRT in all but the most fast-growing, economically robust settings are over-sold," he said. While light rail might bring better mobility for poor people, he added, the line by itself likely won't invite new outside investments.
Still, Central Corridor advocates say there will be a big payoff in years to come.
It won't happen quickly
What light rail brings, advocates say, is a steady stream of people through a fixed area. Businesses and riders alike tend to favor light rail because of its perceived permanence.
For a light-rail line to succeed, both as transportation and economy driver, it must connect "activity centers," said Branner Stewart, a planner with consulting firm Cambridge Systematics. Activity centers, he said, are downtowns, airports, universities and other spots where there are lots of workers.
Laying tracks through densely settled areas also helps to attract investment, he added.
The general thought is new development, residential and business, will happen in clusters along the line, with the areas around stations building up first.
It will probably take from five to 10 years before some development -- likely housing -- takes off along the Central Corridor, according to a 2008 study by the Center for Transit-Oriented Development.
Part of the delay, consultants and real estate experts say, will be from land speculators putting up artificially high values.
Of course, speculation points to some people's optimism that development will happen, said Kimberly of the Chamber of Commerce. She said it will probably take 50 to 100 years for the full vision of the line to become reality.
"The first measure of success is how many people ride the line. That is not something that should be dismissed," she said. "After that, it's a matter of being realistic."
Chris Havens • 612-673-4148