The Mpls.-St. Paul Green Line and the 18-minute transit gap

  • Article by: JONATHAN F. MACK
  • Updated: June 17, 2014 - 6:04 PM

We spent all that money in order to travel between the downtowns … more slowly?

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A light-rail train passed through the Victoria Street Station in St. Paul.

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • Star Tribune,

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Two weeks before the new Green Line light-rail service opened, we learned that it will take 48 minutes to travel between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns. Existing express bus service took about 30 minutes. The Green Line cost approximately $1 billion to complete, with greater maintenance expenses to follow. With the line’s inauguration this week, express and limited-stop bus services are being curtailed.

Rarely does one encounter such pure distillation of folly in public policy.

Confronted with these nettlesome facts, Metro Transit spokesman John Siqveland responded, apparently without irony, that it won’t be a fast ride, but the Green Line was built to connect people with destinations much like the Route 16 bus on University Avenue does now. The Green Line, of course, would never have gotten beyond a twinkle in a transit enthusiast’s eye had it been sold as a “not fast” means of servicing local University Avenue traffic “much like” an existing bus route.

Perhaps I am reflexively suspicious of 18-minute gaps, but I doubt that I am alone in wondering if the acknowledgment of the 48-vs.-30-minute disparity was delayed until the project was completed. In fact, Metro Transit was softly peddling a 40-minute figure as recently as April. I am sure that the impact of the line on the mating cycles of snail darters in drains along University Avenue was determined long before construction began, but incidental considerations, such as how long a trip might take, were left to guesswork until after completion.

My suspicions are also fueled by the history of subterfuge regarding bus alternatives that goes back to the creation of the Blue Line to the airport from downtown Minneapolis. When the transit cabal was agitating for creation of that line in the mid- to late 1990s, there was express bus service from downtown St. Paul to the airport but none from downtown Minneapolis. The presence of a possibly adequate alternative from downtown Minneapolis would have been, well, inconvenient, while the St. Paul service was not a threat.

Among the truest of believers, the ends always justify the means, and among self-styled urbanists and “sustainable growth” acolytes, devotion to light rail takes on an almost spiritual quality. An entire system of beliefs — about where people should live, how they should travel and even what they should do with their free time — seems dependent on the notion that light rail is endowed with a catalytic quality to spur events ultimately leading to a joyful union of the future with an idealized prewar urban past.

The measured wisdom of the elders is more instructive than such gauzy sentiments. Visiting an assisted-living facility, I recently saw an octogenarian Minneapolitan pause from his newspaper, frown slightly, and reflect: “Well … I guess the trolleys were OK, but they really weren’t that great.”

Perhaps the Green Line will help the Twin Cities take their place among the great transit metropolises. For those acquainted with the stiff upper lip of Londoners and jaundiced fatalism of New Yorkers during interminable delays and local stops, the sullen expressions of Minnesotans in the midst of their grinding Green Line voyages will be familiar.

 

Jonathan F. Mack, of Minneapolis, is an attorney.

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