Understanding the Green Line: Neither this nor that

  • Article by: DAVID MARKLE
  • Updated: August 4, 2014 - 6:19 PM

A fast rail connection along the freeway and a streetcar on University Avenue might have been ideal. But development aspirations got in the way.

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A light-rail train near downtown St. Paul.

Photo: DAVID JOLES • Star Tribune,

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Are you disappointed that the Green Line doesn’t provide a fast connection between the two downtowns and points between? Are you a transit advocate who wishes we had a regional rail transit system with a real trunk line between the two big cities? Or were you looking forward to enjoying a convenient, easy-to-use rail connection on University Avenue, especially in wintertime, but you’ve discovered that the train doesn’t stop near you or your destination?

Maybe you just don’t understand the Green Line. You see, it’s not merely a means of transit but, more important, a development project. St. Paul and Ramsey County officials wanted to score a light-rail line after Minneapolis got one from its downtown to the airport and Mall of America. And it made sense to build a line to connect the two cities, including the State Capitol, the University of Minnesota and other connections along the way. But St. Paul planners and officials were practically obsessed with promoting development. You may have heard the phrase “higher and better use” in connection with real estate, government policy and property taxes. Well, the Green Line got diverted from a primary mission of transit to a “higher and better purpose” of higher property values and better municipal revenue, of trying to make light rail into a development stimulator.

Originally — that is, during the 1980s and into the early 1990s — the train seemed destined to run along the freeway. After analyzing and comparing three possible routes, planners and Ramsey County regional rail commissioners pretty much settled on the Soo Line/Interstate 94 route, in preference to Burlington Northern/Pierce Butler or University Avenue. In addition to having the fastest travel time (28 to 32 minutes), the freeway route, according to the 1993 draft environmental impact statement, had the least impact on local access, the fewest environmental concerns, the lowest energy consumption, the lowest cost of relocating utilities, the fewest traffic diversions and, most significant, 33 percent more riders than the University Avenue route.

But by 2001, officials instead decided to use the nearly $1 billion light-trail project to try to boost University Avenue development. Not downtown development; the faster I-94 connection had been thought better in that respect. No, apparently the targets were just five intersections with stations on University Avenue. (The other stations are all downtown, in or on the edge of Minneapolis, or near the Capitol. Stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western were added later only because of pressure from organizations advocating for low-income and minority residents and were not included in the federal application.)

That’s how we ended up with a Green Line train that has to stop at the red lights on a street, and that’s slightly slower overall, on average, than was the No. 16 bus line, but has 46 fewer places to get on or off. Planners and officials never considered a streetcar line for University Avenue. A modern streetcar closely resembles a light-rail car in appearance and ease of boarding, and a streetcar line would have provided the detailed service of the No. 16 bus. Building such a line would have cost substantially less than the matching funds needed for obtaining the federal light-rail dollars. But for Minneapolis’ sister city, a streetcar line might have seemed lowly and lacking the prestige of the quite successful Blue Line to the west.

So St. Paul got its light rail, a questionable development tool and far from ideal as either train or streetcar. A University Avenue streetcar line might have been feasible politically and financially after creation of a light-rail trunk line along the freeway. But now we not only lack an adequate regional trunk line, we’ve been prevented from getting one for many years. And requirements for light-rail infrastructure — unlike for streetcars — meant elimination of 1,000 parking spaces along University, not great for business.

As to the actual economic development that’s taking place along the avenue — well, that requires further examination. Readers interested in a much more detailed account of the Central Corridor/Green Line project and the overarching problem of our area’s transit planning and approval process can read an article of mine on the streets.mn website: http://streets.mn/2014/07/07/strangulation-on-the-green-line.

Meanwhile, now that you may have a little better understanding of why it turned out this way, do you feel better about the Green Line … or worse?

 

David Markle, of Minneapolis, is an acoustical designer and writer.

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