The debate surrounding Southwest light-rail transit (SWLRT) shouldn’t be confined to rerouting freight rail and shallow tunnels. Wouldn’t we be better served by figuring out how light rail can be a catalyst for equitable transit across the 16-mile corridor? A discussion like that would help cork the fight over rail alignment and transform it into one that is far more constructive and economically beneficial for the region — and most notably for Minneapolis.
Nearly every other day an elected official or business leader touts “equity” and “reducing racial disparities” as priorities in public pronouncements. Rarely do they actually turn their words into action to really improve people’s lives. We think just such an opportunity now exists for those working to resolve turf warfare over SWLRT.
Last year, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges ran an inspiring campaign forcefully addressing the disastrous racial and economic inequities in Minneapolis. She won on a message of creating “ONE Minneapolis,” and we would argue that this is her governing mandate.
Sue Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council, articulated her vision “that equity must be a priority for our region” in January during her State of the Region address.
And Hennepin County’s own mission statement reflects a desire for embracing diversity and “developing innovative solutions to challenges.”
Yet as much as our region talks a good game around racial equity, the design of SWLRT was not built around the experience of bus riders, north Minneapolis residents, or the urgent demand for equitable economic development and living-wage jobs throughout the metro area.
If Hodges, Haigh and Hennepin County were to take this moment to advance a vision of transit equity grounded in their stated beliefs and mission, they would move the following agenda on behalf of Minneapolis and the region:
Buses at Van White and Penn stations. Without connecting bus lines at these stations, the real people who use transit will not get what they could from SWLRT.
Bus shelters that actually shelter people. It is unacceptable that we allow Metro Transit to have such a disparity in the quality of bus stops. We need warm, clean and accessible bus stops everywhere.
Lower fares. Light rail is the central spine of an equitable transit system. But the bus system is the heart, efficiently pumping riders along the arteries. Unfortunately, for lower-income riders, bus fares have increased while services decreased over the years as we have become consumed with building light rail. For certain stops at least, we need fare reductions to promote a more diverse ridership.
Modern streetcars. Some corridors that were initially considered couldn’t fit LRT, but they could be served with a smaller, less expensive form of LRT: modern streetcars. The whole region would benefit if these communities could grow to their potential and reverse the disinvestment of the past with the new jobs and housing opportunities rail transit can bring.
Speed up bus improvements. If SWLRT is moving now, bus improvements — including higher-frequency routes — must also be guaranteed now.
Take a diesel train storage center off the table permanently. There is no reason why polluting diesel trains should be warehoused in Linden Yard next door to the Van White station. This needs to be removed from plans so it doesn’t undermine the ability of the Harrison neighborhood to develop diverse housing, small businesses and open space, and to carry its Bassett Creek Valley master plan forward.
If this kind of regional transit agenda were placed on the negotiating table — an equity agenda that the Met Council, Minneapolis and Hennepin County should all be embracing — we believe there is real potential that the SWLRT could become a tool to remove economic barriers that have held communities of color back for too long. SWLRT could be a watershed moment for the future of our communities, not just in Minneapolis, but across the metro region.
The time to negotiate for these transit enhancements is now and it will require all parties to step up — not just point the finger at one another. Let’s not miss the opportunity.
Dan McGrath is executive director of TakeAction Minnesota. Paul Slack is pastor at New Creation Church in Minneapolis and president of ISAIAH.