It’s been 11 years since Blue Line light-rail service began in the Twin Cities, and more than a year since that line acquired its Green companion, formerly known as the Central Corridor. Yet anecdotes and misimpressions continue to shape views of the two transit lines’ worth.
Take the comments of state Rep. Debra Kiel, R-Crookston, on July 23 at a conference in Duluth. She told more than 100 assembled outstate city officials why she was “not a big fan of light rail.”
Her mother was recently hospitalized at University of Minnesota Medical Center, Kiel related, and while in Minneapolis, she observed that a passing Green Line train appeared empty. “She said, ‘Boy, there’s just not anybody on these,’ ” Kiel said. “They look at that and say, ‘Is it really being used very effectively?’… These are conversations we need to have.”
Evidently so. Days after Kiel spoke, Metro Transit reported January-through-June light-rail ridership numbers: Green Line, 5.6 million rides; Blue Line, 5 million rides, up 14 percent from the previous year.
Those are impressive numbers. For the 11-mile Green Line linking downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul, they represent more usage than had been projected at this stage in the young service’s life. As the Green Line marked its first anniversary in June, Metro Transit noted that it has averaged more than 30,000 riders per day, or 11 percent more than forecast for its first year. Those aren’t just riders who formerly took the bus. Combined ridership on bus routes 16 and 94 and on the Green Line is double what it was when buses worked that route alone.
Notable, too, is that Green Line trips have become speedier. The end-to-end trip that took an hour when the service was new is now within five minutes of the scheduled 45-minute mark 85 percent of the time.
That data ought to beat anecdotal evidence about the Green Line’s initial acceptance. But the ultimate success of light-rail transit in the Twin Cities area will be best judged years from now.
By 2040, the metro area is forecast to be home to an additional 500,000 people. The aging of the baby boomers, concerns about environmental protection and the high personal cost of driving are projected to increase the population’s preference for transit — a change that is already being exhibited by the metro’s millennial generation. Some of the same forces also will augur denser urban development, as sprawl ceases to be the affordable option that it was in the 20th century.
Policymakers will do well to examine not only today’s ridership data, but also the evidence that backs predictions of a more transit-dependent metro future. There’s more to the light-rail story than anecdotes can tell.