This article appeared in the Twin Cities (MN) Business Journal in 2001, and discusses the Hiawatha LRT line in Minneapolis as it relates to congestion relief.
When four decades of debate over light rail transit coalesced around a plan to spend more than $625 million along the Hiawatha Corridor, a key selling point was the promise of relief from traffic congestion.
But economic development, not congestion relief, was at the center of the Hiawatha plan when it first received funding under then-Gov. Arne Carlson.
Now, Carlson and other voices in the Twin Cities transit debate warn that the shift in strategy may have oversold congestion benefits. They say a backlash by policy-makers and the public could harm long-term plans for a network of additional rail lines that could provide substantial congestion relief.
Light rail along Highway 55 in essentially its current form was pitched in the late 1990s as a strategy to jump-start long-awaited redevelopment of the Hiawatha Corridor and link development hotspots such as downtown and the Mall of America in Bloomington.
"It was a very honest argument," stressing concrete benefits, Carlson said. "Congestion relief was not among them."
The Ventura administration, including transportation commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, and Metropolitan Council chairman Ted Mondale have switched to -- or added, depending on whom you ask -- congestion relief as a focus.
It was a goal that found favor among legislators and a public fed up with worsening traffic, but the previous administration remains adamant that light rail has little potential in that area.
Indeed, the original press notice about Carlson's vision for a dedicated `busway' along Hiawatha, released jointly on Feb. 26, 1997, by the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) and the Met Council, mentions reducing traffic congestion only once, as one of four goals such a system could accomplish. The balance of the release, which called Hiawatha the first step in an envisioned regional transit system, discusses economic development potential, but never again mentions congestion.
Nearly five years later, Carlson's opinion hasn't changed. "The commute from Burnsville to Bloomington is going to be the same as it always has," he said. "I think the public is going to be disappointed in that."
"It is a simple matter of performance being measured against expectations," added Bob McFarlin, MnDOT spokesman under Carlson and now head of a consulting company that works on transportation issues. "There is simply no solid, objective evidence from around the country that LRT lines reduce traffic congestion."
And that, he said, fuels doubts. "Overselling gets people skeptical ... [If LRT] does not perform as advertised [by relieving congestion] it will be very difficult to gain public and legislative support for further LRT investments."
Even among those who see congestion relief in light rail, few, if any, think the Hiawatha line alone will solve the area's congestion problem. They fear that bad feelings over the Hiawatha approval may translate into trouble for future rail projects.
The shift in focus, said longtime light-rail opponent Rep. Phil Krinkie, R-Shoreview, was the only way officials could sell the project. "They've been pushing on this plan for a significant amount of time," said Krinkie, and backers within the Ventura administration decided they would "never be able to sell this as an economic development tool."
That shift, along with growing cost estimates, provided critics with new ammunition against Hiawatha and other rail plans. During the 1998 and 1999 sessions, legislators approved a total of $100 million in state funding necessary to build Hiawatha, but within two years there was a move to repeal the funding. The 2001 repeal effort fell short, but lawmakers also shunned transportation, including light rail, failing to support the road, rail and bus network that supporters say will be necessary to relieve congestion on Twin Cities highways.
Lingering resentment could be most damaging in the economic slump. There's a good chance the 2002 session won't be kind to rail and other forms of transport. With a bundle of new issues on the table, including a $99 million shortfall in state tax revenue for July and August, cash will be tight. That means more competition for proposed commuter rail lines that supporters say are needed to create the network to ease the freeway system.
In the next session, "anything for transit is going to be pretty small potatoes," said Sen. John Marty, D-Roseville.
Carlson's belief that congestion has become the Ventura administration's main selling point for light rail is not universally embraced. Dissenters include the man in the hot seat for seeing that light rail succeeds in Minnesota, Metropolitan Council Chairman Ted Mondale.
Mondale says congestion has grown in importance since Carlson's days as the state's chief executive, and that it has become an additional emphasis, not a new one. The council, he said, remains committed to and excited about the potential for economic development.
Mondale and other light rail advocates say the congestion argument became important as commuters and the business community became more aware of its seriousness and detrimental effects on the business competitiveness of the Twin Cities. A network of light -rail transit lines, in combination with a bus system and improved roads, all are needed to relieve congestion, he said.
At worst, light rail allows those who don't want to sit in traffic an alternative. "It's about balance and choice," he said.
Fred Corrigan, executive vice president of St. Paul-based The Minnesota Transportation Alliance, agreed that a shift has taken place, but said it is because "the congestion issue has become more visible since this project started." The Hiawatha line, Corrigan said, can be the first step in changing people's commuting habits and travel patterns, lending credence to the possibility that down the line LRT can help ease congestion.
Despite the criticism and the frustration over going a year without a go-ahead for additional rail projects, officials on both sides of the transit argument remain convinced that with Hiawatha under construction, more rail lines become well-nigh inevitable.
"What I believed was that we needed to get the first line built," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin. While the dearth of new funding this year was frustrating, he added, "I'm optimistic that we're going to get the approval we need next year for the Northstar line." Northstar would provide rail service between Minneapolis and St. Cloud, and would meet up with the Hiawatha line near the Target Center.
Lyle Wray, director of the Citizens League, also falls into the category of people who believe that the building of the Hiawatha rail line opened the door for more rail projects. Though an outspoken opponent of light rail, he concedes that it will lead to development along the line. "You're spending $600 million on a neighborhood -- I hope something happens," he said.
The Federal Transit Administration committed $334 million to the project in November 2000, which followed $100 million in state funding. Since the FTA approval, the total estimated cost of the project has grown from $625 million to $675 million.
Wray, like many opponents, questions the cost of the project, arguing that it is excessive for the expected development benefits, let alone the more doubtful improvements in traffic flow. Politicians failed to take seriously proposals that could have produced measurable improvement at lower cost, he said.
The question, as Minnesota approaches the legislative session at which budgets will be set for the next two years, is whether the head-butting over congestion vs. development will force delays or a scaling back of plans for a metrowide, multimode transportation network.
Andrew Tellijohn can be reached at (612) 288-2102 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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Last updated 6/25/05