This article is part of a weeklong America 360 series on the Twin Cities.
ST. PAUL, Minn.—Starting this Saturday, for the first time in generations, it'll be possible to ride a train from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. Test trains are already gliding up and down the new light-rail line, which runs past the state Capitol, past immigrant-owned businesses and vacant lots along University Avenue, and through the University of Minnesota campus.
The Green Line, also known as the Central Corridor, has been over 30 years in the making. The mayors of the Twin Cities hope the nearly $1 billion project will attract many billions more in private development and lure residents and businesses to the region's urban core. They want to prove that transit can be about growing neighborhoods, not just speeding commuters past them.
"Central Corridor is going to prove that public investment attracts private investment. It already has," Peter Wagenius, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges's policy director, told transit advocates gathered at a Minneapolis craft-beer bar last week. According to the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning agency, developers, and contractors have already spent $2.5 billion in construction and redevelopment projects over the past five years within a half-mile of the new line.
The Green Line will bring the region's total number of rail transit lines to three. There's a light-rail line connecting Minneapolis to its southern suburbs and the Mall of America that opened in 2004, and a commuter train connecting Minneapolis to its northern suburbs that opened in 2009. The region is planning an expansion of light rail and fast buses that will be focused more on downtown areas. The new line will be a leisurely, urban train with lots of local stops—not exactly the approach the sprawling Twin Cities have embraced before.
At the craft-beer bar, the first question from the audience was about speed. It'll take the Green Line almost an hour to complete its 11-mile length, a journey that can take 20 minutes in a car. (The Metropolitan Council argues that most people aren't going to be riding the Green Line all the way from one city to another).
Wrangling over this line took years. State funding only came through after the 2007 collapse of the I-35 bridge, a tragedy that spurred lawmakers to increase funding for transportation infrastructure. The Legislature authorized the metropolitan area to raise taxes to pay for transit. (A 0.25 percent sales tax across a five-county area paid for 30 percent of the Green Line's cost; federal grants paid for 50 percent; and other state and local sources covered the rest.)
From the beginning, civic leaders thought of this train as more than just an engineering project. That's why planners wanted the line to run through urban neighborhoods in the first place rather than along the highway. And because the train runs through several miles of low-income neighborhoods, the respective mayors were both focused on equitable growth. For the Green Line to really succeed, in the eyes of the two mayors, it will have to generate economic opportunity for the people already living along the line.
Still, some longtime residents in those communities were skeptical. They remember the chaos caused by construction of Interstate 94, which ripped Rondo, a historically African-American neighborhood, in two. "Once that community was destroyed, disrupted, folks displaced, houses torn down, businesses dissolved—that community never really recovered," says Nieeta Presley, head of the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, a community development agency.
Initial plans for the Green Line didn't include stations for three low-income St. Paul neighborhoods dependent on transit. ASANDC joined some 20 other groups to lobby for their addition. It took time, but advocates found supporters all the way from City Hall to the Department of Transportation; in 2010, the federal agency changed its funding rules to allow for the extra stops.
Twelve local and national foundations also had formed the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative. To date, the group has spent $10 million on convening civic leaders and funding their strategies for supporting people and businesses along the corridor. One example: the creation of a forgivable loan fund to help fragile small businesses survive the line's construction. CCFC, the city of St. Paul, and the Metropolitan Council made more than $3.5 million in loans to more than 200 small businesses. In the end, more businesses opened than closed during the construction period.
CCFC has also worked to make it easier for developers to start affordable-housing development along the line, and to connect students living along the line to internships. Presley is cautiously optimistic that with so much planning, the train will benefit—rather than disrupt or displace—Rondo and neighborhoods like it. "I feel we're somewhat ahead of the curve," she says.
If civic leaders can nudge investment along the Green Line in the direction of shared prosperity, rather than gentrification, they really will be able to point to the project as a singular success for urban transportation.