Fast Track For National Rail Transit

Hiawatha LineMINNEAPOLIS – Technically speaking “light rail transit” encompasses an urban rail line capable of carrying 2,000 to 20,000 passengers an hour at speeds reaching 70 miles per hour. “Heavy rail” describes longer, faster commuter and inter-city trains.

The reality of light and heavy rail in this city of 400,000, and in 29 other cities across the United States that have built light rail, street car, and commuter rail systems since 1984, is much more encompassing and enlightening.

The New Apollo Program
The New Apollo Program
Rebuild America Clean and Green
Establish a national energy efficiency commitment to reduce energy use in new and existing buildings at least 30 percent by 2025. Provide the support necessary to produce 25 percent of the nation’s power from renewable and recycled energy resources by 2025.

Bring the power grid into the 21st century.

Improve efficiency by 20 percent in existing power plants and industries by 2025.

Connect America’s 21st century neighborhoods and cities with world-class transit systems.

Strengthen and improve America’s transportation infrastructure by “fixing it first.”

Make It in America
Rebuild the U.S. auto industry by investing in high-efficiency vehicles. Invest in a national low-carbon fuel infrastructure and next generation alternative fuels.

Restore America’s manufacturing leadership to meet the demands of the clean energy future.

Restore America’s Technological Leadership
Double national investment in clean energy research and development. Establish a National Energy Innovation Fund to invest in the most promising new clean energy technologies emerging from our nation’s laboratories.
Tap the Productivity of the American People
Train America’s workers for the new clean energy economy. Ensure the transition to America’s clean energy economy creates widely shared economic opportunities.
Reinvest in America
Establish a federal “cap and invest” program to generate and strategically reinvest the resources necessary to build the new clean energy economy.

The four-year-old, $715 million Hiawatha Line, which connects downtown with the Mall of America and the airport, serves 32,000 passengers a day, about five times the number that officials anticipated at this point in the line’s operation. Thousands of new units of housing, and hundreds of thousands of square feet of office and retail development have been constructed near the line’s 17 stations. More is in the planning stage.

A new 11-mile route to St. Paul is in the engineering phase. And a new 40-mile, five-station, $317 million commuter rail line between Minneapolis and Big Lake, is scheduled to open in 2010.

New Apollo Program and Hiawatha

Rail transit, and the Hiawatha Line in particular, has become a signature of a Midwest City buffeted by a highway bridge collapse that exposed the frailty and expense of the 20th century’s vehicle-centered transportation system, and the growing popularity of the less costly and more energy efficient rail transit systems of the 21st.

“The impressive performance of the Hiawatha LRT line has continued to inspire local advocates, planners, and decision makers,” noted the Federal Transit Administration in a statement in August.

In The New Apollo Program, a clean energy, good jobs economic strategy for American prosperity published in October, the Apollo Alliance called on Congress and the new president to “drive the expansion of rapid transit nationwide.” The Alliance proposed to amend the federal transportation bill to establish a Transit Trust Fund to support new systems and expanding existing ones. The Alliance also called for new policy that gives spending priority to regional transportation plans that support development around transit stops, access to transit for low-income ad working families, and to infrastructure to support regional bikeways.

“Transit programs don’t just reduce carbon emissions, they also create jobs,” said the report’s authors. “Transit projects tend to generate nine percent more jobs per dollar spent than road and bridge repair and maintenance projects and nearly 19 percent more jobs than new road or bridge projects.”

Obama and New Energy For Transit America
In mid-October, Transportation For America, a national coalition of citizen groups, trade associations, and policy organizations, released a five-point national strategy for rail transportation that made similar recommendations.

In June 2008, at the height of the spike in gasoline prices, James S. Simpson, the administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, spoke in Sacramento, where he described the rush to trains and buses, and the need to spend $60 billion annually to double their capacity by 2028. Half would need to come from the federal government and the balance from state and local governments. This year, the federal share of transit funding fell to less than 44 percent.

“The “value proposition” for transit has never been greater,” said Simpson. “Ridership is at its highest level since late 1950s – with over 10 billion trips taken in the U.S. last year. Every $1 invested in public transportation projects generates $6 in local economic activity. And transit saves the nation almost 4 million gallons of gasoline a day and drastically reduces carbon dioxide emissions.”

Though it’s unclear what Congress is prepared to do next year, the momentum for making significant changes in transportation spending priorities is growing. On Tuesday California voters overwhelmingly approved a $10 billion bond to begin building a regional high-speed rail network between tying the state’s southern cities with the Central Valley and California. Los Angeles voters approved a half cent rise in the sales tax to expand the city’s subway system. Voters in Marin and Sonoma counties in California approved a quarter cent increase in the sales tax to start a 70-mile commuter rail line between Cloverdale and Larkspur. And Seattle voters approved an extra half cent sales tax for a $22.8 billion plan to extend light rail service from downtown to the outlying suburbs sometime after 2020, adding 34 miles of light rail and expands commuter train and bus service.

In Hawaii, voters supported a $4.3 billion elevated commuter rail line. In New Mexico, voters in four counties backed a one-eighth cent sales tax, half which will go to running commuter trains between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The 2008 results from transportation ballot initiatives were consistent with the results of such ballot measures in every election since the mid-1990s. According to the Center For Transportation Excellence, which tracks ballot results, more than 70 percent of transit initiatives passed, most of them in Republican dominated counties.

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama met with Mike Fischer, an Indiana resident who works for Amtrak. Over lunch, Obama expressed his support for “expanding rail service.”

He added: “One of the things I have been talking about for awhile is high speed rail connecting all of these Midwest cities — Indianapolis, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis. “This is something that we should be talking about a lot more. We are going to be having a lot of conversations this summer about gas prices. And it is a perfect time to start talk about why we don’t have better rail service. We are the only advanced country in the world that doesn’t have high-speed rail.”

Riding The Train
Here in Minneapolis, riders of the Hiawatha Line readily express their support for rail transit. The line’s two-car trains travel the length of the city on narrow tracks inscribed into a berm beside a busy freeway. Setting out from its home station, underneath the Mall of America, the Hiawatha looks tiny, European — like a miniature tram traversing a Scandinavian city.

Before it was built, critics derided the proposal as a waste of money, and a “Train to Nowhere.” But by attracting passengers who would never ride a bus, the Hiawatha is also demonstrating why light rail is the fastest-growing form of public transportation in America.

The Hiawatha Line took nearly 40 years to build. When the Hiawatha Roadway was constructed in the 1960s, Minneapolitans objected to the original eight-lane plan. So it became a four-lane, with land on either side reserved for a train line. For decades, Minnesota politicians complained that a train would cost too much to build, and be ridden by no one. Finally, a tri-partisan coalition got it done. Once Minnesotans realized that traffic congestion could not be slowed by building more highways, Republican Governor Arne Carlson approved the Hiawatha Line’s initial funding.

After Carlson left office, in 1998, Reform Governor Jesse Ventura appointed Democrat Ted Mondale, son of the former vice president, to head the Metropolitan Council, the Twin Cities’ regional planning agency. Mondale convinced Ventura to put up the rest of the money. Over 300 construction workers built the line, and 150 members of the Amalgamated Transit Union keep it running.

Up and down the Hiawatha Line, stations have brought new residents and new businesses to sleepy south Minneapolis neighborhoods. At Lake Street, a struggling shopping center now has a Subway, an Aldi, and a Little Caesar’s. Near 46th Street is the Oaks Hiawatha Station Apartments, built by a developer who realized he could offer more amenities — and charge more rent — because residents wouldn’t be burdened with car payments.

For More Information

The New Apollo Program

For a copy of The New Apollo Program
click here:

Data Points: Transportation Spending In U.S.

Center for Transportation Excellence
Results of transit initiatives 2008 electionTransit For Livable Communities

Hiawatha Line
Phone: 612-373-3333

Reflections at Bloomington Central Station
8151 33rd Avenue South
Bloomington, MN 55425
Phone: 952-883-0123
Web site:

Tillie’s Bean
2803 E 38th St
Minneapolis, MN
Phone: 612-276-0100

Mark Garner, Senior Project Coordinator
Community Planning and Economic Development
105 5th Ave S, Suite 200
Minneapolis MN 55401-2534

American Public Transportation Association
Web site:
Phone: 202-496-4800

Federal Transit Administration

North American Light Rail Information and News
Web site:

American Public Transportation Association Most Recent Light Rail Ridership Figures

News Release FTA News Starts

Map of Light Rail and Heavy Commuter Rail In Final Design Stage in U.S.

Transportation For America

Light rail lines built since 1986:
Los Angeles — 55.7 miles
Oceanside, CA — 22 miles
Sacramento — 41.1 miles
Denver — 15.8 miles
Baltimore — 29 miles
Minneapolis — 11.6 miles
St. Louis — 46 miles
Camden, N.J. — 34.5 miles
Jersey City, N.J. — 9.6 miles (added to existing “heritage” system)
John F. Kennedy Airport, Queens, N.Y. — 8.1 miles
Charlotte, N.C. — 9.6 miles
Portland, Ore. — 44 miles
Dallas, Tex. — 68 miles
Houston, Tex. — 7.5 miles
Salt Lake City — 19.5 miles
Seattle — 14 miles (opens next year)
Tacoma — 1.4 miles
Minneapolis — 11.6 miles
San Francisco — 15 miles
San Jose — 42.2 miles
Phoenix — 20 miles
Pittsburgh — 5.2 miles

Transit Oriented Development

“These developments work because they attract people who want to live near transit,” City Planner Mark Garner said. “Young couples who are in entry-level professional positions.”

In 2003, Maggie Turner and her husband bought a house near 38th Street, expecting to commute to their downtown jobs on the soon-to-open Hiawatha Line. Once the train started running, the Turners sold one of their cars. There was only one problem with the neighborhood: unlike the hip, youthful enclave the Turners had moved from, it didn’t have a coffee shop. Then Maggie Turner spotted an empty storefront, a block from the 38-th Street station.

“When I saw the building, I thought ‘That is the perfect place to build a coffee shop,’” Turner said. “I talked to the banks, and when they realized it was right by the light rail station, their attitudes changed. It was, ‘Oh, that’s a great place to build it.’”

Turner’s shop, Tillie’s Bean, is now crammed with morning commuters. The Hiawatha Line has brought more young people into what was once a neighborhood of middle-aged homeowners. DreamHaven Books, a sci-fi comic book store, has also relocated to 38th Street.

“Before the younger people started moving into the neighborhood, we were the young kids on the block,” said the 33-year-old Turner. “Now, we’re one of the oldest people. It’s just one of those things.”

Much more ambitious than Tillie’s Bean is Reflections at Bloomington Central Station, a condominium built alongside the Hiawatha Line in Bloomington. Reflections was built specifically to take advantage of the train. The building has sold 95 percent of its 263 units, making it the fastest selling condo development in Minnesota, said salesman Joe Jordan. Eventually, the developer plans to build a park, office buildings, and a shopping center, establishing Reflection as “a city within a city.”

“We get a lot of people don’t want to live downtown, but want access to downtown,” Jordan said. “Some of them are rural Minnesotans. They like this cabin in the city, and then they hop on a train and go to a play.”

Jack Zipoy, a 27-year-old financial planner who bought his first home at Reflections, called the Hiawatha Line a “definite selling point.” Zipoy works downtown, and has season tickets to the Vikings and the Twins. Both teams play at the Metrodome, which has its own stop. Before moving in, Zipoy drove his car every day. Now, he often keeps in the garage all the week.

Zipoy is the type of upscale commuter who never sets foot on a crowded, exhaust-coughing bus, but loves riding a sleek train.

“For me, it’s reliability,” he said. “I know this train, snow, rain, shine, is going to be here every 10 minutes. It also seems a little more roomy. If you want to get a seat, you can.”

That’s a practical matter in Minnesota, where blizzards can scramble bus schedules. But an aversion to the bus is a sociological matter, too, says one mass transit expert.

“Light rail is safer,” said Jim Middleton, who worked as supervisor of light rail safety for the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority, and now maintains the Web site “”It’s way more open. It’s not as dark or dank. Undesirables don’t like it. On light rail vehicles, there are transit police.”

In the first quarter of 2008, national light rail ridership increased 11 percent from the first quarter in 2007, from 101 million trips to 114 million trips. Overall, transit ridership is at its highest in 50 years. Not since streetcars plied the streets of American cities have so many people ridden public transit, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

Light rail’s popularity is due partly to gas prices, partly to the fact that so many new light rail systems have opened in the past two decades. In 1986, there were eight light rail systems in the U.S., most of them in older, Northeastern cities where neighborhoods grew up around the train system. Since then, more than two dozen communities — including developing metropolises such as Dallas, Charlotte, Houston and Los Angeles — have built light rail. Tucson, Orlando, Atlanta, and Las Vegas are planning or studying systems.

Siemens, the engineering conglomerate, recently signed its biggest-ever light rail contract, receiving $184 million to build 55 cars for Denver. More orders are expected.

Los Angeles is adding 14.6 miles of light rail, Denver 19.5 miles. Norfolk is building a 7.4-mile system and 12 more miles are being built in Baltimore. In all, some 531 miles of light rail lines have been built in the United States since 1984, and nearly 100 more miles are under construction or designed. Not since the turn of the 20th century has there been such a strong push in rail transit, say transportation historians.

— Keith Schneider

Casual Carpool Plus Transit, A S.F. Commute

Light rail line along Embarcadero

SAN FRANCISCO — Since late March I’ve been living in a one-room cottage behind an old Craftsman-style home in Berkeley, and commuting to downtown San Francisco. It’s not your typical daily trip. But as gas prices rise, congestion mounts, and family incomes fall, it may well become a new kind of commuting norm in the United States. Of course it may not, too. This being San Francisco. And the weather is just unbelievably good most of the year.

But this is how it goes. I am a casual carpooler. Every morning I stand on line in front of the Safeway on Claremont Street, about six minutes walk from my house. Usually there are other people there, too, along with a line of cars and drivers waiting to pick up other casual commuters, two or three at a time. The goal in all of this is to save time and money for driver and passengers. Crossing the tragically congested San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on a weekday morning can take over an hour because of the longest toll lines I’ve ever seen. The cost also is $4.00.

But cars with three or more passengers zip through in the free carpool lanes. I save the $3.30 it would cost to ride the BART from the Rockridge Station to Embarcadero.

I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now and it’s just a marvel of ingenuity, convenience, and overcoming the fear of the stranger, which has gripped our country for 40 years or so. I’ve ridden with two student artists at San Francisco State, a manager of high rise buildings in San Francisco, a graphic designer, and a developer of affordable housing. I’ve had the chance to check out a two-seat Mercedes, a brand new Volvo, a Land Rover and any number of Toyota Prius’s. Nobody, and I mean nobody, drives an American car here. One of the guys I rode with is an engineer who gave me a lead on an apartment in Oakland, which turned out to be too expensive. Another told me about a hot graphic designer, who is as good as advertised and may fit into our publication schedule at the Apollo Alliance, where I work.

Drivers dispatch their passengers in San Francisco at the corner of Fremont and Howard, which is a couple of blocks from the Embarcadero along magnificent San Francisco Bay. In 1991, two years after the Loma Prieta earthquake, San Francisco demolished the elevated Embarcadero Freeway, replacing it with a palm-lined boulevard. An active lightrail line now runs in the median, passing gardens and parks and thousands of new units of housing, and swanky bars, the Giants baseball stadium, and all the other centers of human commerce that blossomed in what had been the shadows of a loud, dangerous, transportation eyesore.

If I walk, with the sun rising over the bay, it takes about 25 minutes. When I ride the Muni train to 4th Street, a block from my Townsend Street office, it takes about 10 minutes and costs $1.50. Total commute time: 45 minutes to an hour. Going home, I take the Muni to the Embarcadero BART station. BART takes me to the Rockridge Station, and I walk the 12 minutes up College Avenue and Claremont, stopping by the Safeway to get something for dinner. Travel cost: $4.80. Travel time: 45 minutes. Total expense saved from not having to own or drive a car: At least $1,000 a month, after taxes.

About Those Suburbs and Cities


As the dimensions of the mortgage crisis both expand and get clearer, a new picture is emerging of a nation in pain that simultaneously is coming to new conclusions about what it means to be safe and secure in America. For the first time since post-war federal policy ganged up on cities to promote suburban expansion, cities are rebounding in remarkable ways and suburbs appear to have reached some kind of new limits to growth. The evidence of this profound shift is easy to find if you look.

First, here in Michigan and across much of the country, the towering growth in homeforeclosures is hitting the newest suburbs at least as hard, and in most cases harder than it is striking the state’s cities. Foreclosures in West Bloomfield and Birmingham are occurring at the same or higher rates than the rate of foreclosures in Detroit and its older suburbs.

The same is true, according to this article in the Atlantic Monthly, in Florida, California, Colorado, Georgia and other states.

Cities meanwhile are attracting new residents and new wealth, so much so that vast tracts of the urban landscape in cities as different as New York and Salt Lake City, Boston and Denver, Seattle and Knoxville, Chicago and Atlanta, and dozens of others, are being completely rebuilt.

This is a remarkable transformation. For most of my life cities were places to dismantle, not build. I was a kid in the 1960s when city officials and U.S. housing administrators teamed up to tear down much of White Plains, N.Y., my home town, as part of the federal urban renewal program. An elegant network of narrow streets and historic offices and walk-ups was replaced by Houston-like boulevards. A windowless mall was built near the center of town that became one of the most dangerous places to shop in the whole state. White Plains gradually came to its senses and slowly began to replace the urbanism that was removed, and the city is experiencing its own economic and cultural renaissance.

Chicago, too, is undergoing more than $1 billion in new housing, retail, and commercial investment along south Michigan Avenue, an area that encompasses hundreds of acres of old warehouses, storage buildings, and light industrial facilities. Boston is building a new city above the Big Dig. Los Angeles is rebuilding Grand Avenue. New York is planning 45 million square feet of homes and offices above a rail yard along the Hudson River.

A third bit of evidence is the popular clamor for modern transit. Grand Rapids recently won federal approval for a new rapid bus system, and as much as $29 million in US support to build the 10-mile line, which could be the first rapid transit line built in Michigan since early in the 20th century.

Northern Virginia is planning to build a new streetcar line, which would join a growing number of other streetcar systems, including operating lines in Portland and Kenosha, Wisc. And Atlanta is considering a new streetcar line along its famous Peachtree Street.

What appears to be occurring in the United States? Time-wasting, costly, energy-inefficient, land-consuming, and obsolete exurban patterns of development are taking new forms. The institutions that supported the old patterns are grievously injured. Citibank today announced a $23 billion write off connected to sour loans in its mortgage business. The American auto industry continues to shrink. Developers are going bankrupt, among them Levitt and Sons, which built the first auto-dependent cookie cutter suburb after World War Two, New York’s Levittown.

Coming up in their place are builders of new transit systems, designers of new green housing and LEED certified office buildings, and the entrepreneurial high tech businesses popping up downtown in small places like Traverse City, and big places like Charlotte.

Fresh Food, Rapid Transit Meet In Grand Civic Space


NEW YORK — The day after Thanksgiving it was as though no one had ever eaten a square meal, judging from the lines that formed at Zaro’s Bread Basket or the Little Pie Company or Two Boots Pizza. Like everyplace else in midtown Manhattan, the ground floor, the “dining concourse”  of Grand Central Station was mobbed.

Some of what New York City presents to the world these days is familiar to those of us raised there in the 1960s and 1970s. Men and women, wrapped in cardboard or blanketed in grimy carpeting, huddle against the cold and sleep in doorways. Street vendors, their tables heaped in knock off pocket books and designer watches and gloves and hats, line 34th street where Macy’s is located. The spire atop the Empire State Building is lit in the colors of Christmas.

But much about New York is new, like the dining concourse at Grand Central. Many of the roughly 700,000 people who visit Grand Central every day clock1.jpgspend at least a few minutes drinking coffee, or eating sushi, or salads, or fresh fruit in the company of hundreds of other New Yorkers. They sit without fear of the stranger.

In the 1970s, this airy and classic space beneath the main waiting room, defined by arched entrances and marbled walkways, was a place of gloom and loitering. Working people hurried through — collars up, eyes straight ahead– on their way to meet a commuter train to the suburbs.

The great terminal, like the city itself,  was a dying place full of decay and crime and fear.  Grand Central’s dire condition reflected what happens when a rich nation fueled by cheap energy and a national dream of cars and highways and picket fences, directs its people to seek refuge in its suburbs.

Two generations later Grand Central remains a potent symbol for a way of life that is fast changing again. In an era marked by high energy prices, high land values, growing population density, and remarkable constraints on time, the American Dream looks a lot different than it once did. The old train station as a result is a rare study in how and why people gather in public places in the 21st century, as well as an example of energy and time efficiency, two of the new operating principles of the era.

First and foremost, the station is about moving people. Nearly 600 trains depart daily and carry over 500,000 commuters to communities in two states. About a third of that number also find their way into the subway system.

Secondly, it is a grand building that fascinates and satisfies. In 1998, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority completed a $259 million renovation that turned Grand Central into a glittering market. Fresh food is a big draw. There’s a market full of good stuff, almost half a dozen fine dining restaurants and bars, nearly a dozen specialty food shops and bakeries, and more than 20 restaurants on the dining concourse.  The station has become a destination, even for the commuters who once did nothing more at Grand Central than hurry through. 

Third, people feel safe because they are. New York City is safer today than almost any big city in the world. According to the New York Times, the city will likely record fewer than 500 murders in 2007, the fewest since record-keeping began in 1963. To date, just 35 of those killings involved assailant and victim who were strangers to each other. The rest were perpetrated by murderers who knew their target. 

The crowds of people eating lunch at Grand Central are players in a story of a city that cultivates diversity and has found strength in community. That, too, is a new idea.

What Is Selling? Homes Close To Transit


According to real estate listing services, there are nearly 41,000 homes for sale in Detroit and its three neighboring counties — Wayne, Oakland and Macomb. That’s more than twice as many homes on the market as in 2004, when the housing slump started in southeast Michigan. Moreover, it takes an average of six months to sell a house in metropolitan Detroit, and prices have slipped 15 percent to 3o percent, depending on where the home is located. Realtors I spoke to last week said that the Detroit market is still nine months away from reaching bottom. 

Similar woeful trends exist in other troubled metropolitan housing markets in Arizona, California, Nevada, New Jersey, Georgia, and Florida. But Philip Langdon and Robert Steuteville report in the current issue of New Urban News that even in these tough market times homes located close to rapid transit lines, and homes built in new walkable neighborhoods are holding their value and still selling well.

Langdon and Steuteville cite statistics from the Washington metropolitan region, which is served by the Metro rail system. “In close-in, high-density Arlington, Virginia, which is served by Metro rail, prices in mid-2007 were up 20 percent from a year earlier,” and home prices in Washington itself were up five percent, “whereas most other jurisdictions in the region slipped.”

Dallas also saw a similar trend with home sales in new traditional neighborhoods. “Bill Gietema of Arcadia Realty Company in Dallas-Fort Worth said his firm’s two active TNDs “are outperforming their submarkets” (competing subdivisions in the same trade areas).” they report. “One of the TNDs, HomeTown, in North Richland Hills, is selling at “about a 10 percent slower velocity” than before the downturn, Gietema said, but in light of the overall market, that’s considered a healthy performance. “Competitors have closed down their models,” he noted. “We’ve stolen everybody else’s share.” The other TND, Capella Park, on the south side of Dallas, is “outselling competing neighborhoods five to one,” Gietema said.”

Not all new urban neighborhoods are faring so well, report Langdon and Steuteville. But enough are to make the point that buyers, especially young professionals and baby boomers are seeking something much different than a new home on a large lot distant from the city. The New Urban News report is consistent with what I’ve found in the last year during visits to Seattle, Portland, Knoxville, Chicago, New York, Washington, and Salt Lake City to write about metropolitan economies and real estate for The New York Times. In each of these metropolitan regions the downtown market for new and existing homes is stronger than the market for new and existing homes in surrounding suburbs. And the market is strongest in neighborhoods closest to rail transit stops.   

Michigan is at a distinct disadvantage in taking command of this trend. The state does not have a single metropolitan rapid transit system, though Grand Rapids is edging closer to building either a light rail or a bus rapid transit line. Every housing market in the state is taking a pounding with the exception of the market along the Lake Michigan coast close to Chicago. Sales of vacation condos and single family homes have been stronger in and around New Buffalo than anywhere else in Michigan or the Great Lakes region, according to regional realty statistics.