MINNEAPOLIS – 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 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.
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Reflections at Bloomington Central Station
Mark Garner, Senior Project Coordinator
American Public Transportation Association
Federal Transit Administration
North American Light Rail Information and News
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:
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 lightrail.com. “”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