BY PATRICK J. TROSKA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
Earlier this week I decided to ride the new Metro Green Line light rail from The Interchange to Union Depot and back. Having opened just over a week earlier, I was curious what the experience would be like after the enthusiasm of opening day subsided. Yes, I was there that rainy Saturday when the ribbon was cut and the first train departed Union Station. But that experience was inflated by the thousands of enthusiastic supporters who had been waiting for years for the line to open and the trains to run. I felt a bit like a sardine, jammed into the loaded train as people scurried to be a part of this historic event with trains running once again between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.
Watch a video about the Green Line means for the communities along the line produced by the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative here.
I say “once again” because the Twin Cities metro area is believed to have once had one of the best intercity streetcar systems in the United States. It was dismantled in the middle of the last century and the last streetcars ran in Minneapolis in 1954. At its peak it had nearly 530 miles of track, 1021 streetcars, and over 200 million riders annually. You could ride the rail from Stillwater to Lake Minnetonka, from East St. Paul to South Minneapolis, and all throughout the metro area. I was born 10 years after that last streetcar ran in the Twin Cities and have little experience with multi-modal transportation systems other than those that I’ve used when vacationing out-of-town, but I’ve always wished for a similar system here in the metro area.
So what’s all the fuss about? What makes this new LRT line so important to the people, communities and enterprises connected to it? In my mind it’s quite simple: ACCESS. People on the corridor can jump on the train and inexpensively access the downtowns, the University of Minnesota, the State Capitol, the airport, the Mall of America, and many other employment, education and leisure destinations in the region. Businesses have the opportunity to attract new customers who use the line and may not have paid much attention while driving by in the past. It’s an economic engine moving people around the region. People can leave cars behind and get work done, respond to email, read, study, etc., which provides access to a better quality of life. It also means we walk more, which is healthier; and drive less, which reduces carbon emissions and wear and tear on our roads.
Riding the train provided an opportunity for me to see both University Avenue and all the streets it traveled in a new way. In fact, I saw buildings and businesses I had never seen before precisely because I didn’t have to pay attention to the road and could look around. Here’s some of what I experienced and saw that morning:
- The Little Mekong district has restaurants galore that had my mouth-watering. There were Vietnamese and Thai, and those whose name was less specific. It was fun to see old fast food restaurants turned into Asian cuisine. Repurposing was happening all along the corridor.
- There were new buildings everywhere. From the new Habitat for Humanity and Planned Parenthood headquarters to Episcopal Homes and a new Culvers restaurant (when did that go up?). I saw the site for the planned Prior Crossing apartments for homeless youth and the to-be-updated Old Home Dairy site. It seemed like construction was happening all over the place. One whole block was torn up and under construction but I couldn’t tell what was being built there. Over $2 billion in development is planned along the corridor so get used to the sounds and sights of construction cranes, hammers and hard hats.
- It was cool to go through the University of Minnesota campus, both east and west banks. There’s been so much new development at points along University and Washington Avenues that it was almost unrecognizable at points. It was summer break, but I could imagine students using the train to get to campus and move between the campuses easily.
- There’s a whole capital complex! And some very cool buildings that make up state government. Who knew?
- I saw people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. I saw seniors and families pushing baby carriages. I saw men in business suits and tourists in tennis shoes. The mix of people was great to see. And it was wonderful to hear people point at various things and talk about stopping there on future trips.
I admit it: I’m a fan. I’ve waited a long time for this line to open. As a resident of downtown Minneapolis and the Executive Director of a foundation located just across the river from downtown, the line just makes it easier to get to a lot of places that have previously required a car (or multiple bus transfers). I don’t hate cars. I just enjoy simplicity. I know when the train leaves, I know where it will drop me off, and I know what I’ll find when I get there. Yes, there are still timing issues to work out with the traffic lights, and the full line ride takes just under an hour (in good traffic I can drive that in 20 minutes assuming parking is not an issue), but it’s a safe, inexpensive and convenient option for those of us with cars as well as those who either cannot afford one or choose to not own one. Ensuring access for everyone to opportunities outside their immediate communities should be a priority. And it should be a priority to do everything we can to incent economic vitality where disinvestment has been the historic norm. The Green Line travels through many of those communities introducing them anew to new groups of people.
Riding the train that morning earlier this week allowed me the opportunity to discover a whole bunch of new places to explore. On my next ride, I want to get out and poke around some. Who knows what hidden treasures are yet to be discovered, or for that matter, yet to be built. Perhaps that is why it is called the Green Line, where green represents growth, regeneration and abundance. Something to think about the next time I’m on the train.