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Development Puts Green into the Green Line

January 17, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Light rail trains won't start running between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns until sometime next year, but already the project has spurred $1.2 billion in private real estate development along the route. That exceeds the $957 million public construction cost of what will be dubbed the Green Line, and it's just getting started.

"The LRT project that provided 4,455 construction jobs will create construction jobs in development for years come," said Susan Haigh, chairwoman of the Metropolitian Council, the line's builder.

Major construction on the 11-mile route halted for the winter with 84 percent of the project completed, including 10 miles of double track, new streets and sidewalks. The new Central Corridor is bringing improvements for drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists as well as transit riders. All 18 stations have been built. Most of what's left is systems work and completion of the St. Paul Lowertown maintenance shop.

During the customer-discouraging chaos of torn-up and blocked-off streets since March 2011, 70 businesses in the corridor closed and 16 moved away. By the same total, 86, set up shop there and 22 others relocated within the corridor, according to Met Council figures. That means the total of more than 1,400 retail and other enterprises in the corridor stayed level amid temporarily lousy business conditions.

Forgivable business loans and other assistance totaling $11 million as part of the project helped some operations over the hump. Now the corridor is poised for strong economic growth when light rail riders and residents of nearly 7,400 new transit-induced housing units boost foot traffic around the stations. Drivers will have easy access to University Avenue businesses, too, despite the much-decried loss of nearly 1,000 curbside parking spaces. More than 16,000 parking spots remain at curbs and lots within a short block of the avenue.

The unique promise of the Central Corridor LRT extends beyond its business and residential opportunities, however. Its linkage of two downtowns, the State Capitol and the sprawling University of Minnesota Minneapolis campus in the middle—with well over 200,000 jobs and tens of thousands of students at those four nodes—will bring unprecedented efficiency to both riders and the Metro Transit system itself.

Massachusetts-based Yonah Freemark explained in a 2011 Transport Politic blog:

"The Central Corridor route offers a number of advantages that most new rail lines constructed in the United States do not: Peak service demand in both directions. A typical suburb-to-central city line acquires most of its ridership from work trips—from the suburbs to downtown in the mornings, and from downtown to the suburbs in the afternoons. If there is enough demand to run 10 trains per hour in one direction, however, the transit agency generally has to run (and pay for) 10 trains per hour in the other direction just to keep up—even if there's only enough demand for 5. This means too many vehicles running mostly empty in the opposite direction from peak."

With a major destination at each end, Freemark added, the Central "will reduce the problem of peak-period inefficiencies and ensure that the operator is able to attract a sufficient number of riders on all of its trains."

In addition, the Green Line's urban core route is ideally located to maximize benefits of its significant public investment, especially in terms of accessibility for those with the least of it. Key findings of a recent University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies report include:

*"Locating future development inside the I-494/I-694 loop will create additional regional accessibility to jobs, while locating development along transitways provides even greater benefits. In both case, the population with the greatest need receives the greatest benefits."

*"Locating new jobs near transitways produces larger increases in accessibility than locating new housing near transitways."

The research led by UofM Asst. Prof. Yingling Fan doesn't address locating new transit near existing jobs, as the Central does, but it's hard to imagine that the effects would be negative. For a project that more perfectly fits Fan's prescription for transitway benefits, look no further than the planned Southwest light rail line from downtown Minneapolis to the jobs-rich Eden Prairie area, a corridor projected to add 50,000 jobs in the coming years.

Currently, according to Transit for Livable Communities, only 25 percent of Twin Cities households and 10 percent of metro jobs are conveniently served by transit. That means the vast majority of metro residents have little or no chance at the $9,000 annual savings available to transit riders who ditch the car.

Taxpayers can reap similar savings if the Twin Cities concentrate more on the $4.5 billion job of building out the transit system than on the $40 billion in highway spending the Minnesota Department of Transportation says is needed to address traffic congestion. A full transit buildout, by the way, would create 30,000 jobs and $3 in direct economic benefits for every $1 invested, according to the corporate-sponsored Itasca Project.

For years now, supposedly business-friendly Minnesota conservatives have opposed the transit investments we need to build prosperity while progressives have promoted them. It's a classic red-blue conflict. Here's hoping the two sides can come together on the spendable green the Green Line and its rail-and-bus complements will stir up.

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