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Green Line: Just Part of a Full Network

June 12, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Launched by Congress in 1956, the federal interstate highway program put its first shovels in Twin Cities ground in 1958. By the end of the next year, 19 miles of urban freeways had opened to traffic. Prodded along by 90 percent funding from Washington, the seven-county system grew to 298 centerline miles and 1,400 lane-miles by 1996.

More than a half-century since its inception, we take this vast web of high-speed roadways for granted. Imagine, though, how different the region would be if we had decided to call it quits with 19 miles. The St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns weren't even connected via I-94 until 1968, according to the Patricia Cavanaugh's deep history of the region's interstates published in 2006.

This weekend, the Twin Cities will celebrate the opening of the Green Line, extending the region's light-rail transit system to a tad over 19 miles. Amid the festivities, some conservatives will continue to maintain that not one mile should ever have been built, and more will say we should stop now.

To be sure, there's a minority school of thought among progressives that freeways should never have penetrated inner cities, either. Even President Eisenhower, the father of the interstate system that bears his name, was surprised to learn that the nationwide divided highways he envisioned for interregional military mobility were stretching into densely developed areas.

But how useful would our original 19 miles of freeway be without the much wider network that grew up around it? The same can be said for the Twin Cities' starter system of 21st century transit. Its full benefits won't be realized until it is joined by many more connecting routes spreading outward and enhancing current bus service in the core. 

Only now, decades after it was first planned, will the Green Line reconnect the major downtowns by rail via busy educational, commercial and government activity centers and burgeoning residential density. With federal help limited to half of transit infrastructure costs -- and continually under threat even at that level -- it will take decades more to build out a well-integrated system. As we did with the freeways, we should keep plugging away.

Planning for many of these transit improvements dates back to conservative control of the Minnesota governor's office and Metropolitan Council. Here's a rundown of the current state of the drawing board:

  • Southwest LRT. Still mired in routing controversy (but so were the freeways, according to Cavanaugh), this extension of the Green Line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie is approaching a make-or-break funding deadline at month's end. Failure of negotiations, highly unlikely in my view, would be a serious setback to hopes of beginning service in 2019.
  • Bottineau Boulevard LRT. This 13-mile extension of the (Hiawatha) Blue Line from Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park could move up on the schedule if the Southwest comes acropper. A draft environmental impact statement has just completed public comment phase; the earliest possible start of service is late 2019.
  • Snelling Avenue BRT. Dubbed the A Line, this arterial bus rapid transit project will connect the Rosedale Center in Roseville with the 46th Street Blue Line station in Minneapolis. It's the first on a planning list of up to 13 enhanced bus lines on busy urban corridors, with LRT-like vehicles and stations, offboard ticketing and limited stops. The A Line is scheduled for completion late next year, with the West 7th Street B Line from downtown St. Paul to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America in 2016.
  • Gateway Corridor. Recently added to a faster lane for federal funding, this line from downtown St. Paul to as far east as the St. Croix River is in early planning stages, tentatively slated for bus rapid transit. Under a best-case scenario, construction could start in 2018 and finish in 2021. 
  • Metro Orange Line BRT. Fast, frequent, all-day service between Burnsville and Minneapolis on I-35W, planned for launch in 2019.
  • Midtown Corridor. An alternatives study for the near south Minneapolis area recommended rail transit along the Midtown Greenway between the Lake Street Blue and Green Line LRT stations and enhanced bus service further east into St. Paul. It's currently listed as an unfunded corridor in regional planning documents.
  • Nicollet-Central Transit Study.  The City of Minneapolis and Met Council are collaborating on an environmental assessment of running modern streetcars from Northeast to the South Side.
  • Auxiliary Improvements. A new park and ride at Hwy. 610 and Noble Parkway opens this year. Downtown St. Paul is getting new transit shelters, signage, public art, security features and bicycle amenities. Metro Transit is adopting technology for real-time bus departure information, "smart" park and rides, communication between buses and traffic signals and buses that announce their locations.
  • 2030 Transitways. Many more transitways are sketched out on the Met Council's long-range transportation plan. It's unlikely that all will come to fruition. (Remember, I-335 through northeast Minneapolis was scotched long ago, as were freeway-style plans for Hiawatha Avenue.)

If we don't dream, however, nothing happens and we're mostly stuck with the 20th century's autocentric transportation design, at huge efficiency, economic, environmental and health costs. It will take time, but we can do much better than that.


Photo credit: Metro Transit

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  • Dan Conner says:

    June 16, 2014 at 10:04 am

    A dream is no longer required for LRT.  It’s just practical sense.  Fossil fuels are dying and on their way out.  There are only a few years of reasonable priced fossil fuels left.  The LRT is electric, which can be generated by numerous sources not dependent on fossil fuels.  The LRT is just thinking ahead for a prosperous future.

  • Jim Mork says:

    July 30, 2014 at 1:04 am

    Minnesota, according to EIA, gets 46 percent of its electricity from coal.  What good is it for homes and industry to reduce electrical usage, only to see LRTs tap into dirty coal electricity and nullify all that investment.  Hybrid mechanisms use the momentum of the vehicle to reduce draw off the grid. So our hybrid cars on the road are cleaner than the LRTs. Why isn’t this a more prominent issue in the LRT debates?  Check this URL: