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Rethinking Light Rail’s Impact on Business

June 14, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

In a recent two-year period, more than 200 businesses disappeared from storefronts along the streets between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns where the Central Corridor light rail transit line is now being built. That represented a 15 percent loss of the kind of grass-roots enterprises our economy depends on.

Is this more evidence of the insidious effects of tearing up pavement and laying tracks down the middle of bustling commercial strips such as University Avenue in St. Paul and Washington Avenue in Minneapolis? Doctrinaire transit bashers will say they told us so. I say think again.

For starters, all those business closings were measured from March 2009 to March 2011, before major construction work this spring turned a stretch of University into a dusty two-lane nightmare for motorists. That period also was marked by the Great Recession and its slow-growth aftermath, which wiped out businesses and jobs in lots of places untouched by 21st century urban planning.

The Central Corridor big dig actually started just three months ago, and it coincided with a small but significant turnaround in business presence on the light rail route. From February 1 to May 31, 22 businesses opened along the corridor while 12 closed. Of 10 operations that relocated, seven moved somewhere else on the same corridor.

These findings of the Metropolitan Council's latest business status report—amended Monday with some small changes discovered after the report was posted on the Web, according to spokeswoman Laura Baenen—show anything but a mass exodus of economic drivers from the Central Corridor. In fact, the figures suggest the exact opposite: That smart businesspeople understand a multimodal corridor will likely attract more customers to their sales floors, not fewer.

Among the new operations moving in are professional offices, eateries and retailers. Those shutting down included Porky's drive-in and a video rental shop, victims more of changing tastes and technologies than anything else.

Still, news reports too often focus on beleagueuered merchants complaining that the coming of light rail is the source of all their troubles. This facile view overlooks the facts that tell a different story:

  • University Avenue in St. Paul, by far the longest single stretch of the Central Corridor route, was long overdue for a necessary rebuild that would have disrupted business access just as much as the current project, even without light rail. Lake Street and Chicago Avenue businesses in Minneapolis recently suffered through years of reconstruction with no light rail components. In fact, Lake Street business leaders were enlisted to educate those along University on how to survive construction because the projects were so similar.
  • News reports frequently mention that Central Corridor construction will go on for three years without noting that no individual section of the project will be torn up for more than six months. The work is being done in stages, just as on Lake Street.
  • Public and private funders have pledged $15 million in assistance to Central Corridor businesses to help them sweat out the construction hassles, replace on-street parking and upgrade facilities during the downtime. Little or nothing like this is typically available to businesses affected by normal road rebuilding.

Cities around the nation and the world have demonstrated that modern rail transit is a great boon, not a bane, to trackside businesses. The Twin Cities haven't seen that yet, because our only light rail line so far, the Hiawatha, serves practically no traditional commercial districts on its route from downtown Minneapolis to the airport and the Mall of America. Nonetheless, it's been a great success in terms of ridership and cost efficiency.

I'm betting that when the Central Corridor trains start running in 2014, we'll learn first-hand how much more good high-quality urban transit can do for riders and businesses alike.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Dorothea Johansen says:

    June 21, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    I’m a homeowner (Englewood Ave.) and a small business owner (Prior betw. Marshall and University).  I’m not a “doctinaire transit basher” at all. (By the way, I think this kind of language is divisive and discounts the real pain some businesses are experiencing.) I was a both a proponent of light rail and a big fan of the University Ave. small business community… until I saw firsthand what the construction actually means to us.

    I don’t believe that all who are saddened by the probable loss of our living and business communities are using this as an excuse to trash the glory of light rail. But can you tell me the Met Council would have put such a disrupting project through Grand Ave. or the Highland neighborhood?
    I am still a big fan of the small businesses.  But I’m predicting that many many of the non big boxers will be gone within the 4 year time frame of construction.  Anectodal as this may be, friends I know from other areas of the city are avoiding us simply because it’s too time consuming and unpredictable to patronize corridor businesses. The effort to get people to navigate a Destruction Zone to go eat at a small restaurant on University is nice symbolism, but have you done any studies on business loss of these small restaurants in the last 3 months?
    To cite the Met Council study of business demographics so early in the light rail construction process and to make broad self congratulatory statements about the survival of these small businesses is premature and arrogant, I believe.

    Go ahead and help these businesses, but please don’t tell us that this is good for us.