When it’s completed in five years, the Central Corridor will connect downtown Minneapolis with the state capital 11 miles down the road in St. Paul, and it’s expected to become the Twin Cities’ most popular transit line. But opposition from prominent landholders along the route — including the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio — continues to challenge the project proponents’ contention that they will be able to maintain reasonable completion costs.
A little more than five years ago, Minneapolis opened its Hiawatha Light Rail line to great acclaim, and the project has been very successful. So much so, in fact, that the Metro Council, which directs transportation expenditures in the Twin Cities and the surrounding region, is currently extending station platforms along the line to support three-car trains.
You would think, then, that the completion of the area’s next major transit project couldn’t come soon enough. Indeed, the Central Corridor will be one of the most exciting new public transportation lines in the country when it opens in 2014, as long as the Federal Transit Administration commits to federal aid this year or next. It’s expected to attract more than 40,000 riders a day by 2030. At a cost of $914 million for the line, the program is at the middle of the pack in construction costs.
Yet the Central Corridor has been mired in controversy since serious planning began in 2001. For years, the University of Minnesota argued that it wouldn’t allow trains down Washington Avenue through the center of campus unless they were placed in a tunnel. Problem is, that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the project’s cost and the University wasn’t willing to chip in. Alternative routings were cumbersome and would poorly serve the student population.
Homeowners and business groups along University Avenue, the principal section of the line, complained that it would increase noise, reduce parking spaces, and hamper retail activity. They argued that the system wouldn’t have enough stops to serve the community adequately.
Meanwhile, in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota Public Radio and other groups along Cedar Street claimed that light rail operations will cause vibrations that make work there impossible. Note that MPR moved into its offices after planning had begun on the project.
These, among others, are some of the hurdles typically faced by transit planners, who find that providing better transportation to a community isn’t as simple as building the line. In some cases, staff at the Met Council have agreed to changes — they’re planning to install what’s known as a “floating slab track” on Cedar Street to make sure that MPR’s nationally-syndicated broadcasts aren’t negatively affected. They’ve committed to adding more stops on University Avenues if they can find the funds. And the area of Washington Avenue in the midst of campus activities at the University will be transformed into a pedestrian-friendly transit mall.
Still, some want more. The University now suggests that the floating slab should be installed on Washington Avenue as well, since it has research facilities there. But the Met Council hadn’t planned on the technology and therefore would have to commit millions more to design and implementation. More importantly, light rail running on tracks without the expensive floating slab would produce less vibration than some existing construction activities on campus. If the sensitive research can be performed with that going on, what difference would a light rail system make?
Central Corridor will eventually be built, and the University of Minnesota will likely come to see the line as an integral part of campus life. The same will probably be said of the people living along University Avenue and those working on Cedar. But the Met Council has to survive months more of these relatively serious demands for mitigation before it will be able to start construction. It will probably have to agree to pay for some improvements, which will either mean a reduced ability to compete for competitive federal New Start funds or decreased quality of stations and services along the rest of the line.
The Twin Cities aren’t alone in facing the community demands placed on public sector infrastructure projects. Since the devastating consequences of urban renewal and inner-city highway construction became all too clear, neighborhoods have been ensuring that their best interests are being represented. That usually means strong opposition to projects such as this, even though the benefits likely to arise from improved public transportation are manifold. It also means that when a project can’t be stopped, people expect some form of payback, usually in the form of expensive compensation. Ultimately, that increases construction costs and lower trust in the ability of government to get estimates right the first time. Such are the costs of infrastructure creation today.
Image above: Central Corridor map, from Metro Council