Envisioning the Central Corridor

Public officials and representatives joined dozens of Cedar-Riverside neighbors to discuss the future West Bank Central Corridor LRT station. From right: Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon; Robin Caufman, manager of public involvement for the Metropolitan Council; Met Council Board Chair Peter Bell; U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison.

Photo by Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Community members discuss future of LRT between Minneapolis and St. Paul

More than 50 years after the dismantling of the streetcar line that once looped between Minneapolis and St. Paul, discussions are underway among stakeholders from both cities about the Central Corridor, the 11-mile light-rail transit (LRT) line that will connect the state’s two largest downtowns and the numerous neighborhoods in between.

Following in the wake of the successful Hiawatha Line, the Central Corridor is part of a larger vision for LRT and bus transit across the state. Now in the preliminary engineering phase, the Federal Transit Authority will consider funding for the project in 2009. Construction is slated to begin in 2010, with the line fully operational by 2014. The Metropolitan Council estimates that the Central Corridor LRT could transport 38,100 weekday riders by 2020 and create 345,000 new jobs by 2030.

From downtown Minneapolis, the 16-stop Central Corridor line will stop at the five existing LRT stations before diverging from the Hiawatha Line and heading for a Cedar-Riverside station at the west end of the Washington Avenue Bridge — on or near Cedar Avenue. The line will then cross the Washington Avenue Bridge — where automobile traffic will be reduced from four lanes to two — to the university’s East Bank campus.

At that point, the line could dip into a tunnel that would run beneath most of Stadium Village and emerge near the western border of Prospect Park. (The length, logistics and economic feasibility of this stretch, whether at or below grade, have yet to be determined.) From there, the line would follow a special university transitway to Southeast 29th Street, from which it would run along University Avenue into St. Paul, bound for downtown and the last stop at Union Depot.

During rush hours, passengers will wait up to seven minutes for a train. An end-to-end trip will last 35 minutes.

Some hope the line will provide a necessary transit option for neighborhood residents, as well as revitalization in the form of commercial, residential and retail development. Others raise concerns about potentially negative effects such as traffic jams, parking problems, construction barriers, rising property taxes, wear-and-tear of old buildings, and an unknown fate for small businesses.

Costs for the $932 million project need to be reduced by as much as $200 million to be eligible for federal transit aid, according to Metropolitan Council officials. In response, officials are weighing the feasibility of aspects of the project: a $155 million underground tunnel for the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus, the $55 million reconstruction of University Avenue and a $72 million linkage from St. Paul’s Fifth Street to Union Depot, she said.

District 4 Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin attributed part of the popularity of the much-anticipated line to heightened awareness of global warming. He said the Central Corridor network represents a big step forward for mass transit. “It’s a chance to symbolically end an era and connect the cities,” said McLaughlin. “It’ll do a lot for reuniting the region. This is a critical spine in the whole effort to make a regional transit system.”

Ward 2 Council Member Cam Gordon agreed the line would be a boon for surrounding communities, but he stressed the importance of open discussion with the communities involved. “It’s very important people are involved and that we listen carefully to them,” he said. “The key to success is how it’ll be integrated with the larger transit system. We want it to be seamless.”

Where on the West Bank?

Cedar-Riverside — also commonly called the West Bank — will be the only neighborhood with both a Hiawatha Line and Central Corridor stop. The new station will be built at the west end of the Washington Avenue Bridge — either on or near Cedar Avenue, a detail that has been the topic of debate on the West Bank.

Early plans called for a stop at Blegen Hall, near the beginning of the Washington Avenue Bridge — 200 feet east of Cedar Avenue.

Neighborhood stakeholders see the station as an opportunity to restore a division in the neighborhood, formed by the freeway interchange and Washington Avenue, that isolates Seven Corners from the rest of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Dania Partners, a diverse coalition of Cedar-Riverside organizations, is lobbying for a station directly on Cedar Avenue — a wish that went unfulfilled with the placement of the existing Hiawatha Line station. The group hosted a public meeting in mid-April at Brian Coyle Community Center, at which a good showing of community members — especially East African residents — joined the group, along with city and county officials and U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison. Ellison spoke briefly, lauding the public discussion of the issue. An aide to Rep. Ellison said he has no stance on the issue and attended the meeting to listen.

Tim Mungavan, executive director of the West Bank Community Development Corporation (WB-CDC), gave a presentation, highlighting the possible Cedar Avenue stop. Mungavan said the Blegen location would cater to the university crowd but would not serve the entire neighborhood.

“It’s an important social justice issue,” said Mungavan, citing a large percentage of neighbors who use mass transit — immigrants, minorities and people in poverty. “It’s a question of are we going to serve every culture in our society or not?”

Peter Bell, chair of the Metropolitan Council, told the Brian Coyle crowd that, while it is important that the Met Council hear public input, he could not promise that all their recommendations could be adopted, noting the need to scale back on federal funding. “We have to make sure that the line serves the needs of all the residents in the corridor,” he told the crowd.

Kathleen O’Brien, vice president of University Services for the U of M, said school officials would like the station somewhere between Blegen Hall and Cedar Avenue. As the third-largest trip generator in the state, the U of M campus represents a major transit hub. About 66 percent of students, staff and faculty walk, bike or ride the bus, said O’Brien. “Part of our agenda to be sustainable is to encourage transit use,” she said. “We’ll work together to identify locations that best serve the community and university.”

Abia Ali, who lives at Cedar-Riverside Plaza, stressed the benefits of a Cedar Avenue stop. “If we have to have the stop near the river, it’s difficult in the night, difficult for safety reasons,” she said. “If we have a stop in the neighborhood, we will have a lot of people coming to promote our businesses.”

Past the “Village” and through the “Park”

A key issue facing the Corridor LRT is whether or not a tunnel will run beneath Washington Avenue on the university’s East Bank campus. Bob Baker, executive director of parking and transportation services for the university, said that, although a tunnel is more expensive than an “at-grade” station, it would be safer and help control traffic.

A street-level stop would eliminate two lanes of traffic on an avenue used by 23,000 vehicles daily. In a typical lunch hour, more than 3,000 pedestrians stroll the corner of Washington and Harvard Street, according to Baker, and thousands of patients visit on-campus health care clinics each year.

“If you think rush hour is bad now, you haven’t seen anything yet,” he said. “Think of the poor ambulance driver trying to get to the hospital. If it’s [at street level], it’ll crawl through campus, back up traffic and slow down travel time.”
Jim Rosvold, owner of Campus Pizza & Pasta and president of the Stadium Village Business Association, said a street-level stop would lead to traffic congestion that will hinder access to local businesses. Tunnel construction would only produce temporary negative effects, he said.

A street-level line would also need to fit in with plans for the new Gophers football TCF Bank Stadium and development in the larger, emerging East Gateway District.

Nearby, Prospect Park residents are taking measures to preserve the neighborhood’s historic character and maintain a pedestrian-friendly environment. They’re currently seeking status as an historic district through the National Register of Historic Places, according to Joe Ring, executive committee chair of Prospect Park/East River Road Improvement Association (PPERRIA). If historic status is granted, it would impose stricter guidelines on how federal dollars could be spent for the project in that area.

In their 29th Street Station Plan, PPERRIA has outlined land uses for blocks surrounding the neighborhood LRT stop. PPERRIA also developed guidelines to instruct developers on quality and design of construction including sidewalk and landscaping details.

Ring said early reactions to LRT were lukewarm, but that the community has since embraced it. Ring admits that LRT poses many challenges and may require some adjustments, but he looks forward to the completed line. “I would love to walk a couple blocks and enjoy high-quality public transportation, as I have in other parts of the country,” he said. “Everyone is coming to realize we need this.”

last revised: April 27, 2007