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Hiawatha light rail marks five years; what's next?

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Hiawatha line
The Hiawatha light rail train at the Warehouse District/Hennepin Ave. station in Minneapolis.
Courtesy of Nicholas Benson / ottergoose.net

Today marks five years of operation for the Hiawatha line, Minnesota's first light rail service.  

Ridership is much greater than projected, and that success has helped spark a debate over how te expand transit in the Twin Cities metro area, and how to pay for it. 

Five years ago, south Minneapolis activist Pat Welna was among a small group invited to take one of the first train rides on the 12-mile system.

Welna remembered the fight to stop a planned freeway, and the battle to find support and funding for a train.

"It was worth going to those meetings for a thousand hours," said Welna. "And when I saw the first one going down on my way to work, I started crying. I thought I'd never see this."

Five years and 43 million passenger rides later, the Hiawatha line is coping with success.

"We're way better than we were five years ago, when we had to just cobble this stuff together."

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons says ridership for the line, which connects downtown Minneapolis with the Mall of America, is already 20 percent ahead of what ridership was expected to be 11 years from now. 

But that success comes at a price. Gibbons says heavy use is causing faster than expected wear and tear on the rail cars.

"We're about to begin the first round of major overhauls of the 27 light rail vehicles that we have in our fleet," said Gibbons. "Ridership has been so strong that we've decided to use more two-car trains than one-car trains."

Another cost of success -- during rush hours and special events, the train cars are packed.

Gibbons says the plan is to buy more cars, which also means expanding the light rail stations.

"We're now in ... the midst of a program that's extending the platforms at 10 of our stations, to accommodate the use of three-car trains," he said.

The other expansion is in downtown Minneapolis, where the line is being extended a few blocks to carry riders to the new Twins baseball park and a new intermodal transit station.

That station will be the hub for the Hiawatha line as well as the Northstar commuter rail service, which will serve the northwestern suburbs when it starts up late this year.  

Next in line for light rail is the Central Corridor project, which will connect downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. The project is expected to gain federal approval and funding in time for construction to begin in 2010, with completion in 2014. 

Five metro counties voted last year to tax their residents one-fourth of one percent to help fund transit projects in the Twin Cities area.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin says the $85 million a year raised by that tax is only a portion of what's needed. 

"If we're going to do a truly robust build-out,  we're going to have to identify additional funding to get there to satisfy the demand that is out there," said McLoughlin. "But we're way better than we were five years ago, when we had to just cobble this stuff together."

Several other transit projects are on the drawing board in the southwestern suburban area; in the southern suburbs along I-35W; and along the Bottineau Boulevard corridor in the northwestern suburbs. 

In addition, four commuter rail projects are in the planning stages to connect suburban areas with downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.