After rocky start, Green Line overcomes community objections

Light rail near Kolthoff Hall
A Green Line light rail train passes by Kolthoff Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, June 9, 2014. David Blank's chemistry lab was moved from its location in Kolthoff Hall after the light rail line disrupted its sensitive research.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

When the first passengers board the Green Line light rail trains Saturday, they'll be part of a joyous, 11-mile-long celebration.

The opening-day festivities probably won't carry a trace of the acrimony that long bedeviled plans to send trains between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In the end, opposition from residents, the University of Minnesota, and businesses proved no match for the largest public-works project in state history. Some of those adversaries have become allies.

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The $957 million project got off to a rough start. At a public hearing eight years ago, Ora Lee Patterson voiced her wariness about the proposed light rail line that would wind through her old neighborhood. Patterson grew up in the Rondo area of St. Paul, where construction of Interstate 94 more than 50 years ago gutted the heart of the city's black community.

Ora Lee Patterson
Former St. Paul resident and community activist Ora Lee Patterson, pictured in her North St. Paul home in 2010, says her resistance to light-rail has softened. Patterson was worried that construction of the Central Corridor project would harm businesses on University Avenue, but now she thinks many will benefit from the new transit line.
Laura Yuen/MPR News, file

"I have seen the tearing up of Rondo, the business community, for the sake of a freeway," she said then. "And there are still some of us that are around that experienced that, and we're still going through that pain, and now we're suffering through the pain of a Central Corridor coming down the middle of the street on University Avenue."

Patterson, 73, is a longtime member of Pilgrim Baptist, the state's first black church. In 2010, it joined the St. Paul NAACP in a lawsuit against the Green Line, then known as the Central Corridor project.

More: Pilgrim Baptist celebrates 150 years

But Patterson's assessment of the project changed.

"I don't really see it that way anymore," she said recently. "The opposition I saw coming in, even my comments, were based on the past."

Green Line planners won over skeptics like Patterson once they could show that the trains would serve the low-income and minority communities along the route.

But that trust didn't come easily. Initial plans placed stations as far as a mile apart in some of the city's most transit-dependent areas, leading some residents to question if the project was really being built for them. The design grew out of a Bush administration policy that essentially forced local communities to cap spending on federally funded transit projects.

Joan Vanhala
Joan Vanhala, an organizer with the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, was part of a grassroots campaign that successfully fought for the addition of three St. Paul light-rail stations in low-income and minority neighborhoods along the Green Line.
Laura Yuen/MPR News

Joan Vanhala, an organizer with the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability, said when she and other transit advocates started pushing for three new stops to the line, the Metropolitan Council responded ominously.

"'You're gonna kill the project." That was their response initially, she recalled.

At the time, regional planners believed their hands were tied by federal rules, and that any local conflict could jeopardize funding. Under the so-called cost-effectiveness index, the Federal Transit Administration preferred shorter travel times and longer distances between stops.

But Vanhala and her allies persisted. They branded themselves the "Stops for Us!" coalition and pressed officials at every level to consider the need for more stations.

Previously: What will light-rail do to St. Paul?

Western and Unversity
Pedestrians and motorists cross the METRO Green Line at Western Ave. N. and University Ave. in St. Paul, Minn. Friday, April 18, 2014. The light rail stop was one of three stops that were not included in the original plans for the light rail, but community members pushed back and are now hoping the line brings more people to the "Little Mekong" neighborhood.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

In 2009, they attended a national rail conference in Boston, where Peter Rogoff, then-administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, was scheduled to speak. Vanhala recalls how she and her conspirators made sure to seize that moment.

"We had plotted it all out. We were gonna sit at the table right in front of the big stage," she said. "We were like, 'As soon as he walks off that stage, we're gonna surround him!' Which is what we did. And he was, like, 'I already know about those stops, and you guys are the poster child as to why the cost-effectiveness index needs to be changed.' And we were floored."

Three months later, under President Barack Obama's leadership, the FTA announced it would ease up on the cost-effectiveness rule and consider other factors, such as the potential for economic development. When explaining the change, Rogoff said he was troubled by the Central Corridor project from a civil rights perspective, because the early plans failed to fully serve the Asian and African-American communities.

Vanhala recalls just two weeks after that, in early 2010, the transit advocates received a hint of even more good news: Mayor Chris Coleman had planned a press conference.

Coleman, the U.S. transportation secretary, and other officials announced that the federal government and local partners had cobbled together enough money to pay for all three new stops.

"We are unbelievably excited today about the fact that finally the voices have been heard loud and clear to get stops built into this project," Coleman said then.

Adding those stations has increased the line's overall travel times, much to the chagrin of commuters who were hoping to zip from one downtown to the other. The entire trip from Union Station in St. Paul to Target Field in Minneapolis is expected to take about 48 minutes, which is eight minutes longer than initial projections. Still, neighborhood advocates say the extra minutes are worth it. In their minds, the Central Corridor is a symbol of how a community can pull together to influence big projects.

The Rondo activists weren't the only ones to sue. The project also faced lawsuits by Minnesota Public Radio and the University of Minnesota.

Former Met Council Chair Peter Bell often found himself the target of criticisms for not easily bending to community pressures. Yet he thought the groups had legitimate complaints.

Peter Bell
Met Council chairman Peter Bell.
Caroline Yang/MPR News 2010

"By and large, there was no one who ever came to me about an issue with Central Corridor that I thought was without merit at all," he said. "Never did that happen. I did think people sometimes overstated their case and wanted solutions that were not practical."

But Bell does worry that communities have too much power to essentially veto a project.

Three years after a judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Minnesota Public Radio, the company continues to work with the Met Council on how to lessen vibrations generated by vehicles crossing the tracks next to MPR's broadcast center in downtown St. Paul. Met Council officials say smoothing road surfaces as early as this summer might do the trick.

Four years ago, the University of Minnesota also was locked in a bitter feud with the Met Council. The main concern among university officials was that the trains' vibrations and electromagnetic interference would harm sensitive research labs. Things were so heated that Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough had to act as one of two diplomats determined to broker a deal.

"We used every strategy you could possibly think. We met at new venues, we met at the U's turf, we met at the Met Council's turf, we met on neutral turf," McDonough said. "Many times, I can remember, sitting at a table, just saying, 'I know this is a big issue, but the first thing we all got to do is to commit to getting to yes. We all have to agree we want to solve this problem, and then we can roll up our sleeves and figure out how do to that.'"

In the end, they did figure it out. The Met Council installed systems to lessen the disruption from the trains, and also paid more than $1 million to move two labs. It cost an additional $25 million, in university and state bonding money, to relocate another research facility.

More: Met Council, U of M reach a deal on Central Corridor

U of M chemistry professor David Blank was nervous about light rail because he and his students are conducting research that one day may help scientists design the next generation of solar cells. Blank and his team have set up large tables where laser beams travel through a patchwork of mirrors and lenses bolted down at just the right angles.

"Along this very long laser table, one end of the table only has move a few nanometers relative to the other end of the laser table, and just a little bit of shaking between the two does our experiments in," he said.

Laser research
Post-doctoral researcher Andrew Healy arranges laser-guiding optics in David Blank's chemistry lab in Smith Hall at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Minn. Monday, June 9, 2014. The lab, which includes precise laser technology used for research, was forced to move from its former location because of the vibrations caused by the Green Line light rail.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

But Blank is no longer complaining. His lab is now better protected from the vibrations, after a construction crane and riggers spent two weeks moving his lab to a nearby building farther from the tracks.

Blank rides his bike to work every day of the year and has always been a fan of transit. Early modeling from the Met Council estimated about 28 percent of the Green Line's 40,000 weekday rides by 2030 are expected to come from the university community, and Blank said he and his students will take the train.

"I think it was a very tough place to put it," he said. "But from what I understand, they've worked it out. And I think it's a very beneficial place to put it."

This doesn't mean everyone along the route is happy, and many say they'll remain vigilant in the years to come to see how the trains affect their interests.

But for now, project supporters say it's time to celebrate the overcoming of differences. The Met Council has invited Patterson, the former Rondo resident who once opposed the Green Line, to be a part of the festivities Saturday.

Patterson said she's eager to take her seat on light-rail train No. 1. She said the light rail project hasn't divided her community as she once feared, and some businesses may benefit from the line.

"I think it's nice — very, very nice," she said. "I think the neighborhood residents, as a whole, seem to appreciate the light rail more so than what we first heard years ago."

Minnesota Public Radio and the Metropolitan Council are negotiating ways to reduce noise and vibrations from the newly built light rail line outside MPR headquarters under a contract agreed to in 2009.​