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Money train: Green Line success driving transit, business hopes

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Green Line train
A Green Line train passes through downtown St. Paul in October 2014.
Regina McCombs | MPR News

Sharon Hogenson used to ride the bus occasionally. But when she needed to travel to downtown Minneapolis, the retired social worker from St. Paul typically drove. 

That was before the Green Line.  She won't be driving downtown anytime soon. "I love the train," she said on a recent trip. "It reminds me of bigger cities."

Nearly $1 billion

Hogenson's part of what transit planners are calling a Green Line success story. As the nearly $1 billion light rail line celebrates its first birthday this weekend, officials say it's attracting more riders than projected and spurring economic development. And while speed and safety have been challenging, both have improved.

34,629 riders

The Green Line averaged more than 34,000 weekday rides during its first year, 25 percent higher than predicted. And the numbers have been climbing. One week this spring ridership topped 40,000, a level the line wasn't expect to hit for more than a decade. 

Light rail is drawing a new and diverse group of people into the transit system, said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. "Every culture, every age group, every economic level are part of the Green Line."

11 miles, 45 minutes

Despite the ridership, the line still isn't the fastest way to get between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. When it first opened a year ago it would often take an hour to ride the entire 11 miles. Now, it's usually more like 45 minutes, thanks to some tweaks to the stoplights on University Avenue. 

Metro Transit says it's working to shave another minute or two off the travel time, but it'll never be an express train. 

$3 billion

A 1995 study found that an earlier design route proposing trains along Interstate 94 would have been faster by 15 minutes. But St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says speed was never the primary consideration.

"There are faster ways that you can get back and forth by bypassing community," he said. "We wanted to build community, not just simply go through it."

Economic development was a big reason for putting the train on University Avenue. 

The Metropolitan Council has tallied about $3 billion in development either planned, completed or underway in the areas around the stations, although not all of that can be attributed to light rail. The line opened just as the local economy was hitting a growth spurt. Some of the projects also included public subsidies. 

Even some former critics, though, acknowledge the Green Line has been a boon to the local economy.

That includes landlord Jack McCann, who rallied the local business community against the Green Line back when he was the president of the University Avenue Betterment Association. 

809,377 miles

He misses the parking spaces that used to be in front of his buildings. But now that the trains are rolling, they're a major selling point for his properties.

"I feel a little two-faced on the whole thing, but yes, I had to argue against it and call out all the negatives during the process of design and construction," he said. "And now I have to be a cheerleader for the Green Line as an amenity."

The line is already proving a better economic development engine than the 11-year-old Blue Line, which runs from downtown Minneapolis to the airport and the Mall of America but averages only about 30,000 weekday rides. 

The Green Line, however, has also been more prone to collisions. 

Trains have struck and killed two pedestrians. Data from the Federal Transit Administration show that on average light rail trains get in about three major accidents every 1 million miles they travel. A major accident is one that causes significant injuries or property damage.

41 collisions

Metro Transit was right around that average until last year, when the Green Line opened. In 2014, it had 7 major accidents per 1 million miles.

The Green Line gets into more collisions because it runs down the center of a busy street, said Lamb.

"The vast majority of accidents that we've had are people turning left illegally, against a red light, and it's the train coming up behind them that gets them," he said.

Drivers aren't used to looking over their shoulders before they make left turns, he added.

In recent months, Metro Transit has experimented with new safety precautions to address that problem. Train operators sound their horns and flash their lights as they approach cars waiting to turn left. 

Lamb said it appears to be helping and he expects safety will continue to improve as the Green Line enters its second year.