Making Light Rail Stop for Us

A promising, billion-dollar Twin Cities light rail project almost bypassed lower-income neighborhoods on its route, but thanks to a coalition of community groups, it will now make all local stops.

In January 2010, a hastily planned press conference at the Model Cities office in St. Paul, Minn., announced that funding had been secured to add three stations to the eastern end of the Central Corridor light rail transit (LRT) line, the second line in the Twin Cities’ planned regional LRT network.

But it was no ordinary press conference. Then-Rep. James Oberstar characterized the event as more like a revival.

Why all the enthusiasm? The missing stations had been part of a years-long debate over who would — and should — benefit from the nearly $1 billion public investment in Central Corridor LRT. The funding meant that several distinct and historic communities of color along University Avenue would get LRT access and the associated benefits rather than being passed by as the train whisked between the twin downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

While the “revival” credited federal policymakers and local decision-makers for clearing the hurdles to build the missing stops, in reality it was the result of years of behind-the-scenes community organizing.

Organizing for a Voice

Slated to open in 2014, the Central Corridor LRT will begin at the historic Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, travel along University Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares connecting the two cities, run through the campus of the University of Minnesota, and end at a connection to the wildly successful Hiawatha LRT line in downtown Minneapolis.

Although plans had been in the works since the 1980s, broad community interest in the Central Corridor was piqued when the line’s alignment and planned stations were announced in 2006. Notably absent were three stations that had been part of earlier concept designs. The now-missing stations were all in the eastern University Avenue section, where the largest populations of low-income people and people of color lived and where bus lines were both heavily used and few and far between.

In that section, the planned Central Corridor stops were one mile apart. That would require up to a half-mile walk for transit-dependent residents in a climate that experiences an average temperature of less than 25 degrees during the five coldest winter months.

“When you look at the census data you realize those areas are lower income and highly transit dependent,” says Jewish Community Action leader Andrea Lubov. “Why should people from the most critical passenger area have to walk farther, unless the point is to say ‘We don’t want poor people to get on our train’?”

Networks of community groups that already existed along University Avenue began talking. One of those was the University Avenue Community Coalition (UACC), a group of grassroots regional, environmental, faith-based, affordable housing, transit, and place-based organizations, which had formed years earlier to work on housing, jobs, and equity issues on the avenue. When the planned Central Corridor stops were announced, UACC began talking to University Avenue residents about what was going to happen in their community. It learned that access to light rail and benefits from transit stops at Western Avenue, Victoria Street, and Hamline Avenue were the primary concerns of many residents.

Meanwhile, neighborhood associations along the avenue were also becoming organized around transit equity issues. Minneapolis and St. Paul both have strong networks of city-endorsed neighborhood associations, or district councils as they are called in St. Paul. Recognizing both the threat and the opportunity posed by the Central Corridor, the councils that would be affected by the light rail’s development formed the District Councils Collaborative of St. Paul and Minneapolis (DCC) to ensure the community voice was a strong part of LRT planning and development. The DCC independently identified the need to add additional stations to the line to serve neighborhood needs.

Eventually, these two sets of organizations and others merged into one community coalition called Stops for Us, with a primary focus on securing the three missing Central Corridor LRT stations in St Paul.

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