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.

Image shows people at a 2008 rally to restore stops along a St. Paul light rail transit line.
A 2008 rally to restore three key stops along the central corridor light rail transit. Photo courtesy Art Sidner.

In January 2010, a hastily planned press conference at the Model Cities office in St. Paul, Minnesota, 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.

A Road Runs Through It

For many, the missing stops represented not just transit access, but racial justice. The neighborhoods adjacent to University Avenue in St. Paul are some of the most diverse in the Twin Cities, with large populations of Hmong, blacks, and whites and smaller pockets of Latino residents. While people of color make up nearly a quarter of the Twin Cities’ regional population, more than half the residents in neighborhoods along east University Avenue in St. Paul are non-white.

In particular, the Central Corridor LRT will run through the heart of what used to be called Rondo, a vibrant African-American neighborhood that was thriving even before the days of the civil rights movement.

“For African Americans, Rondo was a place where we settled. Because of discrimination we didn’t have many options,” says Nieeta Presley, executive director of the Aurora St. Anthony Neighborhood Development Corporation, which now serves the historic Rondo community. “Professionals could open up their law, medical, and dental practices here. There was a high percentage of homeownership and people raised their families here.”

That was true until the 1950s, when transportation planners had their first wave of ideas for how to link St. Paul and Minneapolis. Interstate 94 was their solution, and the highway tore right through the heart of the Rondo community without any consultation with or compensation to Rondo residents. Hundreds of homes and small businesses were displaced, and families were forced to relocate to unfamiliar and unwelcoming areas of the region. The African-American residents who remain in the neighborhood 60 years later have not forgotten that mistreatment.

“I-94 was done to the community, not with it,” says Presley. “Promises were made, but they were false promises. Now as this new major investment is coming that promises benefits to the community, an already injured community, we needed to be on top of it.”

“We don’t want another Rondo” became the rallying cry for many African-American families who had lived along University Avenue for generations. They bristled at the idea of yet another infrastructure project tearing through their neighborhood in the name of regional progress but at the expense of the people whose lives would be affected every day. Several groups even banded together to file Civil Right Act Title VI discrimination complaints with the Federal Transit Administration, as well as filing a lawsuit challenging the adequacy of the environmental review. These were intended to not only ensure equal access to transit, but to avoid, in fact, “another Rondo” that could have a negative neighborhood impact.

St. Paul is also an important resettlement area for large populations of Hmong refugees, who began arriving in the 1970s, displaced from their native Laos after fighting alongside the United States in the Secret War. Thousands of Hmong live along the Central Corridor. The stretch between Minneapolis and St. Paul along University Avenue boasts a thriving network of small businesses owned by both African Americans and Southeast Asians.

“Very vulnerable populations live along the corridor: low-income people, immigrants, people with low English proficiency,” says Va-Megn Thoj, executive director of the Asian Economic Development Association, located on University Avenue. “That’s where all the passion and commitment is rooted. People in this corridor are directly impacted and they should stand to gain the most from a transit project like this.”

Express Train

With so many compelling reasons to include the three missing stops, why were they dropped from plans for the corridor?

The Central Corridor mantra was being on time and on budget. The Twin Cities’ regional governmental body, the Metropolitan Council, specifically opposed the three missing stops because they would add cost to the project while adding travel time to the line.

At the time, a calculation called the Cost Effectiveness Index (CEI) was make or break for receiving federal funding for transit projects. The CEI is a complicated formula, which, according to the Transportation Equity Network, measures “how much a project should cost, given its ability to save time for the population it serves.” Met Council’s argument was that as elements were added to the line that increased travel time, fewer riders would hop on the train. The models they used to project ridership predicted that adding stops would simply redistribute riders rather than increasing their numbers. Therefore, the agency feared, there would be a larger cost, fewer riders, and a longer travel time, making the Central Corridor fail the CEI and be passed up for a 50 percent federal funding match in favor of a long line of other transit projects.

“We were told, ‘If you want these stops, you’re going to destroy the project. You’re going to stop the whole thing,’” recalls Joan Vanhala of the Twin Cities regional equity organization the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. “Elected officials were afraid to raise the issue because everyone was feeling tenuous about the CEI, and protective of the project’s eligibility for federal funding.”

While cost-efficiency is important, any model that favors shorter travel times and longer distances between stops tends to favor higher income (and often whiter) commuters over lower-income, transit-dependent people who also travel within a community.

Also, Thoj says the Met Council’s predictions of ridership didn’t support what the community knew about the east University Avenue area. “The Met Council data didn’t look at the needs of the community from a transit perspective. Their mission was to build the project, not serve existing communities.” Community organizers were told no, denied meetings with key decision-makers and, in short, summarily dismissed.

That was a missed opportunity, according to University Avenue resident Metric Giles. A community organizer for the St. Paul-based Community Stabilization Project, Giles saw the Central Corridor as an opportunity for transportation planners to rebuild some trust with the community. “There was an opportunity to heal that wound, an open wound,” he says. “This was about how the Metropolitan Council could come to the community and say, not just with words but with actions, ‘The things we did with I-94 are unresolved and we want to take the time with the Central Corridor to recognize the disparities that were felt by the community.’”

Plans B and C

When it became clear that deep-rooted community knowledge and expertise wasn’t going to convince the Met Council, Stops for Us members decided they needed hard data to back them up. The DCC hired a consultant to analyze transitway development in similar regions around the country. What they found directly contradicted the Met Council’s assertion that the missing stations would place stops too close together. In fact, stations in other urban areas around the country were typically less than a half a mile apart.

After promoting the report for a while, DCC leadership was eventually invited to present it to the Central Corridor Management Committee, a body of elected project funders and major stakeholder groups that are directly affected by or have an interest in the Central Corridor. The committee makes the ultimate recommendations for all things related to the Central Corridor. After the presentation, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman directed Met Council staff to analyze the report.

Staff eventually agreed that it was valid, and publicly acknowledged there would be disparate community impacts. The management committee still stopped short of endorsing the idea of three missing stops, but the coalition now had a toehold. In February 2008, the management committee made a critical concession by agreeing to include the underground infrastructure for the three stations, known as “stubs,” in the plans.

Eventually, the Met Council conducted a study that predicted delaying full build-out of the three stops would cost $27-$29 million more than constructing them at the outset of the project. That gave the coalition another economic argument.

But despite their adept political maneuvering and strong data analysis, the Stops for Us coalition simply could not overcome the very real roadblock of the CEI. So the arena shifted to the federal level.

The coalition had high hopes that the Obama administration would revisit the issue of the CEI. Six months into its first year, the administration announced an increase in the allowable CEI, which cleared the way for Stops for Us allies at the city of St. Paul to add back one of the three stations.

Heartened, Stops for Us moved on to a strategy of building relationships with key decision-makers within the Obama administration, in the hopes of educating them on the detrimental effects of their own policy. Because there is an unwritten rule that community members should not contact the Federal Transit Administration, Stops for Us members decided to casually corner FTA administrator Peter Rogoff at the 2009 Railvolution conference in Boston. They waited in line to meet him after his presentation, and were surprised when he not only agreed to meet with them, but that he declared the Central Corridor the poster child for why the CEI needed to be eliminated.

“I looked at him and I said, ‘We don’t want to be the poster child for the worst thing, we want to be the model for doing it right,’” Carol Swenson, executive director of the DCC, recounts.

By January 2010, the FTA made it official: the CEI would no longer be the driver for decision-making around federal transit funding. Instead, a variety of “livability factors” would be balanced with an economic analysis. In his remarks announcing the change, Rogoff specifically cited the Central Corridor as a reason for the change, saying it was “troubling from a civil rights perspective” that the train would not stop in the communities of color it traveled through.

U.S. DOT Secretary Ray LaHood acknowledged the community’s role in the victory in his remarks at the St. Paul press conference, saying, “You’ve made a difference and we will use you as an example across the country . . . that if you have great projects that are for the people, and work with your delegation, you can make things happen.”

Stops for Us members looked on from the audience, taking in one of the most significant victories for racial equity that many of them had experienced in their careers.

Series NavigationIt’s All About Choice >>Looking Forward >>
Tracy Babler is development and communications director of the Alliance for Metropolitan Stability.

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