Get Rail!

It can be fairly argued that the automobile dealt the fatal blow to our remarkable streetcar system, but I prefer to blame Wall Street. The stock market crash of 1929 ushered the country into a decade of hard times that forced TCRT to scale back operations throughout the 1930s. And then, in 1948, a Wall Street stock speculator named Charles Green came along to kill it.

Green bought 6,000 shares of TCRT stock, expecting a quick profit. But the company was going through a rebuilding phase under president D.J. Strouse. A long slump in ridership had convinced Strouse and the TCRT board to invest in a system-wide upgrade of cars, a move that all but guaranteed an interruption of dividends. Enraged by his stock’s poor performance, Green sent a letter to all 3,000 TCRT shareholders, exhorting them to join him in an effort to oust Strouse and the board.

The challenge culminated at the annual meeting in November 1949, when Green officially took control of the company. He hired prominent local attorney Fred Ossanna as general counsel, laid off 800 employees, cut maintenance and service, and announced that the company would shift completely to buses by 1958.

Clearly, the streetcars were seen by post-war Twin Citians as old-fashioned. Ridership had fallen dramatically as the population began to shift to the suburbs, and buses were seen as the future of mass transit. It might be hard to believe today, but buses were the cool public transportation proposition of their own time, and the public was enamored. For their part, the bean counters knew that buses were cheaper to operate, more comfortable to ride, and more in line with the nation’s car fixation. Routes were obviously more flexible, as well—a critical component of TCRT’s growth strategy.

But Green, who was alleged to have ties to organized crime, acted so precipitously and with such arrogance and belligerence that shareholders the next year ousted him and turned the reins over to Ossanna, who simply continued the policies of his predecessor with a little less bravado. The complete conversion to buses was accomplished four years earlier than planned, on June 19, 1954.

Ossanna later was indicted for taking illegal personal profit from the company. He and several of his accomplices were tried and convicted and sentenced to prison. But the streetcars were gone.

“It’s hard to keep from being sentimental about the old streetcars now passing from the scene,” wrote the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune on June 13, 1954. “Most of us have stood on wind-whipped corners cursing the late trolley. Most of us have alighted with relief after a bone-shaking ride. But only the growing generation of youngsters, who have never set foot aboard the yellow juggernauts, will not whisper a benediction for the faithful old rattlers that used to take us to work, to picnics and to school.”

It took less than 20 years for politicians to figure out how stupid they had been to abandon the rail system. The shift to more flexible bus routes had extended mass transit to the swiftly growing suburbs, but the distinctive red MTC buses that converged on both downtowns each weekday at rush hour snarled traffic horribly. By 1972, policy wonks on both sides of the river were talking about building a subway or “people mover” to head off a worsening congestion problem.

The next 10 years brought a flood of proposals, studies, conferences, and task forces designed to decide the transit future of the Twin Cities. The Metropolitan Transit Commission weighed in with a $1.3 billion “intermediate capacity rail system” covering 57 miles. The Metropolitan Council countered with the idea of a “fixed guideway for buses.” And the state legislature ignored them both in favor of something right out of The Jetsons—a network of driverless, electrically powered vehicles. Much debate and little action followed until 1980, when rising gas prices and successful light rail systems in San Diego, Calgary, and Edmonton forced transit officials to once again consider laying tracks.

Why it took another 20 years to get there, of course, says something about our political climate—and much about the general ambivalence that seems to exist around the subject of urban rail travel. Governor Perpich was a supporter of the idea, but only as part of a romanticized European vision of the Twin Cities. Arne Carlson eventually warmed to the idea, but had difficulty selling it to a skeptical DFL-dominated legislature. Jesse finally pushed it through the legislature, but never really sold it to the public.

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