Get Rail!

There have always been two ways to argue the benefits of light rail: traffic congestion and economic development. But not even the most fervent LRT-lover is going to pretend that 11 miles of track from downtown to the megamall and the airport will break the morning and afternoon gridlock on the Crosstown highway. And not even the most optimistic developer is going to tell you that the new line is going to spark a renaissance along the mostly industrial Hiawatha Avenue.

Indeed, it’s hard to find any evidence that actually makes a good case for the Hiawatha Line. It will not cut traffic congestion. It will, if the experience of other cities with LRT are any indication, lead to poorer bus service, as transit funding is siphoned off to subsidize the rail alternative. It will, by itself, do little to spark development at a time when the city is strapped for funding.

Yes, if we want to have the kind of rail system “progressive-minded” officials abandoned 50 years ago for those clean and quiet buses, we have to start somewhere. And yes, as former Metropolitan Council chair Ted Mondale has said, the politics of LRT could change very quickly. Folks who snicker at the odd location and meager reach of the Hiawatha Line, he noted, will be clamoring for an extension of the system. “Mark my words,” he told an MPR interviewer last year. “In 2006, the question won’t be ‘Why isn’t light rail running in my area?’ [It will be] ‘How the heck do I get one of these now?’

But let’s face facts: The state is broke, and the legislature is utterly dominated by suburban Republicans who share an almost visceral disgust for any transit policy that doesn’t involving paving farmland. I mean, the state Department of Transportation is now being run by Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau, who would like nothing better than to rip out the Hiawatha Line with her bare hands.

So, why are we building this again? It won’t make your commute any faster, it won’t generate much in the way of economic development, and it has few supporters among the state’s political leaders who will be asked to subsidize or expand it. Our nonpartisan Citizen League, I believe, put it best: “Light rail is an expensive investment without return except as an exercise in civic chest-thumping to make a city feel like it’s in the big leagues.”

Our well-documented civic inferiority complex may, indeed, be on display along Hiawatha Avenue. Dozens of “lesser” cities—Portland, St. Louis, Dallas—have climbed on the rails in recent years while we’ve slogged through a blizzard of studies and legislative debates to finally get a measly 11 miles of track laid. Thomas Lowry would be ashamed.

Like our interminable debate over a new Twins ballpark, the Hiawatha Line tests our sense of propriety even as it attracts the civic cheerleader in each of us. Geez, if Sacramento’s building one, what does it say about us that we’re lagging behind? Sort of the “cold Omaha” argument.

The thing is, there’s no reliable cost/benefit analysis that works in these cases. Either the new train is going to make you feel good or it isn’t. Forget about its promised economic boost and its silly argument as a commuter’s dream. Is this cool or what?

After all, every great city should harbor guilty pleasures, frivolous—even outrageously wasteful—amenities that do nothing more than remind their citizens that life isn’t always about good sense or discipline or even intelligence. That it’s often about willful displays of extravagance, wild fits of stupidity.

Look around a little and you’ll probably notice a few on your way to work today. Cross the river at Hennepin Avenue and marvel at the country’s shortest suspension bridge, a multi-million-dollar marvel of reckless excess. Check out the vacant block of granite otherwise known as the Schubert Theater, which the city spent a few million to move around the corner a couple of years ago. Or catch the Wild at St. Paul’s crown jewel of taxploitation, the Xcel Energy Center. Or wander through Block E. (I’m sure you could add to the list.) Maybe these hiccups in our collective common sense can do as much to create a livable city as any strategic development plan. Maybe that’s how we need to think when searching for a reason for LRT.

Or maybe it’s just something about trains.

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