Central Corridor and the footprint of politicsby Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Building a light-rail system is often a messy and thankless undertaking. And as planners of the Central Corridor line have noted, most major transit projects produce numerous controversies.
But critics say the line was challenged by ideological differences among various stakeholders -- and state and national politics.
Largely planned during the Bush administration, it also emerged during in a difficult climate for transit projects.
ON TIME AND ON BUDGET
Anyone who has followed planning for the Central Corridor over the past several years knows the mantra -- "On time and on budget."
Planners focused heavily on delivering the project on time, and on budget, for fear of losing its place in a competitive federal funding process. The risk of going to the back of the queue was real, regional and federal transit planners say.
The partners also committed to ensuring the project didn't spiral out of control in its cost or scope, to avoid having it drag on for years. But some community members found the slogan stifling.
"It was the reason why you couldn't do anything, and even the simplest of things," said neighborhood advocate Carol Swenson. "You were just supposed to sit down and not say anything."
When neighbors suggested adding three extra stations to the route or moving some power substations to more obscure locations, light-rail planners warned that such resistance could delay the project, said Swenson, director of the District Councils Collaborative, a group of St. Paul and Minneapolis neighborhoods.
"Over time, you began to wonder what one little community group could do to possibly overturn this big project if it was that strong of a project to begin with," said Swenson, whose members united to have a voice in the planning.
In the end, Swenson and her allies won the three extra stops, and persuaded planners to move the substations. The Metropolitan Council, which is building the line, can point to a long list of design changes that came about through community input.
But more than 1,000 hours of public outreach on Central Corridor didn't prevent three lawsuits, including one filed by the University of Minnesota over concerns about vibrations and electromagnetic interference from the trains.
Minnesota Public Radio also has filed suit to seek changes in the project, as has a coalition of black community leaders from St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood.
Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, one of the key elected officials pushing for Central Corridor, said there were many nights when he wished things would have gone smoother.
"I would say our community can do better than what we've done," he said.
To help settle a long-running dispute between the U of M and the Met Council, McDonough essentially played the part of marriage counselor, as one of two shuttle diplomats helping the two parties find common ground. That effort failed.
Now the U and the Met Council are on their way to resolving their differences through court-ordered mediation.
"It is disheartening that the university or MPR would feel that their only recourse to get their issues addressed is through the court system," McDonough said. "We don't want that to have to happen in our community, and I do think it reflects somewhat negatively that that has had to occur."
WHERE IS PAWLENTY?
McDonough, a Democrat, said Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty could have helped settle the Met Council's dispute with the U of M when signs of trouble first emerged. The governor appoints the council's members.
Several transit supporters say the governor could also have been a bigger advocate for the state's largest public works project. McDonough points out that Pawlenty's support for the Northstar commuter rail service to Big Lake was crucial to that line's success.
"He never stepped up on Central like he stepped up on Northstar, and that was disappointing to us," McDonough said.
But in recent weeks, the governor has been more engaged. Pawlenty invited U of M President Robert Bruininks and Met Council Chairman Peter Bell into his office about a month ago to encourage them to work things out. The two sides soon reached an initial agreement.
The governor also said he has had numerous private discussions with Bruininks about light-rail.
Pawlenty said he supports Central Corridor. But while other elected officials love to wax poetic about the line's role in building a regional transit network, his rationale for backing the project is relatively dispassionate, and more concerned with fiscal responsibility.
"Whether it's cars, trains, planes, gondolas, or Star Trek transporters, the ways we assess these projects are these: How many people does it move? How much does it cost to build? Once it's up and running, how much does it cost to subsidize? And once it's up and running, how does it compare to other alternatives?" Pawlenty said. "If, on the numbers, it makes sense, then we should support them. If, on the numbers, it doesn't make sense, we shouldn't."
Pawlenty thinks the numbers do make sense for Central Corridor.
Yet Pawlenty's muted endorsement for the line is a far cry from the fired-up speeches of his predecessor, Gov. Jesse Ventura. Ventura, an Independent, made clear his desire to ride the Hiawatha light-rail train in Minneapolis as soon as he took office.
"We are at the dawn of a new age. Not just the millennium. But the age of light-rail transit in the region," Ventura said in a speech at a 1999 light-rail forum. "I know the Hiawatha LRT line will make the Twin Cities more competitive, improve transit service and be a catalyst for economic development."
Ted Mondale, chairman of the Metropolitan Council during Ventura's administration, credits his former boss for pushing light rail and allowing him to aggressively champion it.
"There was never any question as to what my role was," Mondale said.
Leading the charge against the Hiawatha line then, he recalled, was a young House Majority Leader named Tim Pawlenty.
But Mondale notes that, as governor, Pawlenty has not been a vocal critic of rail.
"I have to give him credit for not trying to kill the Hiawatha line and for approving funding for the other ones," Mondale said.
But the governor's opposition to new spending has put his appointee Bell in an awkward position, Mondale said.
"I don't think Peter Bell has the sort of card to go out and really be an advocate for these things the way I was able to, and the way I was expected to," Mondale said. "It's a difficult spot to be in, and I don't envy him."
A SHARED FRUGALITY
The Met Council has the authority to raise its metro-area property taxes, but it has chosen to keep the levy flat over the past seven years. Bell said he shares Pawlenty's frugality, and takes pride in helping build the region's transit system without raising the council's levy.
"I am a Republican," Bell said. "I am a fiscal conservative. And I'm proud of that."
However, Pawlenty likely put Bell in a difficult position by trying to kill one of Central Corridor's major funding sources.
Two years ago, Pawlenty vetoed a transportation bill that created a metro sales tax. Minnesota lawmakers overrode the governor's veto. That tax, collected from five counties, is helping pay for most of the local dollars toward Central Corridor.
Even some of Pawlenty's supporters agree transit has not been at the top of his agenda. But the governor said people should judge him by his achievements.
"Under my watch, we brought the Hiawatha corridor to fruition. I supported, backed, and financed the Northstar commuter rail, and now we will support, back, finance, and complete Central Corridor," Pawlenty said. "So under my watch, there will be more commuter rail and rail designed, planned and laid than any other time in the history of the state, so I'm happy to be judged by those results."
The governor has signed into law more than $90 million in state bonding money to go toward Central Corridor.
And Bell has won points, even from some critics of the Central Corridor planning process, including Carol Swenson. That's because he has steered one of the most complex transit projects in Minnesota as close as it's ever been to the finish line.
"To Peter Bell's credit, the reason we are where we are with Central Corridor, and so close to seeing it constructed, is because of his ability to work with Gov. Pawlenty and shepherd this project through the state political system," Swenson said.
But some of Bell's own allies say he could have been more open-minded, or shown more humility, when confronting some of his toughest opponents. That includes the U of M, even though the university, too, has been widely accused of putting on airs during negotiations.
A former university regent, Bell is an African-American who spent his earliest years in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood. To an outsider, he might seem ideally suited to broker peace between the Met Council and the U, and with the Rondo group.
Yet Bell bristles at the notion that the project was ever in any kind of mess.
"A mess means you're not coming in on budget, or you're a year or two late, or I would have resigned in a huff," Bell said. "None of those things have happened with this project."
While community groups point to the rancor and lawsuits surrounding the project as signs of dysfunction, Bell returns to the phrase that has become so familiar during this project to explain why he's proud of it.
"I think having it on time and on budget is a major definition of success, and one I hold dearly to," he said. "I am absolutely unapologetic for having that as my mantra."
As a Republican, Bell has joined forces with two DFL mayors and two DFL county commissioners to push forward the project. It's a complex political stew that has occasionally boiled over.
For example, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who chairs the metro's Counties Transit Improvement Board, which is paying for 30 percent of the project's costs, has challenged Bell for not raising property taxes to help pay for transit improvements.
Bell also points to plenty of heat from his own party.
"I get a lot of criticisms from Republicans," he said "Many, many Republicans think we shouldn't be building out our transit system nearly as aggressively as we do."
Those critics include some of his own peers on the Met Council, Bell said.
Bell will step down as Met Council chair at the end of the year when Pawlenty leaves office, so he won't be around to carry Central Corridor to completion.
THE FEDERAL LANDSCAPE
Politics in Washington also has contributed to the sometimes bumpy road for Central Corridor. The project was largely engineered during the Bush administration, which created a difficult terrain for planning light-rail lines by making cost-effectiveness the primary criteria for evaluating new transit proposals.
Bell said the "cost-effectiveness index" dominated many of his decisions, as it meant that local planners had to say "no" to a tunnel or an alternate route through the university, just as they first said "no" to the neighborhoods that wanted more stops.
Still, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a DFLer who represents Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, said Bell should have shown more patience and a willingness to collaborate at the outset of the planning.
"I was trying to tell him, 'Wait, there's a new day around the corner. There's going to be an election,'" she said.
Under the Obama administration, cost-effectiveness is no longer the most important benchmark for evaluating projects. That has given local communities a lot more flexibility. So what would have happened if light-rail planners waited for a more transit-friendly administration in Washington?
McDonough, the Ramsey County commissioner, said elected officials debated that very question nearly three years ago. He said the Central Corridor was competing with more than 100 projects across the country, but it gradually slugged its way to the top. As one of six federal transit projects included in Obama's budget, it's poised to receive a commitment for federal funding this fall.
McDonough said it was imperative to keep the project on track, or else it would have lost its place in the queue.
"If we would have made the decision two and a half years ago to delay, to put all our hopes for this line into a new administration, in a new environment, I don't know if we would have gotten the line built," he said.
Another way of asking the question is this: What would have happened if the project were planned now, on this kinder and gentler landscape for light rail? Would that have made all things possible?
"No, and I think it's important for people to understand that the rules changed, but the pot of money didn't grow," St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said.
Coleman notes the government is still strapped for cash at local, state and federal levels. If the line were designed now, after the demise of the cost-effectiveness index, the line might not look a lot different, Coleman said. But he thinks the conversations with the community would sound different.
"Too often, for the last several years, because of the funding formula, it was: 'Well, we can't even talk about that because there's no way we can fit it in under the formula.'" Coleman said. "So I think some of the distrust that you see in the community, some of the frustration, were a result of a project that was trying to be built under some strict guidelines."
Despite a dawdling start and more than 30 years of discussion, the Central Corridor line looks unstoppable: Trains are scheduled to start service in 2014. Early bids on construction work are coming in lower than expected.
If all goes as planned, the line will be built on time, and on budget.