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Central Corridor light rail: Researchers watching if it's changing residents' health

Cars and trucks, planes and trains, all have an impact on the human condition as they wend their way through our cities and our lives — no less so the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Line now under construction between the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Just what human effect the line produces remains to be seen in years ahead, which is why several groups are taking a closer look now at the quality of life along the projected LRT line, a generally economically poor area.

Among them are the following.

TakeAction Minnesota, Isaiah and PolicyLink together are studying the health and environmental impacts the LRT will have for people living one-half mile north and one-half mile south of the St. Paul line. Calling the Health Corridor for All campaign a "community research process,'' TakeAction communcations director Greta Bergstrom, says a draft of the study is expected in mid January and will be followed by recommendations for city officials.

The Central Corridor Funders Collaborative, is a 12-member partnership of local and national foundations "invested in community development with good outcomes for people and places along the line," according to director Jonathan Sage-Martinson. It has commissioned Wilder Research to collect data and do some surveys of people living in the area. That report is expected early next year. (The collaborative has supported MinnPost's urban living Cityscape blog with a grant.)   

A third project is nearing completion by the state Department of Health. The two-year effort documents the health of the community of people now living along the Central Corridor. More than 40,000 people are projected to ride along that route by 2030.

Called the Healthy Communities Count Project, the state report groups as a community the persons living along a 9-mile path stretching from downtown St. Paul and the Capitol, through the Midway, past the University of Minnesota and into Minneapolis and the Metrodome area. (The Central Corridor stretches a couple of miles further to connect with existing transit, but the state study focuses on the new transit path.)

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What's prompted the state project, funded by a grant from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says project coordinator Jim Kelly, is that the light rail line has "a big opportunity to have a positive influence on the health of the community.''

Kelly described a "whole kind of movement starting to gain momentum around the country...using tools… to look at the impact of development decisions, the impact of laws and regulations and their impact on public health.'' Developers and cities are beginning to use such findings to create positive change, Kelly said.

Cleaning up contaminated brownfield sites, for instance, could stimulate local business development, which could reduce unemployment and allow people to walk rather than drive to work, thus providing them exercise necessary for good health, Kelly hypothesized.

The hope is that a few years down the road a similar health study will be done and the data from now and then compared, with today's data being used to stimulate discussions about ways to, for instance, re-structure the community for better health. The report is expected to be completed in mid November.

So far, the project has compiled data for 14 of 18 categories, or core counts, as they call them, under these four groupings: health, land and environment, community and buildings and infrastructure. The core counts are "indicators of different aspects related to good health,'' Kelly said.
 
Data collected and placed online so far makes for interesting reading. For example, measurements include: lead poisoning in children, infant mortality and low birth rates, asthma hospitalizations, air pollution, acres of parks, under-used or polluted land, education, employment, easy access to healthy food, and quality of housing.

In the under-used or polluted land category, you'll find this map, sourced by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and put in perspective by the quote below.

From the website: "According to MPCA data, over 20% of Minnesota's known or possible (non-petroleum) contaminated sites are in the Twin Cities. Seven percent of Minnesota's contaminated sites are located within the Central Corridor area. The information shows that areas along University Avenue have more possible brownfield sites than other areas of the Twin Cities."

You'll find income information here. According to the 2000 U.S. Census data, most people living along the Central Corridor have household incomes below the Twin Cities average of $63,500, for an average income of $41,400.

CentralCorridorIncome1000.jpg

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Kelly says the Department of Health has worked with the community in structuring the project.

Further, though Kelly says the collected statistics are not surprising, the hope is the data will stimulate discussion, planning and action to improve health. The documentation is important, he said "so people have information to help express their wishes and opinions about what the area [should] look like in the future.''

"Now that the dirt is being dug and things are starting to happen, I think we'll switch to these longer term issues,'' Kelly said.

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Comments (6)

Is "The Central Corridor" the first similar transit project in America, or is it just that Minnesotans live in an information bubble?

I would think that with all similar "corridors" in America, and even other countries, that there is at least 100 years of similar "health" data available right now.

This is about more than just simple health statistics. The "Healthy Corridor for All" project, at least, is soliciting input from residents about how they want to see the neighborhoods develop. What kind of businesses do they want, how many parks, where to put pedestrian amenities, etc. It's about creating a community that promotes health, not simply studying how health changes as the Central Corridor gets implemented. The billions of public/private investment coming after CC is built is going to dwarf the impact of the rails themselves. That's what this project is addressing. How should St. Paul plan for its future? What things need to be done to ensure this investment promotes health?

Hear! Hear, Dick! C'mon guys....you are really going to try and sell that with a straight face?

This is exactly the kind of stuff that feeds into those who want to shrink government down and drown it in a bathtub. What's even more astonishing is that this is happening under the watchful eyes of the current administration.

Dick and John, the public cost of poor health is significant; a quick check at HCMC will verify the sizable burden of emergency health services provided to the least advantaged of our citizens. So an effort to study improving health seems like a worthy and parsimonious endeavor. I don't feel the benefit can be found in design, however, as much as patterns of behavior. I wonder if measuring the time residents spend on a variety of activities would be helpful? For instance if one is limited on resources, working a couple different jobs, continually fixing old cars and distracted by home repairs, there simply may be very little time to prepare homemade meals, take the kids to their wellness checkups and make it to the gym. I think most working people with reliable transpiration and employment would say it is a struggle to fit it all in. I believe studying what people do with an intent to influence behavior in a healthy manner is more reliable than studying what people say they will do.

Victoria, don't you suppose that with all of the light rail and commuter rail projects that have been done across this country over the years that someone has done a similar study?

When (and if) the Southwest Transitway is built, are Wilder and the Department of Health going to go out to St. Louis Park and Eden Prairie and do the same sort of study? I don't think so.

Sure, the research might be valuable but it is a luxury that is not affordable right now. Public resources are strained and limited. The priority needs to be on providing assistance to these residents when and where it's needed instead of another study.

Victoria, design can absolutely influence health. Consider the family who does not have a car and lives far from a store that sells fresh produce. Or a child that cannot walk to school because there is no reasonable, safe, pedestrian route across the freeway. Even living near a freeway causes health problems due to pollution and particulates in the air. Design can promote or destroy health. Our freeway-minded culture has done the latter. Transit-oriented development can do the former.