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Growing pains: LRT construction tough on some businesses

Jerry Blakey, former St. Paul City Council member, says sales at his store have plummeted by more than 50 percent since LRT work began in 2009.

Rail beds and platforms on Fourth Street in front of Union Depot in Saint Paul
Photo by Jeff Syme
Rail beds and platforms on Fourth Street in front of Union Depot in St. Paul.

One night last week, I was chatting with a St. Paul business leader who had been an early and ardent backer of the Central Corridor light rail transit (LRT) project.

If he had it to do all over again, my friend volunteered, he’s not certain he would support the project. He said he simply never imagined it would cause so much disruption and economic hardship.

Jerry Blakey feels much the same way. Blakey, a former member of the St. Paul City Council, was the first chair of the Central Corridor Citizens Advisory Committee, which provided public input and support during the engineering and design of the LRT line.

Blakey also is the co-owner of Lowertown Wine & Spirits, which is located in downtown St. Paul on Fourth Street near Union Depot, the “ground zero” of LRT construction. Blakey and his Fourth Street neighbors are now in their third year of construction chaos, with two more to go.

“I don’t know what to say,” Blakey says. “It’s been a challenge.”

The 14-mile, $957 million Central Corridor line will run from downtown St. Paul near Blakey’s store along University and Washington Avenues, connecting with the Hiawatha LRT line near the Metrodome and terminating at Target Field in downtown Minneapolis.

Fourth Street has been a particularly complex segment of the project because of all of the utilities that had to be relocated.

Utilities relocated
Laura Baenen, communications manager for the project, says crews relocated a dozen or more public and private utilities, including some storm sewers dating to the 1860s to 1880s.

“To avoid service disruptions to District Energy customers, crews had to work in the middle of summer to relocate heated water pipes used to deliver heat to downtown buildings and the middle of the winter to relocate chilled water pipes that cool buildings,” Baenen says.

The sanitary sewer main, which also dates to the late 1800s, was left in place. But crews installed large manholes so public utility workers can access the sanitary sewer from outside of the track area in the future without having to deal with the track or the overhead catenary electrical system.

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For Blakey and his neighbors, the construction work has meant multiple street closures and access challenges. “I think I’ve counted 27 times they’ve torn up the street,” he says. “It’s really been disruptive.”

The bottom line? Blakey says that store sales have plummeted by more than 50 percent since LRT work began in 2009.

As a result, Blakey says, he has had to lay off one employee and trim the hours of five others. He and his partner have worked extra hours, while forgoing a paycheck for three months each.

Despite the financial distress, Blakey said they decided not to apply for a forgivable loan from a fund created by the Metropolitan Council, cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and Living Cities philanthropic collaborative.

Blakey says it would have cost at least $3,000 in accounting services to pull together the necessary financial information for the application. In addition, he says, he was not confident that all of the private information he had to provided would remain confidential.

As this third construction season nears an end, the newly paved roadway and embedded track is nearly complete on Fourth Street from Minnesota Street to Broadway near the rail line’s terminus. The project office says the street should be opened to traffic next month.

Next year, crews will return to Fourth Street to install catenary polls, wiring and traction power substations, work that will continue into 2013. But Baenen promises “the effect on the public will be minimal.”

Brighter future?
So, as the street work nears an end and the framework of the Union Station platform rises a half-block away, does Blakey see a brighter future?

“I’ve talked to some people in Minneapolis [along the Hiawatha LRT corridor] who have gone through this, and they have seen an increase in business traffic,” he says. “So that’s what we are hanging our hat on. But the losses we have experienced are going to take a few years to make up.”

According to the project office, about two dozen businesses along the corridor have closed since the start of construction, apparent victims of the project as well as the recession. But it says about three dozen new businesses have opened during the same period.

One of them is Lucy Coffee Café, located in the Griggs-Midway Building at University and Fairview Avenues.

Owner Julie Peck was out of town late last week, but her fiancé, Cory Prestangen, says Peck started her business with her eyes wide open. He says Peck had worked in the building, knew the area well and spent 18 months preparing her business plan.

“She saw there was a real need [for her café], whether light rail was here or not,” Prestangen says. “She knew there were going to be some short-term growing pains. But long-term, light rail is going to benefit the community.”

He says they look forward to the opening of the rail line in 2014, but that “we’re in this for the long haul.”