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Riding the Green Line: Trains offer quiet, silky travel — at a leisurely pace

Riding the Green Line: Trains offer quiet, silky travel — at a leisurely pace
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
The Green Line light-rail train arriving at Target Field Station during Saturday's Green Line media test run.

The weather was inauspicious Saturday for a media test run of Metro Transit's brand-new $957 million Green Line light-rail train, due to open June 14. Rain poured down from the heavens, and the temperature hovered in the low 50s.

But, the ride, from Union Depot in St. Paul to Target Field in Minneapolis, went off without a hitch. Several people marveled at the "new train smell" of the state-of-art, built-in-the-U.S. cars. (They even come with cruise control.) Most striking to me, however, was their quiet, almost silky travel along the tracks. There was none of the side-to-side, start-and-stop lurching, rumbling and screeching that riders have to deal with on New York City subways. Customarily impassive bureaucrats had trouble suppressing their enthusiasm. "We are excited about bringing this Green Line to life and connecting two great cities," said Mark Fuhrmann, director of New Starts rail projects.

I was 5 years old the last time I rode the rails between the two cities. Back then taking the train from the old Milwaukee depot in Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul was a standard field trip for kindergartners. The train ride lasted only about 10 minutes, and we returned on a bumpy, fume-filled bus that seemed to take hours to crawl through traffic. As I recall, somebody threw up. Nevertheless, the idea that trains were incredibly exotic and romantic remained with me until I had to ride MetroNorth to Grand Central Terminal from the far-flung reaches of Connecticut every single day.

Not particularly fast

Saturday's trip on the Green Line was not particularly fast. The train, of course, has to abide by traffic lights in both downtowns. And, in constrast to the Blue (Hiawatha) Line, where the train can pre-empt signals on cross-streets to allow it to sail through an intersection, the Green Line receives signal priority only. A technical sequencing system gives the train first shot at passing through an intersection, but if it is delayed at a station because, for example, crowds are slow to board or disembark (which usually takes only about 15 seconds), the train may lose its window of opportunity to move first. What's more, the train has to reduce its speed through the University of Minnesota campus to avoid causing vibrations that could ruin scientific experiments.

Still, the train sped up between Western Avenue and the university. Brian J. Lamb, Metro Transit's general manager, estimates that the full 11-mile trip now takes about 50 minutes, but engineers continue to tweak. Ideally, the end-to-end journey would last no more than 48 minutes, he said. Can you beat that driving from downtown to downtown? Most times, I would say yes, but during rush hours, I-94 turns into a parking lot, and the trip can take as long as an hour and a half. Then, you have to hunt down and pay for a parking space, all of which adds time (and expense) to the trip.

On blizzardy days, the train is bound to be more convenient than a car. It acts almost like its own plow, says Lamb, and Metro Transit plans to have crews on call to shovel out stations. In hopes perhaps of quelling reporters' criticism, Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council, pointed out that many passengers would likely be traveling only partway, say, from the U of M to downtown Minneapolis, or from state office buildings at Robert Street to maybe Snelling. The speed would be speedy enough.

Met Council Chair Susan Haigh
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
During Saturday's Green Line media test run, Met Council Chair Susan Haigh ticked off various projects that the Met Council claims as part of the $2.5 billion in development that has already occurred along the line.

 

The leisurely run time may frustrate those coming by bus, for example, to Snelling, which eventually will become the nexus of all kinds of bus arterials. The Met Council plans to cover its seven-county jurisdiction with buses, both express and regular, to connect people to the train lines. From long and tedious experience, I can tell you that whenever a passenger has to change from one mode of transit to another, s/he loses time.

Once passengers arrive at the Green Line, however, they'll enjoy a comfortable trip — assuming that they can snag seats. There are enough for 68 people, though each car can hold a maximum of 200. The cool (and quiet) running will allow them to snooze, read, or, I guess, play pinochle with each other. (There is a message in this for residents living near the proposed Southwest LRT who anticipate being disturbed by the roar of trains bolting by every 10 minutes: That roar is more like a gentle shoosh.)

Pleasant vistas — until downtown Minneapolis

The trip through St. Paul's compact downtown, past state buildings and the Capitol, and the portion that runs through the U of M and over the Mississippi offer pleasant vistas. If I had to ride every day, I would look forward to passing those spots. And, if there was any place that might tempt someone to get off the train and shop, it would have to be Washington Avenue, on the U campus. Stores are close to the train, and a good third of the street has been given over to pedestrians.

Downtown Minneapolis, with the now deconstructed Metrodome and barely started Wells Fargo project, is a work in progress. And the stop at Hennepin & Fifth Street, which presents passengers with the sight of an eyesore surface parking lot next to the Cowles Center — well, all I can say is, Betsy Hodges, do something about it! At the final stop at Target Field Station is the new intermodal transit center, where people coming off the light rail, buses and the North Star commuter line will mingle.

Brian J. Lamb, Metro Transit's general manager
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Brian J. Lamb, Metro Transit's general manager, estimates that the full 11-mile trip now takes about 50 minutes, but engineers continue to tweak.

 

As envisioned in architectural drawings, the $80 million plaza-like development is supposed to boast a lawn, trees and stores, but on Saturday morning, in a driving rain, I saw none of that. Nevertheless, the bones of the new plaza are there, and once MetroTransit adds the frippery, it could become a real place, where commuters could grab coffee, a newspaper, meet others and maybe occasionally enjoy a concert on the Greek theater-like stairs.

To build the light rail, and in hopes of boosting development, MetroTransit had to reconstruct University Avenue's entire infrastructure, ripping out the old trolley tracks, replacing sewer and water lines and installing new traffic lights. Unfortunately, much of that stuff doesn't show. Most of the scenery along University Avenue remains pretty bleak, lined with boarded-up stores, random buildings that don't connect physically or visually to the street, truck farms and industrial properties. As for the section that passes by the big-box stores — I can't imagine alighting from the train to hike across their parking lot Saharas to do any shopping. Retailers are going to have to start thinking about how to lure passengers in to their stores. Either they will have to rebuild their emporia, placing them closer to the street, or provide shuttles, like those at Disney World, to convey people to their doors.

Affordable housing plans

As we rode down University, Haigh ticked off various projects that the Met Council claims as part of the $2.5 billion in development that has already occurred along the line. The count, however, includes the $400 million Wells Fargo project in Minneapolis, $243 million for Union Depot and millions more in college student housing, which was about the only kind banks were willing to finance during the Great Recession. Many of the projects planned for University Avenue, the portion of the route most in need of regeneration, involve affordable housing, and Haig's biggest shout-out went to the Project for Pride in Living, which is erecting 108 units of low-income housing on top of retail stores.  

The concentration of low-income housing in a low-income area may appease some residents who feared that the LRT would bring higher rents that would force them out. But it infuriates critics like University of Minnesota law professor Myron Orfield, who believes that such development merely intensifies the neighborhood's ghettoization. He insists that the area needs to attract more middle-income residents who can support the stores and service businesses that the community needs. In the meantime, to be blunt, it doesn't look as though hipsters are falling all over themselves to buy homes in Frogtown, possibly the poorest neighborhood on the line.

Mark Fuhrmann pointing to the tile reliefs at the Victoria Street Station.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Metro Transit's deputy general manager Mark Fuhrmann pointing to the tile reliefs at the Victoria Street Station.

 

At Victoria Station, in the heart of the Rondo district, which was mostly leveled by the construction of I-94, reporters stepped out of the train to view a display of "public art," in this case, bronze plaques fixed to the walls that commemorate local notables, both living and dead, which were nominated by the neighborhood. It would have been nice if the plaques had included a little background on these people, like Pearla Mae Barnes, whom even Google couldn't identify for me.

Stations could use flowers, or a kiosk ...

A few weeks earlier, Gil Penalosa, executive director of  8-80 Cities, a Toronto nonprofit consulting group, visited the Twin Cities for a weeklong series of lectures on place-making sponsored by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation. After a tour of the Green Line's new stations, he shook his head and commented that they needed more work. I saw what he meant. Right now, they're bright and shiny and serviceable, but they'd morph into real places if they had some flower boxes and maybe a kiosk where commuters could buy a newspaper, a cup of coffee or a doughnut — or grab a quick hot dog. You're probably saying, "C'mon, there are few subway stations in any city in the world that are actually interesting." That's true, but the Twin Cities should try to rise above.

Anyway, maybe neighborhoods can take charge of infusing life into the stations. Already seven of the 18 on the Green Line are planning celebrations of this important civic improvement with entertainment and food on the train's opening day. Festivities kick off with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 9 a.m. Saturday on Union Depot's front lawn.

For more information, check metrotransit.org/greenline.

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Comments (31)

This matches my experience

…of light rail in the other metro areas (Denver and St. Louis) where I've lived, except, perhaps, for speed. Both Denver and St. Louis light rail manage shorter trip times over 10 miles or so, but in St. Louis, the train rarely encounters a cross-street at grade, and it always has priority at the signal when it does. That's the case in Denver, too. Since that's NOT the case with the stupidly-named "Green Line," this might well be an operational issue that merits a revision, or at least a long and skeptical second look. If the goal is more riders, decreasing the travel time between the downtowns will only help.

And I heartily concur with Ms. Harris on the noise issue. By its very nature, light rail tends to be much more quiet than "commuter rail," and as the technology has improved, light rail only gotten more quiet in the years since I first used it in St. Louis, a generation ago. Before-the-fact complaints about noise from nearby residents are largely the result of knee-jerk prejudice against things that signal "urban," as opposed to "suburban." The same people complaining about light rail noise don't appear to be bothered by traffic noise, which is often quite a bit more severe in terms of decibel levels. Were it left up to me, I'd take regularly-scheduled light rail noise over unmuffled Harley-Davidson engines every time.

Erecting noise walls will lessen the sound, but significantly increase the ugliness. Residents of Lakewood (suburban Denver, where I was a planning commissioner and a city representative on a light rail planning committee) who insisted on noise walls quickly regretted their decision. Unlike the light rail tracks themselves, which could be easily crossed, even low (48") noise walls were enough of a physical barrier to effectively cut neighborhoods into pieces, and as any local ought to be able to testify, it's difficult, indeed, to build a noise wall that's aesthetically pleasing. Numerous local examples testify to the difficulty of that challenge.

$957 million. 11 miles in 50

$957 million. 11 miles in 50 minutes.

That is quiet, silky insanity.

And you're not done paying for it either, oh no. That "gentle shooshing" sound you hear is your pockets being emptied every year as operating costs race past revenue, as they have on every other light rail system in the country.

Enjoy that penuchle game.

That's an appropriate face

That's an appropriate face full of ice water! Back when this project was first proposed, I vaguely recall that only 4 or 5 stops were planned. What happened? Isn't there already a 94 bus to connect the M-SP downtown areas? So who will ride the LRT - sightseers and retirees?

It's not a speed service between cities

The 94 bus will still run efficiently from downtown to downtown. The train is not meant to replace the 94. Who will ride - sightseers and retirees? Why are there more than four stops? The neighborhood residents demanded and sued for more stops. We are the people riding the train. Most people aren't likely to be looking to get from downtown to downtown, but from Rainbow on University and Snelling (one of those big boxes that Ms. Harris thinks need a shuttle) to home in Frogtown; from our jobs in downtown Saint Paul, to the market on Western and University, and home on Fairview and University; from some really great restaurants in Little Mekong to the U of M for a meeting or class...The "extra" stops are very important for those of us that live along the line so everyone can access the great businesses and services along University. It will be faster than the 16 (which will still run - very important for the many elderly, disabled, and others who can't walk 1/2 a mile to the train station and are transit-dependent) and, hopefully, more reliable than the 50, which is what is most closely replaces.

If the purpose is to serve

If the purpose is to serve people going to the store, wouldn't a bus have been a better choice?

Why did the Met Council saddle the metro with a billion dollar down payment on an ongoing bill?...makes absolutely no sense at all unless you are a pie in the sky leftist pulling the levers of government like a child plays with a busy box.

Over 100 businesses

on University Avenue have closed or have moved away. For what?

The taxpayers spent about a Billion dollars for a redundant transportation system on fixed rails that isn't as useful for transporting people as the bus it's not replacing. For what?

Over 100 businesses have closed?

How could light rail construction, which did not block off all of University Avenue, have been more disruptive to small businesses than the massive tear-up of Lake Street a couple of years back--solely for the purposes of making it easier for cars?

The construction on

The construction on University was huge compared to the Lake Street work. Many businesses were almost totally inaccessible for months at a time. Even walking to them was difficult. Now that the construction is done, there is no longer parking on the street and a lot less traffic in general so it's tough going for many businesses.

Hate to be a Naysayer

I hate to be a naysayer, but I do not think the Green Line was a good idea or use of money.
I am a transit supporter and a frequent user of the current transit system.
There are several points I would like to make. First, 50 minutes between down towns is too long. This is only slightly less time than the Route 16 bus. Points have been raised that the train is not primarily meant to be used as a quick trip between the down towns. If this is the case why is the service on the 94 line being reduced and eliminated on the weekends?
This article talks about the Green Line being a catalyst for development, but not alot about how the service will help help get from point A to point B. I was under the impression that the primary goal of public transit was to move people not be a catalyst for development.
So, while I ride on the standing room only Route 21. (The bus is always standing room only no matter what time of day you ride). I will try not to think of how the money used on the Green Line could have been used to improve the transit system as a whole.

Light rail is an improvement to the transit system

Jeffrey,

These light rail lines are a part of the transit system, and they are a component of a major overhaul of that system that should have been done more than a decade ago. The bus system IS being improved as part of this project. Light rail allows redeployment and realignment of existing bus lines as well as the creation of new routes.

There is no pleasing some

There is no pleasing some people, I think. The service will take 48 minutes. If it took 38 minutes, these same people would be bashing the signal preemption that would be necessary to meet that speed. If it took 28 minutes, they would be bashing the order-of-magnitude cost increase necessary to grade separate the whole line.

As is, we're getting a high-capacity, very frequent mass transit service that connects major centers of employment, education, shopping, and entertainment. A diverse group of people will use it often, because the alternative is expensive, time consuming, or both. The gaps on University Ave will fill in...not tomorrow, but eventually. It's not perfect, but it will be pretty good. What more can we realistically expect from an infrastructure investment?

They refused to consider the obvious

Ninety percent of the problems with this fiasco could have been avoided if they had simply taken the advice from people who suggested that they elevate it. If they had elevated it none of the traffic issues, the pedestrian safety issues, would have mattered. But no, they knew better and so this will be a failure that the taxpayers will have to swallow and keep swallowing like no other in the history of this city.

Elevating the entirety of the

Elevating the entirety of the line would have cost vastly more. Maybe 5 or 10 times more. And it would be a permanent eyesore on University Ave. And again, the line would only be 10 or 15 minutes faster, end-to-end. Smart people looked at what that would take, and decided against it.

I wish they would have sprung for a tunnel through the East Bank, and at Snelling Ave, but those were both rejected because their high cost did not add enough value in terms of speed or additional riders.

Disappointment

Using this for shopping? If you live within a 1/4 mile of one of its few stops, maybe, in good weather. It sounds like a real wasted effort. If it doesn't have speed, there's no point. Streetcars are slow, they should have known that going in. Limited buses could have done the same, and trolley buses would have had the same benefit. Life spent on public transit is life spent wasting enormous amounts of time.

While I think that downtown Minneapolis to

downtown St. Paul is a great routing--one reason I don't go to downtown St. Paul more often is that I hate driving and parking there-- I agree with Jeffrey Brenner that the bus system could use major improvements.

There seems to be no thought as to how the whole system should work together. Supposedly the #6 will now connect with the Green Line, but it doesn't cross the river any more frequently than it did before, and its purported "frequent service" is worthy of that name only between downtown and 39th and Sheridan.

Saturday afternoon, I and three other people waited for a northbound #6 bus that never came. I don't know whether it broke down south of us or got snarled in the construction near the Crosstown, but we had to take the bus that was scheduled for half an hour later (which arrived the usual 10 minutes after the nearest time point). A younger friend who works part-time as a waitress has taken to riding her bicycle to her job because the buses are so undependable.

In Portland, one can download a phone app that will tell you where your bus is NOW, so that if you arrive at a stop a minute or two late, you know whether you've missed the bus or whether it is delayed. The "Next Trip" function here tells you only when the next bus is supposed to come in some ideal world.

I wonder if the people who run Metro Transit actually ride buses and trains themselves on a daily basis. If not, they need a riders' advisory committee to tell them where they're failing people who do not drive. For various reasons, I'm currently without a car, but I've suffered more irritation in the month or so that I've been transit-dependent here than I did for ten years of car-free living in Portland.

Exactly

Karen, you put your finger on the right button.

For one thing, sure a lot of Metro Transit workers use the transit system, but it's not a good system. You have to realize that here in MN there has been stiff resistance to the very idea of transit for decades, that's one reason we have such a poor system. For decades every time republicans got into power they cut MTC budgets and demanded rate hikes for riders, and diverted funds to roads and HOV lanes.

It creates a circular arguments, the system sucks so why put more money into it? The less money we put into it the more the system sucks. And anyways EVERYONE wants to drive because that's the American way. You can see that mentality on display here in the comments.

So every time we try to improve the system we end up with underfunded half measures that take decades rather than years to implement. That's changed a little with the recession because more people like yourself need transit, and transit needs to improve. But whenever Republicans get into power in any way they block it, and they were in power for 8 years. This is why we have a commuter rail to nowhere (Big Lake instead of St. Cloud) and the first light rail line ran out to the Mall instead of between the cities. By rights the Green line should have been the FIRST line, but we have to fight tooth and nail to get this stuff through.

It can't all be blamed on the Republicans, these things are complex projects, but political obstructionism certainly causes delays.

Tester et al....

It's deja vu all over again with these transit haters. I hate to tell you this but we heard all of these complaints and "predictions" before the Hiawatha line went live. Some people never get tired of being wrong I guess.

Tens of thousands of people will use the Green, and like it. It's an economic asset to the cities that will attract people and economic development, even more so than the Blue Line.

I agree about the Green Line

Its route through the U campus will in itself generate a lot of ridership, and personally, I look forward to exploring downtown St. Paul without having to worry about driving in it or parking.

Says the guy

who will never use it nor deal with the hassle it causes auto traffic. I waited 6 minutes, SIX MINUTES! for the green turn light the other day on campus because a test train was moving through the area by TCF stadium.

Says the guy?

I'll be using it on Saturday.

Six minutes? Well, that clinches it. I mean there's NEVER more than 3 minute delay on ANY road ANY WHERE in the Twin Cities until now. There were never an traffic delays anywhere until LR came along. Clearly the LR has got to go! Dude, I sometimes wait that long and longer just get into 394 gridlock during rush hour.

Argle Bargle!

Six whole minutes?! Why, that's almost HALF your lifetime! How in the world did you ever deal with the delay?

You know what I think? I think you should sue them for pain and suffering, because that's the 'Murikan Way. Who do these people think they are? There should never be a six minute delay anywhere in our transportation system, EVER.

Thanks for making my point

The bureaucracy doesn't care about the people's inconvenience, they only care about the convenience of the bureaucracy. It's always been that way.

I fail to see how you were inconvenienced.

You had to wait for a whole six minutes? You must be terribly important. Perhaps you can get someone in government to solve your problem for you.

Pointed Rhetoric

Dennis, it appears you lost that point. But if it helps you to sleep better at night, then go ahead and own it.

I suppose in some people's world the government is always bad, private industry always good, and any inconvenience for them, no matter how slight, is always a horrible outrage.

Poor thing...

are you going to be alright? Maybe you should call Mark Levin's show and complain. I wait longer than that on ramps to merge onto 35 at rush hour...all for the pleasure of sitting there and going nowhere once I'm on it. Six minutes....and who are the entitled in this country?

6 MINUTES!

HOLY COW! LIFE IS SO AWFUL IF YOU HAVE TO SIT IN YOUR CAR FOR MORE THAN 30 SECONDS AT A TRAFFIC LIGHT!

Back to the Earth. First of all, I find little sympathy for the handful of people waiting at a traffic light while hundreds pass through in a more efficient mode of transportation.

Second, I frequently wait much longer than that at traffic lights along Central Avenue near/in Blaine. Why? Because 80 kajillion people are driving even further north and no one seems concerned with dozens or hundreds of idling cars waiting at stop lights. I would LOVE to have a light rail service that takes me to work or even to Downtown so I can ride the bus from there to work. Run it right down the middle of Central and put transit hubs at Downtown Minneapolis, Columbia Heights, Spring Lake Park, and Blaine. Or use University and do a similar route. Either way, there is lots of wasted time, efficiency, and money being stuck in traffic 20 miles from either Downtown and a good distance from any major freeway.

Then Blaine should have the LRT, not University

University Avenue was not a high traffic corridor and was well served by buses. It did not need LRT to alleviate any kind of transit problem. I94, on the other hand, does get congested and does need relief. The problem with the green line is that it isn't an express by any stretch and won't help I94 congestion much at all. The express bus will still be the best intercity option, but it isn't going to run as often.

Additionally, the green line only stops every half mile at best so it won't serve the locals either. The 16 bus is still the best local option but it's only going to run half as often now.

The green line is an unfortunate compromise which isn't going to be of much use in my opinion. Still, it's too late to worry about it. It's going to be a fixture for a generation so we just as well adapt to it.

Buses

> University Avenue was not a high traffic corridor and was well served by buses.

Says the guy who never rode the 16 or 50.

Those buses were/are packed to the brim. Projected future ridership would have completely overwhelmed the system. That's why we needed rail.

Yes and no

You won't get any argument from me about the green line being an unfortunate compromise. It's truly a pity that it couldn't have been made more express.

However, University really could use a more high volume option. Large corridors such as University really should be train lines, while buses should remain to service neighborhoods.

Overall, I think you missed my point. And have fun on the express bus!

The bureaucracy doesn't care about me

Living in a community with other people who also have to get somewhere... it's just so wrong! Again, this is the problem with Libertarians, they actually view citizenship and society as a form of personal oppression. It's privileged mentality on steroids.

NexTrip

FWIW, although NexTrip won't show you where your bus is, it does give a reality-based estimate of when the next one will arrive... but only if it's close enough to be meaningful. Meh.

I do recommend the OMG Transit app, which uses the same data but is more convenient to use and looks cooler.