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With Bottineau Line, community advocates want to avoid repeating history

Brooklyn Park has been talking about light rail for years. “Probably every two to three weeks we have something light rail,” said Brooklyn Park Mayor Jeff Lunde. “We’re always in motion on this.”

There’s a good reason for that. The city will host five of the planned 11 stops on the 13-mile Blue Line Extension, also called the Bottineau Transitway, which will connect downtown Minneapolis to its northwest suburbs. Over the years, Brooklyn Park has been discussing everything from marketing properties to developers to exploring ways to mitigate residential and small business displacement, Lunde says.

To help prevent the line’s construction from displacing the city’s low-income residents, for example, the Brooklyn Park council passed a policy back in November that requires any new housing developments receiving city subsidies to include a certain percentage of affordable housing.

For all that, though, some community advocates worry that light rail stakeholders in places along the Bottineau Line route aren’t taking full advantage of the lessons learned from past light rail projects, especially the Green Line, which was known as the Central Corridor project during planning and construction.

“When I’m sitting there talking to people in the Bottineau area, it’s like no one knows what happened in the Central Corridor,” said Isabel Chanslor, the chief program officer for the Neighborhood Development Center and who acted as a community liaison during the Green Line’s construction. “It just seems like they’re starting from scratch.”

Chanslor still remembers the toll that the Green Line took on small businesses along University Avenue in St. Paul, especially during the first phases of construction, when poor communication and planning created tensions over traffic detours, limited parking and congestion.

The whole ordeal was a learning experience for her and others involved in the project. But because so many different organizations were involved, she said, many of those lessons haven’t been documented or retained. “It’s individuals retelling the stories, but there isn’t one place to find all those lessons learned and that’s really disappointing,” she said.

That’s part of the reason Colleen Toberman was hired to help run the Blue Line Coalition, a group of more than a dozen community organizations and other stakeholders lobbying for local interests during the planning of the Bottineau project. She joined the group four months ago as its first fulltime staff member to help organize their agenda and run meetings. But she also acts as the group’s voice — and memory.

“All of our members have a lot of other things on their plate besides being part of the coalition,” Toberman said. “I’m here to be kind of a consistent voice for the coalition, and a consistent advisor; the person who kind of keeps track of the landscape.”

The Bottineau Transitway
Metropolitan Council
The Bottineau Transitway will connect downtown Minneapolis to its northwest suburbs.

Blue Line Coalition member JooHee Pomplun said she’s also trying to incorporate the lessons she learned as a community liaison for the Green Line nearly seven years ago. But some of those documents kept during the line’s construction — complaints from business owners, legal records from dealing with damage claims — got lost in the shuffle as many organizers moved on to other organizations and work.

That’s exactly the problem, Chanslor said, and without a central repository for the information, future projects must re-learn lessons all over again. “Everything that we learned. Every mistake that we learned from. Where is all of that? Who has that?” Chanslor said. “I don’t think there’s one person responsible for that, so that’s a challenge, but it is a missed opportunity.”

Of course, not all the issues that faced communities during the Green Line construction will be applicable to the Bottineau Line, said Laura Baenen, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Council, which is overseeing the project.

While the Green Line had hundreds of mom and pop businesses lining University Avenue, for example — many with private driveways or street parking — that’s not the case with the Blue Line.

In fact, Baenen said, it’s not until the line passes through four cities and hits Brooklyn Park that there will the route will even remotely resemble the Central Corridor. Even then, she said, the planning process will give affected communities the opportunity to voice any concerns or express their needs, well before construction starts. “There’s a lot of the same issues, but every corridor is a little different,” she said. “So, not one size fits all.”
Even with a routing that should make planning easier for the Met Council, Chanslor said, it should be doing everything it can to ensure the project doesn’t push out small businesses and displace residents. “To me that means, ‘Well okay, then it’s a lot more doable to do it the right way,’” she said, “because it’s still going to disrupt people and businesses.”

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Comments (3)

Repeating history

We shall see whether planners have yet become aware of a lesson to be learned from the Green Line, namely the fundamental difference between a proper LRT line and a streetcar line. It is a lesson about proper use of resources and funds, namely: that LRT is a costly train, designed to run at highway speeds, not like a more modestly financed streetcar that provides better local though slower service.

In the big picture, we need a high speed transit skeleton that supports a body of local--bus or streetcar--service connections.

To achieve that larger goal we'll have to reform our metropolitan transit planning framework and have a Met Council whose commissioners are elected to that body at the polls.

Any person who spends most of an hour on a transit trip or travels during metro rush hour ought to understand our need.

Elected Officials

I have to give a hearty thumbs down to the proposal to make the Met Council elected. If we make them an elected body, then they become just another bipartisan body, mired in gridlock like our legislators. Everyone will have a flat spot on their foreheads from hitting the table in frustration.

The whole point of the Met Council is to have a regional planning body. Elect them and they become a group where everyone is out for their own constituents and the region be damned. These people will be elected to represent their particular town or county and will, rightfully and properly, fight tooth and nail for it. At that point you might as well outright abolish the Met Council as they won't be effective anymore.

As far as high speed transport goes, I would love to see a train zip along from point A to point B in record time. That only works though if you have a couple of stations. And if you have just a few stations, then your feature becomes someone else's boondoogle: nice idea, but it doesn't work in a practical application.

Say, for instance, you make a train with only a couple of tops. It goes from City Hall to the Mall of America. Very fast, but only if you go from and two those points. If you want to get on or off somewhere else, then you're out of luck. The system is only useful if it serves its constituents.

I get the impression that the Met Council is being unfairly blamed for the speed and number of stops on the Green Line. Those stations were put there not as a mandate of the Met Council, but rather due to requests from the city and neighborhoods through which the train passes. Who wants to watch the train zip by their house with no station nearby? They would say "great system and...I can't use it."

That's not a good way to sell the system to the neighborhood.

So now you're looking at building out a high speed LRT system at the same time you put in a neighborhood streetcar system, both of which are very expensive. We're already fighting Republican lawmakers tooth and nail to get one line done at a time. In an ideal world I would love to see not a line here and there, but an entire system built out. And even better, the two systems that you propose. The reality though is the political willpower and the funds just ain't there.

Repeating history

I do not understand why station area planning continues when BNSF is not going to grant the ROW.