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Green Line means go for local colleges and medical centers

The arrival of the Green Line is generating particular excitement for key anchor institutions along its route. 

All University of Minnesota students and staff will be eligible for a special card allowing them to ride the Green Line for free between three campus stations.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

A new era for the Twin Cities dawns in a few days when the Green Line opens between downtown St. Paul and downtown Minneapolis. Debated and planned for 40 years, this billion-dollar light rail route shows every sign of transforming the two central cities the same way that billions of dollars in highway projects since the 1950s spurred suburban development.

The first light-rail train does not leave Union Depot until Saturday (June 14), but Minneapolis and St. Paul are already seeing unprecedented growth as young adults and empty-nesters move into neighborhoods along the line that were disparaged as “inner city” just a few years ago. Minneapolis recently passed the 400,000 mark in population, its highest since the mid-1970s, and St. Paul will soon reach 300,000. Economic investment is following suit, with an estimated $2.5 billion in commercial and residential development underway along the 11-mile route, and more projects in the offing.

While this represents good news for the entire region — no metropolitan area thrives when the core city stagnates — the arrival of the Green Line is generating particular excitement for key anchor institutions along its route. Anchor is a new term to describe educational, cultural and medical institutions that are rooted in the neighborhoods where they are located. A college, medical center or museum complex is not likely to pack up and move to the suburbs or out of the country. These institutions feel a particular stake in making sure their communities remain safe, stable and appealing.

“This is not just do-gooderism,” stresses Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg College. “This is moving beyond the charity model. We have real interests that are at play with the neighborhood. For us, this is about our students. It contributes to their education, their safety and a vital urban environment where they live.”

A corridor for job opportunities

The Central Corridor between the two downtowns is home to nine college campuses and seven medical facilities — accounting for 67,000 jobs and 115,000 students. Most of these institutions are working together under the banner of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership (CCAP) to maximize the benefits the Green Line brings to their communities in terms of improved mobility, economic revitalization, educational opportunities and jobs.

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Anchor institutions are encouraging their staff and students to take advantage of the Green Line for commuting and other trips around town — a goal that recently took a big leap forward with a special offer for anchor employees interested in switching to light rail and buses.

CCAP partnered with Metro Transit to provide Go-To cards — with a stored value of $40 dollars at the fare box — for new transit users at a steep discount. On top of a 25 percent discount from Metro Transit, CCAP will match further contributions from anchor institutions up to $10 per card, which means many new riders will get as much as 75 percent discount to try out the train.

And that’s not all. Metro Transit will offer another $10 of free rides to holders of these Go-To cards who add $20 dollars more to their cards by July 14. Each purchaser will also receive a free one-month membership in the Nice Ride bicycle share system, which offers bikes to use at Green Line stations.

Three hundred cards are now available to University of Minnesota employees and one hundred cards available to staff at each of the following institutions: Regions Hospital/Health Partners; Metropolitan State University; University of Minnesota Medical Center-University of Minnesota-Amplatz Children’s Hospital and United Hospital/Allina Health/Abbott Northwestern.

Incentive to ride: ‘It reinforces our priorities’

“This is a very attractive offer,” says Brock Nelson, CEO and President of Regions hospital in St. Paul, “which will give our employees a real incentive to ride transit. It reinforces our priorities to help mass transit work for our employees. I’m excited about it.”

A second phase of the Go-To card offer begins next fall when students return to the University of St. Thomas, Minneapolis Community and Technical College, Hamline University, St. Catherine University, Bethel University, Augsburg College and St. Paul College, all of which have campuses or facilities near the Green Line.

Metropolitan State University is getting a head start on the Go-To cards this summer. The launch of three construction projects means there is very little on-site parking right now at its Dayton’s Bluff campus, near downtown St. Paul. Because the typical Metropolitan State student is a working adult with many daily responsibilities, 93 percent currently drive to class. President Sue Hammersmith hopes the 75 percent discount will encourage some students to shift to train or bus for summer and fall classes, and then continue the new pattern after construction is done.

“The Green Line is opening at the time when assumptions about travel patterns are starting to change in the Twin Cities,” she notes. “We want our students to have more options for managing their busy lives.”

The Go-To card program for anchor institutions was inspired by the highly successful U-pass program at the University of Minnesota, in which students buy an all-you-can-ride transit pass at about a quarter of the usual cost. Almost half the UM student body — about 20,000 students — purchase the U-cards, which “opens up the city to exploration for them” as well as combating traffic congestion, says the UM’s alternative transportation manager Steve Sanders.

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All University of Minnesota students and staff will also be eligible for a special card allowing them to ride the Green Line for free between three campus stations, which Sanders hopes will translate into time-savings for riders and cost-savings on the inter-campus buses the university operates. The Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities — a network of private colleges in St. Paul and Minneapolis that enables students to take classes on other campuses — is also studying whether light rail can replace some of its shuttle buses.

Louis Smith of the Central Corridor Anchor Partnership thinks the Go-To cards could evolve into a permanent program that offers anchor institutions’ staff and students an incentive to ride transit, similar to the U-Pass or the College Pass used at a number of local colleges and technical schools. Phillip Davis, president of Minneapolis Community & Technical College, says the College Pass has boosted MCTC transit use to 30 percent despite the fact that many students juggle complicated transportation schedules around full-time jobs, day care and family commitments.

A transportation transformation over the next decade

Brian Lamb, general manager of Metro Transit, is delighted with this opportunity to attract new riders.

“The next 10 years are going to see a real change in terms of choice around transportation. If we can get people comfortable with transit early in life, it begins a move to sustainable transportation throughout their careers.”

Jeff Cornell, an undergraduate at Augsburg College originally from Eagan, says he is looking forward to the opening of the Green Line to discover more of what’s going on in the Twin Cities as well as easier access to his job at a St. Paul coffeeshop. Cornell predicts light rail will be a big hit with students because “they tend to use trains more than buses.”

The director of Augsburg’s Urban-Metro Studies program, Nancy Fischer, worked with one of her classes to create a pocket-sized map highlighting attractions at Green Lane stations. The map will be passed out to everyone on campus when the line starts service (Augsburg is the official opening-day sponsor of the West Bank station) and again in August when fall classes begin.

“St. Paul tends to be a mystery to our students unless that’s where they grew up, so the map shows them what’s there,” Fischer says. “The Green Line also offers them new opportunities for jobs. Already a lot of our students take the Blue Line to work at the Mall of America.”

“I’ve been looking forward to the line opening for five years,” says René Rosengren, who works at the Regions Hospital Foundation. “I’m looking forward to being able to read on the train on my way to work from Minneapolis.” Allison Kirk, a social worker at Regions, will continue riding the bus to work from Maplewood but will make use of light rail to shop at the Target store and sample the restaurants on University Avenue. “My co-workers and I are planning to take the train to Twins games.” 

Don Moschkau, Human Resources director at the University of Minnesota Medical Center, is excited about expanded transportation opportunities for employees at the hospital, which is a short stroll from the Green Line’s East Bank station.

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“I’m excited personally too,” he says. He and his partner live near downtown St. Paul and he plans on taking the Green Line to work, allowing them to shed one of the family cars. “It will make a big change in our lives.” 

Seeking mobility options

Being able to live comfortably with one or no cars could make a big difference for many Twin Cities residents. With the fluctuating cost of gas and increased expense of owning, operating and parking a car, transportation is now the second highest household expense after housing, gobbling up 16 percent of family budgets in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For many middle- and lower-income families who currently need two cars to get around, transportation costs outstrip housing costs. This category includes many staff, as well as students and interns, at anchor institutions.

The time has never been better for people across Minneapolis-St. Paul to look beyond the steering wheel for new ways to get around.

“We’ve not only got the Green Line now, but better bus service and more bike lanes and the Nice Ride bikeshare program, and even carsharing” for when you suddenly need a car, explains Heather Cole of St. Paul Smart Trips, who notes these attractive options are widely available throughout the Central Corridor neighborhoods where the Green Line runs.

The debut of the Green Line is accompanied by a host of improvements to connecting bus service in St. Paul. The route of the Grand Avenue bus will be extended to the Raymond Avenue station on the Green Line. A bus route will be added to Lexington Avenue for the first time in many decades, and frequency will be increased on the Cleveland and Dale Street lines. In 2015 Snelling Avenue will see bus rapid transit (BRT) — faster express service that resembles light rail with more frequent service, preferential access at stoplights and specially designed buses and stations. Named the A-Line, the BRT service will run from Rosedale to Ford Parkway with transfers to the Green Line at University Avenue. At Ford Parkway it heads west to connect with the Blue Line light rail at the 46th  Street station in Minneapolis.

Car miles dropping nationwide

This growing roster of transportation choices in Minneapolis-St. Paul is happening against a backdrop of changing mobility across the country. The number of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) by the average American has declined every year since 2005 (and in Minnesota every year since 2007) — a cultural shift no one saw coming, and which cannot be chalked up to the economic crash of 2008; the trend started earlier.

Young people are fueling this movement toward less driving. The Federal Highway Administration reports that miles traveled by drivers under 30 plunged from 21 percent of the total in 1995 to 14 percent of the total in 2009, despite the fact that 2009 numbers represent the millennial generation, which is far larger than Generation X, who were the young drivers in 1995. Even Motor Trend magazine admits that young professionals living in cities today are less interested in buying cars and “more likely to spend the money on smartphones, tablets, laptops and $2,000-plus bikes.”

Autos are losing their cache as symbols of freedom, status and self-expression. For millennials, cars are simply one of many options for getting from point A to point B, and not necessarily the most stylish or sexy one. Businesses and other organizations in the creative sector (including medical centers and colleges), whose futures depend on attracting young talent across many fields, need to offer prospective employees and students something beyond easy freeway access and a heated parking ramp. The anchor institutions along the Green Line are well positioned to draw the best and the brightest by capitalizing on the Twin Cities’ full array of transportation options and the appealing urban atmosphere these options create.

By embracing the Green Line, anchor institutions will help ensure their healthy futures in another important way. As the Central Corridor sees successive waves of development, land prices will climb and supply will diminish to the point where expansion of college or medical campuses will mean building on property now devoted to parking. The more staff and students take transit, the more available land there will be for redevelopment. Brian Lamb of Metro Transit predicts, “The era of ripping up neighborhoods to lay down asphalt is now over.” New development in the two downtowns and the U district already shows surface parking lots being replaced with a higher and better use, he says.

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The advent of the Green Line promises not just better transportation for Minneapolis-St. Paul, but new opportunities for neighborhoods, businesses, anchor institutions and people to flourish.