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Political fights over light rail projects in Minnesota are nothing new

Deal-making helped launch Minnesota’s first LRT line in the 1990s. 

The idea for a light rail line through South Minneapolis was hatched by a group of neighborhood activists in 1976 who saw transit as an alternative to a full-scale depressed freeway along the Hiawatha corridor.
Courtesy of Metro Transit

Sen. Al Franken warned recently about the possible loss of federal funds for the $1.8 billion Southwest LRT project if the state doesn’t pony up. His cautionary words provided a reality check for the 14-mile transit line that continues to encounter political headwinds. In the 1990s, deal-making at the state Capitol helped Minnesota’s first LRT project, now known as the Blue Line, overcome similar headwinds.

The idea for a light rail line through South Minneapolis was hatched by a group of neighborhood activists in 1976 who saw transit as an alternative to a full-scale depressed freeway along the Hiawatha corridor. The activists were able to scuttle an initial freeway plan but they faced opposition to LRT, at least initially, from an influential “good government” group, the Citizens League. While the League would eventually come around to support transit, in the beginning the group maintained that LRT represented an inefficient approach to meeting the region’s transportation needs.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Hennepin County Commissioner
Peter McLaughlin

The South Minneapolis LRT plan remained dormant for nearly 20 years until it was revived in the 1990s by Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin and other transit advocates.

“I kept telling the skeptics that we had strong support in Washington. We had [U.S. Reps. James] Oberstar and [Martin] Sabo, who were key on transportation, so why dissipate our efforts on relatively small projects like bus lanes? Let’s go for broke, I told them. If we can’t get LRT, then our fallback will be a busway. But if we fall back to buses, we will do them forever. We will never get LRT,” McLaughlin recalled.

Local match requirement

Sabo was waiting in the wings, ready to deliver for the new project, dubbed the Hiawatha line, but he kept reminding McLaughlin and other transit advocates about a local match requirement. In other parts of the county, regional transit agencies were able to rely on a regional tax to help generate the local match, but that revenue source was not available in the Twin Cities.

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“We had to get our match from the state Legislature, and we had to crawl over cut glass to do so,” McLaughlin said.

At the Capitol, the heavy political lifting fell to Carol Flynn, the South Minneapolis legislator who had been a transit advocate on the Metropolitan Council prior to her election to the state Senate in 1990.

“I had always felt that transit was important, and I wanted LRT to happen. In the beginning I didn’t think it would necessarily happen in my own district,” Flynn recalled. “When that looked like a real possibility, I was pleased, but then I had to absorb all the slings and arrows from the transit opponents.”

By 1998, Flynn was the chair of the Minnesota Senate Transportation Committee, and a key player on transit issues in the Capitol. She worked hard at forging an alliance with rural legislators. “They needed roads and we needed transit, so we could come together, but our real problems were with the suburbanites — particularly the suburban Republicans,” she recalled.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
Gov. Arne Carlson

Arne Carlson, a transit skeptic, was governor, but his appointee as Met Council Chair, Curt Johnson, had become a supporter. Johnson had been a fierce foe of LRT in his previous job as head of the anti-rail Citizens League but the Carlson appointee had experienced a change of heart.

Johnson said that his conversion was prompted, at least in part, by increased population pressures, an overburdened transportation system and the ineffectiveness of measures such as car pooling and exclusive bus lanes in easing traffic pressures.

“Seeing all of this, I have come to believe that we are going to experience — by Minnesota standard at least — unspeakable congestion,” Johnson told the Star Tribune in January 1998.

Johnson’s support provided a pipeline to Carlson who, seven years earlier, had predicted that the LRT would never be built. By 1998, as his term was coming to a close, the Republican governor was ready to deal.

The hockey arena

In an end-of-the-session agreement, engineered in part by Flynn, Carlson agreed, albeit reluctantly, to a $40 million bonding allocation for Hiawatha LRT in exchange for a $60 million loan for a St. Paul hockey arena.

“He agreed to the $40 million, only because it was part of a package deal,” Flynn recalled. “Arne and Norm Coleman (then St. Paul’s mayor) wanted the hockey arena. That was their highest priority. I went along with it because it helped us move transit forward.”

Carlson signed the bonding bill, which included the $40 million for LRT, but the Hiawatha line was still not a done deal in 1998. The $40 million was only a start. An additional $200 million needed to come from the federal treasury, along with $60 million more from the state and $70 million from local governments, including Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis.

Gov. Jesse Ventura
REUTERSGov. Jesse Ventura

The new year of 1999 brought a new governor, the flamboyant Jesse Ventura, who replaced LRT skeptic Carlson. While Carlson had acquiesced to the initial $40 million, but only as part of an end-of-the-session agreement, Ventura was an enthusiastic LRT booster who earmarked $60 million for the project in his first biennial budget.

Ventura had become an LRT booster during a trip to Atlanta for a meeting with Ted Turner at the Cable News Network (CNN), according to McLaughlin.

“Jesse was ready to take a cab in from the airport to Turner’s office in downtown Atlanta, when the man next to him told him about Atlanta’s light rail line,” McLaughlin recounted. “The two of them got on the LRT and it deposited Jesse right in front of the CNN building. ‘That was just great,’ Jesse later told me. “With the money I saved on cab fare, I could fill up both of my jet skis with gas all week-end long.”

Attacked by East Metro politicians

Ventura included $60 million for LRT in his bonding bill, but almost immediately the proposal was attacked by East Metro politicians, including St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and State Sen. Randy Kelly, who would later succeed Coleman as mayor.

Coleman was irate that St. Paul had been left out of the bonding bill. “To invest in light rail simply in the west metro area will hurt the economic vitality of the entire region and I won’t support it,” he declared angrily. “Unless we are treated more fairly, we are not going to acquiesce to a proposal that is western oriented,” Kelly added.

Met Council Chair Ted Mondale felt more than a little threatened by Coleman’s and Kelly’s efforts to torpedo the $60 million for Hiawatha LRT. In early April, Mondale said he was “a bit nervous” about prospects for winning federal construction funding in light of the intraregional squabbling. “We need to get our act together in the next month or two, because competition from the other 180 cities is fierce.”

Coleman and Kelly were eventually mollified when Ramsey County transit projects were included on MnDOT’s priority list, but attacks from another power center could not be so easily quelled.

Krinkie and Molnau

Opposition in the Republican-dominated House was hardening, and LRT opponents such as Phil Krinkie and Carol Molnau would lead a bitter fight by House Republicans to derail the Hiawatha line. Krinkie and Molnau, backed by House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty, would continue working to defund LRT even after Ventura’s $60 million request was approved by a House-Senate conference committee later in 1999.

As the federal approval process for the Minnesota transit project moved forward, Krinkie and his band of LRT opponents stepped up their attacks. Saying that he was willing to go to “quite extreme lengths” to stop construction of the transit project, the Shoreview representative filed suit in state court in December, along with nine other Republicans legislators, to block the project. Five months later, Ramsey County District Judge A. James Dickenson threw out the suit, saying that he was not willing to referee “a political dispute” between the governor and the legislator.

Krinkie and his allies had been turned back in state court, and they made little headway as well at the Federal Transit Administration. Even though Hiawatha LRT was not ranked in the “highest priority” by the federal agency, the Minnesota project received passing marks and the green light to receive the federal construction dollars that Martin Sabo had squirreled away in the federal budget.

When the required 60-day congressional review posed no further roadblocks, Star Tribune reporter Laurie Blake was able to announce on Jan. 14, 2001, that “light rail in the Twin Cities is a done deal.” Met Council Chair Mondale breathed a sigh of relief.

“We were on a critical path timeline for a year and a half,” Mondale reported. “We came within a day of being killed a number of times.”

Later that week, Jesse Ventura told a cheering crowd at a hastily arranged groundbreaking ceremony: “The Hiawatha Line is happening today because the people demanded more transportation choices.” The January 2001 groundbreaking would be one of the few opportunities that Ventura would have to celebrate one of the major achievements of his embattled administration. By the time the Hiawatha LRT opened for business three and half years later, in June 2003, Ventura would no longer be in office.