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Minnesota's Progressive Legacy - The Rails Return


The Grand Consensus - Part IV

Minnesota’s Progressive Legacy - The Rails Return

A Regional Approach to Transit and Transportation

By Iric Nathanson


It was billed as a grand civic celebration to mark the demise of the trolleys.  Minneapolis Mayor Eric Hoyer proclaimed Friday, June 18, 1954, “Good Bye Street Car – Hello  Bus Day” as a caravan of local dignitaries rode the Twin City’s eight remaining street cars on their final run to the Snelling Avenue rail shops in St. Paul.  When the caravan reached the end of the line, Fred Ossanna, who headed the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company, lit one of the last street cars on fire and received a $20,000 check from a local insurance official to cover the loss.

For members of Minnesota’s Railfans Association, “Hello Bus Day” was not a time for celebration.  “This is a black Friday for us,” noted the Association’s president, Clark Johnson.

Fred Ossanna faced a black day of his own, six year later, when he was convicted of fraud, along with the TCRT’s general manager, who had overseen the company’s conversion from street cars to buses. Both men had been involved in a massive conspiracy involving the sale of the TCRT equipment to a local scrap dealer.

Through the 1960s, the region’s all-bus system continued to languish under private ownership.  During these years, fans of rail transit would look back nostalgically at the street car era, which had lasted 65 years.  But they would have to wait until the start of a new century for the rails to return to the Twin Cities.

Creating a public system

harold-levanderIn 1967, with a newly-elected Republican governor in office, policy-makers at the State Capitol made the first tentative steps towards public ownership of the metropolitan region’s transit system.  In his inaugural address, Harold LeVander called for a new, more comprehensive approach to “problems that transcend geographical boundaries.”

“You need only to have your patience tried in a bumper-to-bumper lineup of cars and buses on hundreds of roads in the Twin Cities area to realize the demand for such an intercommunity or areawide service effort,” he noted.

LeVander went on to propose “an areawide service council” to provide services, including transit, for the seven-county Twin Cities region.”

With the Governor’s backing, the State Legislature began work on a plan to create what would become the area’s Metropolitan Council.  In an era before party designation, the legislative caucus groups were identified as “Conservative” and “Liberal.”  Most Conservatives considered themselves Republicans, while Liberals were identified closely with the DFL.

With Conservatives in control of the House and Senate, both caucus groups were in general agreement about the need for some form of a regional council.  But there were sharp differences about the powers of the new entity and its organizational structure.  Liberals generally supported a directly-elected council with substantial authority to operate region-wide programs, while Conservatives favored an appointed council that would function mainly as a planning and coordinating body.

LeVander sided with those who wanted an elected council, but he had to settle for an appointed body when a key Senate amendment to create an elected council was defeated on a tie vote. In the House, a similar measure also went down to defeat. On May 25, 1967, the Governor signed into law the bill creating an appointed Metropolitan Council in a form that would be maintained well into the Twenty First Century.

The newly-formed Council took over the functions of a predecessor organization, the Metropolitan Planning Commission, created ten years earlier. The Commission had been championed by one of LeVander’s Republican predecessors, Elmer L. Andersen, when he was a state senator.

As one of the year’s highest profile issues, the Metropolitan Council bill overshadowed another legislative measure that was moving ahead on a parallel track during the 1967 session.   LeVander had envisioned an areawide service council with authority over transit in the seven county region, but the Legislature chose to place that function in a separate agency, the Metropolitan Transit Commission.


The Transit Commission bill was caught up in a controversy of its own that year.  When the bill reached the Senate floor, Sen. Jack Davies, a Minneapolis DFLer, pushed to give the new state agency condemnation powers so it could acquire the region’s privately-owned bus companies.   Sen. William Kirchner, a Richfield Conservative and the transit bill’s chief author, argued against Davies’ proposal, saying that he wanted to keep the bus companies in private hands, “as long as possible.”  In the end, Davies’ amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

martin-saboWith the condemnation vote behind them,   House and Senate members went on to approve the transit measure by wide margins.  Ironically, one of the few votes against final passage was cast by State Representative Martin Sabo, then in his fourth legislative term. Presumably, Sabo, a Minneapolis DFLer, voted against the bill because he didn’t think it was strong enough to meet the needs of his inner-city constituents.  Sabo would go on to become a major champion for Twin Cities transit during his 14 terms as a U.S. congressman, representing Minnesota’s 5th District.

The final transit bill, signed into law by Governor LeVander, created a nine member commission (the MTC) with certain slots apportioned between urban and suburban areas within the seven county region.   The commission’s activities were to be funded through a $1 per vehicle wheelage tax in the region.   It was empowered to conduct transit studies and to subsidize private bus operations on a trial basis.  But the new state agency was not authorized to build or operate a transit system until it had prepared a comprehensive plan that was reviewed and approved by the Legislature.

By 1970, the MTC had received legislative approval for its comprehensive plan and was able to acquire the assets of the Twin Cities Lines, as the privately-owned company was then known.  That year, the Commission took control of a transit system that was badly in need of updating.  Nearly 80% of the system’s 635 buses were 15 years of age or older. Eighty-six of the buses were so old that they were banned from the streets of Minneapolis.

After acquiring the Twin Cities Lines, the MTC embarked on an ambitious five-year, $20 million transit improvement program that included the purchase of 465 air-conditioned buses, the installation of 135 bus shelters and the establishment of a 24 hour bus information service

The Commission continued to the operate the region’s bus system as an independent agency until 1996 when it was folded into  the Metropolitan Council and became Metro Transit, one of the Council’s operating sub-units.


The highway-transit link

In 1963, four years before the state’s two regional agencies were created, the Minneapolis City Council decided to jump-start a new freeway project that was intended to connect the downtown loop to Highway 62, which marked the city’s southern boundary.   The Council voted to provide $10 million for a new Highway 55, and, by doing so, unleashed a controversy lasting nearly 40 years.

The local funds enabled the Minnesota Highway Department to begin acquiring right of way for the new freeway even before final designs were in place.   The Department’s preliminary plan called for six ribbons of concrete north of 46th Street and four ribbons south to 62nd Street.

The fact that the plan ripped up a corner of Minnehaha Park did not seem to concern the Minneapolis Park Board— at least not initially.  At a February 1965 public hearing, no one spoke up in opposition to the plan.

But 1966 marked a change of leadership at the Park Board, and a new more critical view of the Highway 55 plan.  Under its new Superintendent, Robert Ruhe, the Board decided that it did not want to sell a piece of Minnehaha Park to the highway department, after all.

In response to the Park Board’s new, tougher stand, highway planners proposed to reroute the freeway away from the park.  But this new plan meant that additional homes — nearly 300 in all– and more than a dozen commercial buildings would need to be acquired for the project. Now, area residents were starting to complain about the project that threatened to disrupt their neighborhoods

Soon, the planners were discovering that Highway 55 had become something of a hot potato. Over a two year period from 1969 to 1971, in response to growing pressures, the Highway Department prepared several alternative plans, one of which –known as Plan D—included a tunnel through Minnehaha Park under Minnehaha Creek.

The neighborhood activists who opposed the early plans for Highway 55 did more than complain.   They did their homework, spending countless hours pouring over the highway department plans in order to better arm themselves with compelling arguments to quash the initial design.  One of the neighborhood activists, Wally Bratt, a geologist, determined that the Plan D tunnel would endanger the Minnehaha Falls. Eventually, Bratt and his neighborhood allies persuaded highway officials to abandon that plan.

By the early 1980s, all parties to the dispute, including neighborhood residents and the city and state officials, finally agreed on a compromise design which called for a berm or land bridge over Highway 55 as it cut through a corner of Minnehaha Park.  The compromise also substituted an at-grade four lane parkway for a depressed six lane freeway. The new plan meant that the state highway department owned excess right of way that it no longer needed, now that the initial freeway plan had been scaled back.

While the debate over the South Minneapolis freeway plan was raging in City Hall and at the State Capitol, a group of South Minneapolis residents, who organized themselves as the Highway 55 Task Force, were quietly working on their own alternative transportation plan.  In 1976, they linked up with Ken Fletcher, an amateur transit enthusiast, who was promoting a new mode of transportation called “Light Rail Transit.” Fletcher explained that LRT, as it came to be known, was not actually “light,” but the term was used to distinguish it from the “heavy” rail system used for the intercity railroads.


Ken Fletcher’s 1976 LRT Map

Fletcher prepared a report for the Task Force laying out the rationale for a LRT line through South Minneapolis that could make use of the excess right-of-way acquired by the Highway Department in the 1960s.   His report included a hand-drawn map showing a transit line extending from downtown Minneapolis to the Twin Cities International Airport and then on to a point on the map identified as “the shops.”  Nearly 30 years later, Minnesota’s first LRT line would closely follow the route laid out by Fletcher. While he did not know it at the time, “the shops” would become the site of the Mall of America.

Warming to the LRT cause

The Fletcher plan languished on the shelf for more than 20 years while state and local policy makers made several false starts at creating a light rail transit system for the Twin Cities.

While the debate over Highway 55 was winding down, LRT was emerging as a top priority for Hennepin County, under its hard-charging Board Chair, John Derus.  Derus began promoting an ambitious plan for a network of transit lines emanating out through the county from downtown Minneapolis.   Derus and his board colleague, Peter McLaughlin, had hoped they could put together a multi-county alliance to develop a metro-wide system, but their hopes were dashed when the region’s other major county, Ramsey, refused to follow Hennepin’s lead.

By now, the Minnesota Legislature had started to eye the counties and their transit ambitions warily. Eventually, the Legislature would strip the counties of their transit planning responsibilities and shift those responsibilities to the state-controlled Metropolitan Council.

While Hennepin County would no longer have a direct role in planning and operating a rail transit system, McLaughlin, who inherited Derus’s advocacy mantle after 1992, continued to play an important behind-the-scenes role in pushing forward an LRT agenda in St. Paul and Washington.

McLaughlin knew the Twin Cities were in a good position to obtain federal funding for an LRT system, because Martin Sabo, the state’s 5th District Congressman, was an influential member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee that had jurisdiction over transit and transportation funding. Sabo was more than willing to direct the federal funding spigot towards Minnesota but he was unwilling to arbitrate disputes over LRT back home.  A strong mass transit advocate, Sabo helped provide operating funds for the bus system in the Twin Cities, but he was somewhat skeptical about rail transit— at least initially.

Eventually, McLaughlin and other local transit advocates were able to create a broad coalition to support a plan, similar to the one proposed by Ken Fletcher in 1976. The new plan called for the construction of an LRT line in the right-of-way acquired years earlier for the unbuilt Highway 55 freeway.  Initial opposition to the plan from Ramsey County officials began to soften when those officials received commitments from their west metro counterparts that a Ramsey County LRT project would be next in line for state and federal  funding after the Hennepin County project, now identified as the Hiawatha line, was built.

Sabo was now warming to the LRT cause, but he kept reminding McLaughlin and other transit advocates that a substantial local match was needed in order to generate the necessary federal dollars for the Hiawatha project.  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.

“We had to get our match from the State Legislature, and we had to crawl over cut glass do that,” Peter McLaughlin later recalled.

Deal-making at the Capitol


At the Capitol, the heavy political lifting fell to Carol Flynn, a 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 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,” Flynn noted.

Minnesota’s Republican governor, Arne Carlson, had been a transit skeptic, but his appointee as Metro 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 carpooling 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 LRT would never be built.   By 1998, as his term was coming was coming to a close, the Republican governor was ready to deal. In an end-of-the-session agreement, engineered in part by Flynn, Carlson agreed to a $40 million bonding allocation for LRT in exchange for a $60 million loan for a St. Paul hockey arena.

“He supported 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.”

After Carlson signed the bonding bill which included the $40 million for LRT, Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) officials decided to get started on the new Hiawatha line without waiting for the needed federal approvals.  Under an interagency agreement, MnDOT would build the new system and the Metropolitan Council’s Metro Transit division would operate it once construction was completed.

But even with the start of construction, LRT still 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.

By 1999, Carlson had been succeeded as governor by the flamboyant Jesse Ventura.  While Carlson had been a somewhat tepid supporter of LRT, the new governor was an enthusiastic booster of the project.  In one of the highpoints of his four years term, Ventura was able to win approval for an additional $60 million in state bonding for the Hiawatha project.

The $60 million in state dollars triggered the release of sufficient federal funds to make the Hiawatha line a reality.  A groundbreaking ceremony occurred in January 2001.  Then, three and a half years later, on June 26, 2004, a huge throng was on hand to witness the inauguration of Minnesota’s first Light Rail Transit project.   After a 50 year absence, the rails had finally returned to the Twin Cities.

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