MINNEAPOLIS - A bit of Twin Cities transit history occurs this week in the shadow of the Metrodome. It is the physical joining of the two light rail lines.
The Hiawatha Light Rail Line has been open since 2004, running 12.4 miles from the Mall of America in Bloomington to Target Field in Minneapolis. The Central Corridor line is 10 miles long from downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis. It is scheduled to open in 2014.
This week, the merger point of the two lines, just east of the Metrodome is to be completed. The two lines will share tracks running west from that point through downtown Minneapolis.
"We are reconnecting the two central cities with light rail," noted Mark Fuhrmann, Deputy General Manager of Metro Transit. "First time that will have been since the old trolleys in the early 1950s."
The Twin Cities once had more than 500 miles of light rail trolleys criss-crossing the metro area. They were replaced by buses in the 1950s and the tracks were either buried in pavement or torn up. It was 50 years before rail returned in the form of the highly successful Hiawatha line.
"We have about 30,000 passengers per weekday on Hiawatha, far exceeding our initial forecasts of about 24,000 in 2020," said Fuhrmann. "The Central Line will be the busiest transit line in Minnesota (estimated 41,000 per weekday), far exceeding the 30,000 that we see on Hiawatha today."
Virtually all of the heavy excavation and construction on the Central Corridor, including the 18 stations, will be complete by the end of the 2012 construction season. 2013 will see the installation of the overhead electric power lines and the towers that support them. Running test trains is scheduled to begin at the end of 2013 or early 2014. The Central Corridor is to begin carrying passengers in 2014.
The Central Corridor will become known as the green line, eventually linking to the third line, the Southwest Corridor from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, via St. Louis Park, Hopkins and Minnetonka. The Hiawatha line will be known as the blue line.
The impact of the Central Corridor is expected to be enormous, according to Chris Ferguson, light rail liaison of the Stadium Village Business Association. He does not deny that businesses have suffered during the months of torn up streets.
"Obviously, everyone is down revenue-wise," said Ferguson. "Some of the people are down 10 percent and then further down the corridor (others) are down 60-70 percent. It really depends on the types of business."
However, Ferguson, who owns an Orange Julius/Dairy Queen on Washington Avenue, is optimistic that the corridor can succeed in replacing lost jobs and revenue.
"The challenge will be re-educating customers to get them to come back," Ferguson said. "Our goal would be to create 14,000 living wage jobs from [the State] Capitol to [the University of Minnesota] campus."
"Well, no one likes construction happening right in front of their business," commented Marvin Plakut, President and CEO of Episcopal Homes on University Avenue. "But I look at this as a long term investment."
There is a waiting list to gain residency at Episcopal Homes, which caters to seniors in all stages of care, from the ambulatory to those who need complete care. "What is interesting in that, right now, we are having increasing numbers of people that come knocking on our door saying 'I think I want to get on your waiting list because light rail is happening right in front of your campus.' There is a great deal of excitement, a great deal of energy, newness, renewal that is in the air," said Plakut.
Plakut said a number of residents are anxious for the trains to start running. One of those is Marjorie Fletcher, 85.
"We are all looking forward to that first ride," said Fletcher. "We are going to ride the light rail! I think that the first time I ride it would be for information, just to see where does it go? Who rides it? What is it all about because it is so new. I have never done a light rail. I know it is in Minneapolis, but I have not ridden it, because I have always been in St. Paul (since leaving her native Magnolia, Minn.)."
Fletcher has the kind of enthusiasm that Metro Transit officials are counting on to make ridership on the new line a success. It is expected that students from the University of Minnesota will use the line to get to classes and events, especially the football games at TCF Bank Stadium and hockey and basketball at Mariucci and Williams Arenas.
Normal traffic patterns along Washington Avenue, through the campus, are permanently disrupted. Washington from East River Parkway to Walnut Street is permanently closed to vehicular traffic. There will be just one lane in each direction at the Washington Avenue Bridge and from Walnut to University Avenue.
The grade of the road on University Avenue behind the State Capitol is being lowered a few feet to accommodate the trains as they approach the right turn onto Robert Street and on toward downtown St. Paul. The train design requires no more than a six percent grade.
All of the construction is to be finished at the end of this fall.
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