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It's a frosty morning in mid-January and, snow be damned, there is ceremonial dirt to be tossed. After years in the planning, state and local officials are finally ready to break ground for the Hiawatha Light Rail Transit line. Scheduled to be completed in 2004, the 11.6-mile run will transport passengers from downtown Minneapolis to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and points in between, via futuristic-looking cars. The event is taking place because one major hurdle to the project--federal funding to the tune of $334.3 million--has finally been cleared.
The groundbreaking is a prime photo opportunity for politicians such as Gov. Jesse Ventura, Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton, U.S. Representative Martin Olav Sabo, Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg, Metropolitan Council Chair Ted Mondale, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, and others. As the flash bulbs pop, they will herald the project as the beginning of a bold new era for transportation in the Twin Cities.
Lynn Woodward, an indefatigable, self-appointed activist, plans to show up and provide a different picture: the LRT's ballooning budget. Woodward staunchly believes that, before it's completed, LRT--which is currently budgeted at $675.4 million--will cost federal, state, and local taxpayers more than $1 billion. And that's before you factor in the operating costs. Don't get Woodward started on the operating costs.
In preparation for the ceremony, the 56-year-old rises early to wait for the No. 63 bus on Grand Avenue, just two blocks from his St. Paul home. He had hoped to be on the road at 7:40 a.m., but that bus never showed. Some 15 minutes later he's en route. From the No. 63 he transfers to the No. 4 on Snelling, the No. 21 on Selby, and then the No. 19 up Cedar Avenue in Minneapolis. The Met Council's advance publicity had advised riders that they could take the No. 19 or the No. 20 to reach the groundbreaking, but the last bus driver on Woodward's journey knows nothing about it. "No one thought about the transit riders who would come to this," huffs Woodward.
He arrives at the intersection of Franklin and Cedar in about an hour, a couple of blocks from a patch of bare land typically used as a parking lot by two-storied West Bank bars. An eight-spired, white circus tent has been erected for the groundbreaking. There's even straw on the ground (lest somebody slip, fall, and break a leg). A four-piece Dixieland band provides music, including a version of "I've Been Working on the Railroad." Although it will be years before anyone will ride the line, there are LRT memorabilia available to mark the occasion. Vendors peddle hats, mugs, and posters.
Woodward pulls a homemade handout from a black leather portfolio, detailing his analysis of light rail's escalating costs. He makes sure that every reporter on the scene gets a copy. The front page is single-spaced and thick with numbers, the margins clogged with handwritten asides such as, "More 'Off-Budget' Taxpayer Costs Coming!" The back page features a worksheet Woodward compiled in October of 1999, detailing the costs of LRT. It is black with ink, nearly illegible. There are scribbled notes and amendments. Words are underlined, circled, or simply crossed out.
While the main purpose of the flyer is to question the high cost and limited effectiveness of light rail, it also offers an alternative. Woodward believes a limited-stop, Metro Transit bus would be the most efficient way to move people from downtown Minneapolis to the airport. He figures that with all the bells and whistles such a project would cost no more than $5 million, and that's before factoring in rider fares.
Although he has a background in business, Woodward has little patience for corporate small talk or pleasantries. Instead he punctuates his points with an impish, wheezy laugh and a gleam in his eye, as if to ask, "Shouldn't this be obvious to everyone?" He eschews sports coats and ties. Today he's dressed practically--in a turquoise ski jacket and khakis--and totes a black fanny pack. Standing six-foot-two, with only the slightest hint of a paunch, he wears the white tennis shoes of an inveterate walker. A gray stocking cap covers his balding pate.
To many of the dirt-tossing politicians and their underlings, Woodward's mere presence is an affront. At one point, a young blonde clad in a Metro Transit jacket approaches to stop Woodward from distributing flyers. Woodward scoffs and goes about his business. Later, she drifts by to mutter the word "propaganda."
Ted Mondale, chair of the Met Council and one of LRT's most vocal cheerleaders, has caught Woodward's act at countless public meetings. The two have a clipped conversation. "I talked to Mondale and he said, 'Well, you're just calling us incompetent again,'" Woodward recounts later with a chuckle. "Well, yeaaaaaah. That's kind of my point."
Woodward listens restlessly as the politicians make their speeches. "This is the right place at the right time," Mondale proclaims. Woodward lets go with a snide "pshaw." When Mayor Sayles Belton professes, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is a smart investment," Woodward just scoffs.
That night, Woodward wins a sound bite on WCCO-TV (Channel 4). He has no such luck in the next morning's paper. "There were no organized protests to the line during the groundbreaking," reports the Star Tribune.
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