A train linking Minneapolis and St. Paul? We had that scoop in 1984.


The last Minneapolis streetcar is burned, June 19, 1954.

It didn't come easy, but in the end the Central Corridor light rail line got that $70 million. Tired of hearing about it? So were we--in 1984. We've dusted off a cover story called "ALL ABOARD: For the Transit Study that Never Ends." You'll snicker and you'll weep and you'll wonder if ever there was an idea to survive such a relentless succession of tiny blows--more than four decades worth.

From the September 5th, 1984 issue of City Pages:

The word is out that a public hearing on proposals for a light rail ... linking St. Paul, Minneapolis and the western suburbs will be held sometime in November. A tome called the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS), required for Federal funding, has to be aired.

The DEIS is the latest addition to a tall stack of paper generated by light rail discussions since the late 60s, when it began to dawn on planners that ripping out the streetcar system in the 50's might have been the wrong thing to do.

The article is rich with the kind of history lacking in coverage of the most recent drama:


In the 1920's, says Bill Graham, a consultant to the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority, every house in the metropolitan area was within 400 yards of a streetcar stop.The fare was a dime.

"When the auto burgeoned in the 50's, the autos began to impede the movement of the trolleys," Minneapolis city planner Jim Daire says. "Buses became a lot more convenient." They were, until 1970, when the Metropolitan Transit Commission (MTC) bought out the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company and stepped up service to the suburbs. At the peak of the morning and afternoon rush hours, hundreds of buses converged on both downtowns, creating a crimson tide that spewed diesel fumes and paralyzed traffic. Downtown merchants and city officials began to think that high-tech transit systems being built in large cities in the U.S. and abroad offered a solution to the congestion, Daire says. Washington, D.C. had its futuristic subway; San Francisco was building the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART); Japan was showing off ultra-fast monorail trains. NASA had just spent $3 billion to get to the moon. Couldn't the feds spend $100 million so that Twin Citians could get downtown?

So began a paper chase that has lasted 12 years. In 1972 the MTC undertook an analysis of the metro area's transit needs, called the Regional Fixed Guideway Study. The study recommended that UMTA and the state Legislature come up with $1.3 billion to build a 57-mile intermediate capacity rail system. "It was sort of the Twin Cities answer to the BART," Metropolitan Council transportation director Larry Dallam says, so the council refused to look at MTC's study and did its own, which concluded that a fixed guideway for buses was the solution to downtown congestion. The LEgislature promptly shelved both recommendations, did nothing for a year, then appropriated $500,000 so that the MTC could study the only form of transport that hadn't been discussed: small, driverless, electrically powered vehicles called people movers.

The Small Vehicle Fixed Guideway Study stimulated people-mover talk on both sides of the river in 1975. Minneapolis dropped the idea, but the St. Paul City Council believed that the machines, which would have connected the state Capitol, Town Square, the Civic Center and 10 other downtown locations with a $120 million sidewalk in the sky, were the wave of the future. Phil Braum, manager of transit development for the MTC, says his agency and St. Paul spent $2 million on an environmental impact statement and related studies over three years. But it was not to be; the Legislature balked at the cost of the project, and the city was obliged to withhold its $12 million contribution when the issue failed a referendum in 1980. The people-mover reports and transcripts from half a dozen public hearings are stored in cardboard boxes at the MTC.

In 1976, the Metropolitan Council held public hearings on a highway and transit plan intended to provide a blueprint for area highway construction and mass transit through 1990. All sorts of transit proposals were brought forth--subways, monorail trains, streetcars, buses, people-movers, car pools--which served to confuse the council members rather than enlighten them, Daire says.

When the article was published, there was a clear--if suspect--sense of momentum in the air.

In 1980 city aldermen, state legislatures, urban planners and sundry officials from state and local agencies attended a conference in Orono. The conference report: "Light Rail Transit: A solution for the Twin Cities," persuaded policy makers to reconsider the transit issue. he Legislature gave the Metropolitan Council $150,000 to study the feasibility of light rail in the metro area.

The floodgates were open; there seemed to be no end to the conferences, hearings, reports and recommendations the transit debate engendered.

No end indeed. Referring back to the metro-wide trolley system that once carried 229 million passengers annually over 523 miles of track, the article concludes:

One thing is certain: The light rail service we'll get if mounds of paper finally turn into steel won't be as efficient and far-flung as the one that died of neglect 30 years ago.