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Does This Bus Stop at the Capitol?

Rybak rallies the troops, but what's his next move?
David Fick

When Metro Transit workers first walked out last month, R.T. Rybak went to the internet to plot his public stance. Posting on Minneapolis Issues, a local e-forum, on the first Saturday in March, the mayor solicited stories of how the strike was disrupting everyday lives. By the following Wednesday, his honor had a piece in the Strib's editorial pages recounting various tales of woe.

But as the bus stoppage wore on, little else was heard from Rybak until he showed up at a strikers' rally on the Hennepin County Government Center plaza last Tuesday. Speaking to a crowd of 500 or so, Rybak delivered some of his most pointed rhetoric to date. "We need leadership from the governor's office!" cried the mayor, urging Pawlenty to "get back to the table and get the buses rolling again." Then he led the crowd in a chant of "Settle now!"

Rybak has always styled himself a transit advocate. At the same time, he faces a governor and a large coterie of legislators who are openly hostile to the notion of allocating more state dollars to the cities. Practically speaking, Rybak has little power in the matter--except the power of the bully pulpit and of whatever political coalitions he might be able to build.

Rybak has apparently decided to court alliances with the folks who speak Pawlenty's language: the business community. At the rally, Rybak indicated that he means to put together a coalition of Minneapolis business leaders to pressure the governor and conservative legislators by emphasizing the cost of the strike in lost business productivity.

Put that way, maybe they'll listen. Maybe. Pawlenty and Met Council chair Peter Bell have displayed indifference verging on contempt toward workers and riders who desperately want some political leadership on the strike.

One person who won't have his back is Hizzoner's opposite number, St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly, who didn't attend the rally. Kelly, a longtime power broker in the legislature and nominal transit advocate, has been remarkably mum on the strike--failing even to give it a mention in his State of the City address last week. St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune, who did speak at the rally, was eager to pounce on Kelly's silence. "We are now the only major metropolitan area in the whole country without a transit system," Thune told the PiPress last week. "It's a challenge for the mayor and the City Council to stand up to the folks who don't care about the folks who live here."

Melody Kavaluskas, a Metro Transit bus driver for 15 years, appreciated Rybak's moral support but wondered what it would really come to. "He said he's working behind the lines," she said. "But what is he doing? I wish he'd tell us."

 

Whither LRT? A McKinsey and Company survey noted that the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro is number five with a bullet on the list of most-traffic-congested cities in the country. Owing to the transit strike, local light rail won't be easing the burden anytime soon. The opening of the Hiawatha rail line, originally scheduled for this past weekend, could be pushed back to at least December, maybe next April.

No doubt this warmed the hearts of many LRT dissenters. The Star Tribune took great pains on Sunday to point out the problems for small businesses along the Hiawatha line as the launch is delayed. At the same time, a move to hatch plans for a line along University Avenue in St. Paul was in danger of falling through the cracks at the legislature last week.

Continuing to subvert LRT at this point is a grave mistake. Need proof? Take a look at Buffalo, New York. The city gave up its light-rail plans after opening an initial six-mile line in 1985. Buffalo is the only city to have never expanded light rail beyond its first line. For that, the city has suffered, facing an increasingly troubled downtown, declining property values, and a diminished tax base. The city of 288,000 only counts 21,000 passengers a day.

Other cities comparable to Minneapolis, like Portland and Denver, are seeing revitalized urban cores, due in no small part to light rail. Denver has 25 miles on two lines, the first of which opened in 1994, and is planning to spend some $4.2 billion on six additional lines. Portland counts more than 80,000 daily riders on two lines that total 38 miles.

In other words, the tipping point for success hinges on whether light rail is expanded to more than one line. Other cities, like Dallas, Houston, and Salt Lake City, are in the process of building more light rail. The Minnesota legislature is now considering some $5.25 million in bonding to do a preliminary study for more LRT. What's at stake is matching federal money. If the study isn't done, the federal money will go to another city anxious to build more light rail, and the Twin Cities will likely be left with one useless rail line.

 

Chief in Waiting: The news that Rocco Forte, chief of the Minneapolis Fire Department, was leaving his post raised some eyebrows last week around City Hall. And the news that Forte is not actually leaving, but taking a new job as head of the regulatory services department, led to still more speculation.

Why the move? Was it a means of solving practical problems, or political ones?

Forte is a very popular figure in city government, seemingly beloved by every local politician in sight. A year ago, he won Rybak's praise for reacting to impending city budget cuts; MFD Chief Forte's plan was filed weeks before that of MPD Chief Robert Olson. (Then again, Forte's plan called for 32 layoffs, since reinstated--a move that didn't exactly endear him to rank-and-file firefighters.)

The official spin was that Forte, having spent 29 years with the MFD, would qualify for a more handsome pension package if he ended his career in a different position. But some insiders saw additional motives behind the shuffle. (If it were only a matter of Forte's MFD retirement package being deficient in some way, the City Council could have voted him a different one.)

There are those who wonder if Forte's "promotion" was really about clearing the way for a female chief, to appease those City Council members who had backed either Lucy Gerold or Sharon Lubinski for police chief. (The recommended interim chief, Bonnie Bleskachek, is not next to Forte in the chain of command, but she is one of the department's highest-ranking females.) This possibility rankled some minority community leaders, who credit Forte as the main force in Minneapolis's building the most diverse fire department nationwide.

My own sources insist the real impetus for the move is a long-needed overhaul of the city's inspections department. Forte has long wanted the MFD to take over inspections; as head of regulatory services, he will now manage inspections, licenses, and consumer services. (His predecessor, John Bergquist, was not reappointed in January.) One City Hall insider suggested that Forte's reputation as a strong overseer of the bottom line means he's being brought in to clean house.

Suggestions, gripes, and tips should be sent to granderson@citypages.com.


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