Dr. Gridlock

Tony Nelson

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.

Woodward, who has seen it all before, is unfazed. He is, after all, a one-man band. It's not his style to organize a bunch of people to stand around waving signs. He sincerely believes in the logic of his vision, which neither begins nor ends with an express bus to the airport. While the words "light rail" are often invoked by policymakers as a panacea to ease the urban commuter's woes, Woodward imagines a different world: a world of vastly improved and convenient bus routes; a world crawling with clean taxis; a world that might include "smart cars"; a world where, if you lived in a neighborhood that offered the right amenities, you wouldn't even need a car.

Woodward has even taken to referring to himself as "Dr. Gridlock"--as in, "Dr. Gridlock Cures Congestion," which has the vague echo of some superhero you've never heard of. "I have no one paying me to do this. I volunteered to do it," he says proudly. (Ron Shaffer has been writing a commuting-oriented column called "Dr. Gridlock" for the Washington Post since 1986. Woodward's nickname has no relation to the column.)

Save for a handful of sympathetic legislators, though, Dr. Gridlock hasn't made much headway at the state capitol, where transit issues are a hot topic. And that's too bad. Because for every one of his off-the-wall, pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams, Woodward has another reasonable, workable proposal that just might make life run a little more smoothly in the Twin Cities.


Woodward's St. Paul apartment is lined with edifying memorabilia: Plaques on the wall speak to careers in academia and business; a series of photographs chronicle the days when he raced Corvette, Trans Am, Le Mans, and Indy-style cars at 120 miles an hour, just for fun. The oscillating fan above his head hums; the radiator hisses loudly. "This is pretty big for me," he says, sitting in the snug space. "I've never been one for big houses."

A 1962 graduate of Eden Prairie High School, Woodward holds a doctorate in business administration. During the go-go Eighties, he quickly became a millionaire working as a real estate developer in Wichita, Kansas, specializing in luxury office space. Then, in 1986, when oil prices plummeted and the real estate market crashed, he filed for bankruptcy.

Since then, he's been a free agent, tapping into a trust fund and working as a business consultant to pay the bills. He is also available as a writer and public speaker. His two main talks are titled "How to Learn Twice as Much in Half the Time" and "Dr. Gridlock Cures Congestion."

The one-time speedster first got religion on the car-free life in the 1970s, while attending graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin. "There's one place where a car is a pain in the ass," recalls Woodward of the college town. Parking was so tight, recalls Woodward, that taking the bus was a no-brainer. If there wasn't a bus available, there was almost always someone willing to share a taxi. Or you could just walk. That one of his professors was confined to a wheelchair and another had lived without a car for 30 years also had a lasting impact on the activist.

Over the years Woodward traveled the world, visited various libraries, and compiled some 1,400 ideas concerning conventional transportation. After reading, rereading, copying, and underlining a host of articles, he came up with a comprehensive vision he dubs the Integrated Alternative Transportation System, or I-ATS. Among other things, the scheme calls for zoning changes that would allow the sensible integration of real estate with transit. He promotes the idea of people renting or sharing cars. He's convinced that a more reliable taxi service is essential, as is a complete overhaul of the bus system--which would be modified to integrate Metro Mobility's service for disabled riders. In Woodward's perfect world, people would telecommute, lines of luxury coaches would run to and from rural destinations, and "smart cars" would drive themselves down the freeway.

Woodward says I-ATS grew out of his hopes to develop, and profit from, what he calls a "no-car or low-car" neighborhood. This 16- or 32-square-block area would offer residents a combination of affordable housing and convenient retail, so they would be within walking distance of almost everything they needed.  

In and of themselves, Woodward's ideas don't amount to much, he says. If only a couple of the schemes are implemented, there will still be too much congestion. He insists, however, that everything he dreams could become reality for no more than $100 million--a fraction of what projects such as LRT will cost taxpayers.

Woodward tries to live the ideal himself. This is the fourth city--after Wichita, Denver, and Madison--that he has lived in without a vehicle. When he moved to St. Paul from Edina last year, he selected his apartment because of its close proximity to a bus line. Woodward also liked the locale at Lexington and Grand because there were so many businesses such a short distance away. "Practically everything is here, plus every service that you could imagine, all within walking distance," he exclaims with giddy enthusiasm.

So far, no one has embraced Woodward's broader vision. And to put his ideas to the test, Woodward knows he will need some help from the government. So while the grand plans sit idle, Woodward schemes to become part of the very system he is fighting.

For instance, when Art Leahy, general manager of Metro Transit, resigned last November, Woodward gleefully applied for the $150,000 job, which calls for overseeing the bus system, the development of light rail, and managing a $170 million budget. Woodward believes substantial improvements to the bus system could move a lot more people for a lot less money than LRT. In his application for the Metro Transit job, Woodward offered to wager $60,000 of his salary for three years against achieving 15 goals, which include doubling ridership within five years.

Woodward called for increasing the frequency and reliability of buses on targeted routes; adding more buses to congested freeway arteries; revamping Metro Transit's marketing; improving signage at bus stops; and giving away free passes to encourage new ridership. And that's just the beginning. "Their prices are so low right now it's ridiculous," Woodward says, claiming that riders would happily pay more for better service. "Speed and convenience are more important than price."

Woodward also believes Metro Transit's current pricing system is too complex, an opinion rooted in lessons he learned years ago while selling men's clothing. "Never show a guy more than three shirts," he quips, before explaining that one-, two-, and three-dollar fares would be easier to understand, and prevent riders from having to fumble for change.

Woodward's resume did not include the "five to eight years of progressive transit management experience" called for in the want ad, however. Asked just a few weeks ago whether he really expected to get an interview, Woodward just laughed: "Fat chance. I don't think they'd even risk interviewing me for fear that I'd show up pretty good." So it came as little surprise when, on February 9, he received a rejection letter.


An incorrigible margin-scribbler, number-cruncher, and theory-spouter, Woodward always seems to be carrying around an unruly stack of papers. One version of his résumé offers this certain self-assessment: "Likes to beat the system. Not a 'yes' man. Independent, principled, will challenge authority, needs freedom to take risks, skeptic, questions everything, most productive when on his own and not under close supervision, no conservative decisions can be forced on him, abhors redundancy or incoherence."

And while Woodward works in solitary--attending public meetings alone, departing by himself on the bus, papers tucked beneath his arm--he has managed to forge alliances, even at the State Capitol. These sometime supporters acknowledge that Woodward expects the system to change faster than it can, but acknowledge that his way of thinking is a refreshing tonic.

"He's very bright--he obviously brings a lot of different experiences to the table," says Rep. Phil Krinkie, a Republican from Shoreview. "Dr. Woodward has truly been a citizen lobbyist. There are very few people like that. When the legislators or the bureaucrats see a citizen lobbyist, they're not quite sure how to react to the individual. He doesn't have any organization behind him, he's not representing a broader group of citizens, he's just coming forward with what he believes are good ideas as far as public policy."

When Woodward first heard Gov. Arne Carlson's multimillion-dollar pitch for a light-rail line along the Hiawatha corridor, he was flabbergasted. He started digging into the issue and, in March, 1999, found himself testifying before the State Government Finance committee, lobbying for a limited-stop bus along the same route. "I thought they would listen to me," recalls Woodward. "I was pretty naive. The bus is so much cheaper. I thought they'd accept my idea." They didn't.

Determined to make a difference, Woodward began cultivating a group of political allies. At one point, he co-authored an article on light rail with Rep. Tom Workman (R-Chanhassen). But Woodward's greatest friend on the hill is Krinkie, a regular critic of government spending. "Part of his demeanor is that he overwhelms you with so much information. I find it difficult to assimilate all that he's talking about," Krinkie raves. "I have a difficult time keeping up with him."  

To others in the halls of state government, Woodward is just another crank. Ted Mondale, the Ventura-appointed chair of the Metropolitan Council, is plenty familiar with Woodward. "He comes down about once a month and yells at us," says Mondale somewhat wearily. "We welcome his suggestions; he's obviously very vocal. We know who he is and it keeps us on our toes."

"That's true. I did yell at them," Woodward allows proudly. "If I don't think they're listening, I will raise my voice."

In defense of the Met Council's policies, Mondale points to the agency's plans to reroute the bus system. He also talks up the bike trails available throughout the metro, and the arrival of hybrid electric buses. "We advocate a balanced transportation system," he says. "We are an advocate for changing the modes of travel. If you look at the changes over the last couple of years, they've been significant."

Woodward isn't impressed, and sees Mondale as just another political appointee trying to sell the public something it doesn't need. "I'm positive that Mondale and these people know the truth," he concludes.


In 1998, Woodward worked enthusiastically as a volunteer for Jesse Ventura's gubernatorial campaign. "I met him and I was impressed by him. I thought he was a good small businessman," explains Woodward, who even worked for a few weeks on the transition team. Since the governor was sworn in, however, LRT's budget has climbed steadily. And Woodward believes that Ventura's campaign promise to be a fiscally prudent public servant went right out the window. During Ventura's first year in office, Woodward periodically asked to meet with the governor. He got nowhere and has since stopped asking for an audience. "It's very hard to get near him," he complains.

What Woodward will tell anyone who will listen is that the real cost of the Hiawatha line will top $1 billion. No one, save for a few Republican legislators like Krinkie, has paid much attention. Meanwhile, the official budget of the light-rail project continues to climb, most recently from $625 million to $675.4 million (in large part, this is because the Federal Transit Administration told the state to include the costs of associated road construction, as Woodward has consistently argued they would and should). The current tally is already up 23 percent from the onetime official, absolute, we-really-mean-it budget of $548.6 million. (Before the most recent budget hikes, the Minnesota Department of Transportation conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the Hiawatha line, which government officials have used to argue that LRT is the most cost-effective way to move people. "I've always called it the worst piece of academic shit I ever saw," Woodward snorts, with a wave of his hand.)

Prior to this year's legislative session, Woodward lobbied Sen. Roy Terwilliger (R-Edina) and others to put together an all-encompassing, omnibus transportation bill that would have included a host of his ideas. But Woodward, who delivered a draft of the proposed legislation last summer, says the legislature is not structured for far-reaching change: "When they see a whole, comprehensive bill, it's very hard."

"He's gotten into the issues in a very big way and has a lot of ideas," observes Terwilliger. "He has so many ideas that I think it takes a lot of time for some of those ideas to work their way through the process." As for Woodward's desire for an omnibus bill: "It's probably a little hard to envision that whole thing passing this year, but certainly it gives us a lot of ideas for starting places."

Terwilliger also points out that some of Woodward's ideas are cropping up during the 2001 session. While no legislation has been submitted, there are plans afoot to propose that luxury coaches be an alternative to commuter rail lines. And a bill proposing a more efficient use of "sane lanes" for car-pooling commuters has already been introduced. "I look at him as a valuable resource, someone who's sort of an unpaid public lobbyist who's good for us to have," Terwilliger says.

Jack Uldrich, who currently serves as the deputy director for the Minnesota Planning Agency, has taken a few meetings with Woodward to talk about transportation ideas. "I think that Lynn is right in that what we should be focusing on is the length of travel time, convenience, accessibility. One of my personal pet peeves is that people in transportation tend to focus on set policies," says Uldrich, who maintains that he's speaking for himself and not the Ventura administration. "On the negative side, I would say that some of his plans tend to be sort of all over the map. I think that he would do a better job of selling his vision if it were more condensed and more focused."  

"They want simple answers, and it doesn't work in transportation," Woodward counters.

A. Scheffer Lang, a retired professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies, believes Woodward has a host of good ideas, but is banging his head on a brick wall. "A lot of his ideas make perfectly good sense--more of them do than don't," Lang concludes. The problem? "Almost all of our public bus systems are in the hands of public monopolies. That monopoly just can't do a lot of the things that Lynn is talking about. If the service was being provided by private entrepreneurs, we'd have a lot of the kind of experimentation and improved service ideas that a guy like Lynn Woodward talks about."


Lynn Woodward goes to a small wooden desk he keeps near the front door of his St. Paul apartment. From a stack of 90-some bus schedules, he grabs a fistful of 10, folds them in half, and stuffs them in his back pocket. Standing in the building's entryway, a load of dry cleaning under his arm, he briefly considers two to three inches of freshly fallen snow, then begins a two-block journey to catch the No. 63 to downtown St. Paul.

Woodward is infuriated by the Met Council's plans to build a $120 million high-speed busway between St. Paul's East Side, downtown, and the airport. Despite the objections of residents, the Met Council approved the route in December, along with some $44 million in state funds. Backers of the design have touted it as a development boon for the bus corridor. But it strikes Woodward as insane for one simple reason: The No. 54 bus already makes quick work of essentially the same trip. And today, Woodward aims to prove it.

After the No. 63 drops him downtown, Woodward takes time to run off a few copies at Kinko's and grab a quick bite. A little later, on board the 54M, Woodward surveys a bus schedule to see how long a trip to the airport is supposed to take: "It's scheduled for 17 minutes. I don't know how the busway can do any better."

Woodward, a fussy, regular rider, bears down on his wristwatch like a track coach. "I have this set exactly at WCCO time, which is what the bus company uses," he declares as the bus idles at a stop. "If he leaves in five seconds, he's right on time." A few moments pass. "He's right on time today," he observes. "Amazingly."

The bus begins to turn off West Seventh. "He needs a lane here so he doesn't have to flow into traffic," Woodward observes. He frets about time wasted sitting at stop lights, then talks up a device used in Madison, whereby bus drivers can click a switch to change traffic lights from red to green.

The No. 54 isn't an express route; it's billed as a "limited stop" run. As the bus pulls onto 35E, Woodward keeps pulling back the green sleeve of his winter jacket to check his watch. Owing to noise complaints from nearby residents, the official speed limit on this section of road is 45 miles per hour. Woodward notes that the bus driver appears to be the only one adhering to the law this afternoon. And he figures that noise problems could be addressed just off the road's shoulder: "If they planted trees on this thing, they'd kill about half the sound. It'd take about a minute less if it went 65 miles per hour like a normal freeway."

Outside, the snow falls unabated. ("We should be there by now. But I'll give 'em the weather," Woodward says at one point.) Still, even under less-than-ideal conditions, the trip from downtown St. Paul to the airport takes only 20 minutes. "Rather than $100 million, why don't they just market this?" Woodward wonders aloud, spreading his arms to refer to the bus.

From there, Woodward catches a 4D, which wends through Highland Park and then back up Snelling Avenue. Woodward gets off at the intersection of Grand Avenue and finally drops off his dry cleaning. He crosses the street to catch an eastbound bus back toward his apartment. He chuckles over the fact that within the span of a little more than two hours, he has ridden four different buses for one dollar and a transfer. And as he boards the last bus for home, he can't help but play the role of Dr. Gridlock. "We want to thank the taxpayers for subsidizing this trip!" he bellows.  


Intern Ben Ganje contributed research to this story.

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