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Is Hiawatha the end of the line?
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Light rail cars have been making test runs for months. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)
The Hiawatha light rail service that begins Saturday in Minneapolis almost didn't happen. Through the 1980s and 1990s, planning fights and funding problems nearly scuttled the project. Now that the line is ready to open, new disagreements cloud the future of additional Twin Cities transit service.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Veterans of the fight for light rail are savoring their win. They gathered recently at the new 50th St. light rail station in Minneapolis. A clutch of neighborhood activists, including Pat Welna and George Isaacs, took a ride on the new train before the grand opening on Saturday.

Welna joined others nearly 30 years ago to form the South Minneapolis Coalition, when they discovered there was a plan to replace Hiawatha Ave. with an eight-lane freeway.

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Image Light rail advocate George Isaacs

"They wanted to build a ditch like highway (Interstate) 35, and we didn't want a ditch," Welna says.

Thirty years ago this country's love affair with freeway building was in full bloom. Planners drew lines for multi-lane roadways through many Minneapolis neighborhoods, including the one where George Isaacs lived.

"They were going to put a freeway through Kenwood (and) Lake of the Isles. And we decided, 'Yes you (can) stop a freeway,' but you had to give some alterative," Isaac says.

The Kenwood and Lake of the Isles freeway plan never took off. Isaacs, a New York native enamored with street cars and subways, put together a slide show with pictures of light rail. He made his pitch in front of hundreds of groups, including the South Minneapolis Coalition.

Members, including Kay Tennessen, liked the alternative. They lobbied city council members and labor leaders, most of whom favored freeways.

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Image Jim and Kay Tennessen opposed freeway

In the mid '70s Tennessen returned from living overseas, after her husband Jim finished his military service. She watched as hundreds of families and homes were moved out of the neighborhoods along Hiawatha Ave. to make way for the planned freeway. Joining the revelers recently at the 50th St. station, Tennessen marveled at the turn of events.

"They took drive-ins and took away houses and garages," she says. "And now there are houses being built back into that empty space and the light rail is here, so ... we're very happy about it."

There were lots of setbacks along the way. The one that jolted transit proponents was a l983 ban on light rail planning. Bill Schreiber was a Republican member of the Minnesota House and author of the moratorium. He and other legislators were upset with the direction taken by a new regional transit planning agency.

"Immediately they focused on light rail and were ignoring the bus system, and weren't really doing what the Legislature wanted," Schreiber says. "That was to do a comprehensive plan, rather than just focus on light rail."

The moratorium stayed in place but lost its bite. Counties led by Hennepin began buying abandoned rail beds for future transit use.

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Image Region lacks transit investment

By this time, the mid-'80s, light rail was making a splash elsewhere. A popular trolley system in San Diego convinced even some rail skeptics that a line in Minneapolis could work.

But it took another decade and an act of Congress to build momentum in Minnesota.

In the early 1990s, Congress approved a federal transportation bill loaded with money for roadbuilding, but with some funds for alternatives -- including rail. Cities got in line for the cash. However, Twin Cities officials couldn't agree on a route. Some argued a line along University Ave., the central corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul, would draw the most riders. Others argued for the Hiawatha line since the land was already vacant.

Jim Solem, a state official at the time, now a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota, says U.S. Reps. Martin Sabo and James Oberstar, both Democrats, held key House leadership positions and encouraged leaders to settle their differences.

"Between the two of them, they were very crucial in terms of getting federal legislation that enabled Minnesota to compete, and then made certain that Minnesota got its act together and did compete effectively at the federal level," Solem says.

When the dust settled, Hiawatha was the choice. Federal transportation officials liked the route for at least two reasons. It would bring riders to the Mall of America, and it would be the only line in the country to serve a major airport.

But the route also posed new problems.

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Image Ticket machine

Jim Solem remembers other federal agencies were taken aback by the idea of running a train through a tunnel, under runways, directly to an airport.

"The transit people and the aviation people at the federal level had never worked out an arrangement on something this complicated, so there was that element to work through," Solem says.

The other problem was Mall of America owners didn't want to be included as a light rail stop. Federal officials prevailed on local leaders to solve the problem, and promised additional federal dollars to help pay for a transit center at the mall. The owners relented. Light rail service to the mall begins in December.

Will the Hiawatha line be the region's only rail service?

The first light rail lines in most other cities have led to clamor to build a second. Instead, Minnesota is cutting, not expanding, transit.

Curt Johnson, former chief of staff to Gov. Arne Carlson, says the Twin Cities is falling behind on transit. The Carlson administration approved the first state dollars to match federal funding for the Hiawatha line.

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Image Ramsey County commissioner Susan Haigh

"We spend 48 percent less than comparable regions around the country our size on transit investment," Johnson says. "We have a decent but starved bus system, that every time the Legislature assembles they manage to take more money away from -- yet our expectations for performance of the system don't change."

Skeptics say the Twin Cities' far-flung, low-density population pattern makes rail an expensive option. They argue rapid bus and high-occupancy vehicle lanes, among other ideas, make more sense.

Still, planning for light rail persists. Ramsey County commissioner Susan Haigh says the logical next line is the central corridor, University Ave. between St. Paul and Minneapolis. She says federal officials like the idea.

"The projected weekday ridership in the corridor, at 38,000 weekday riders, is really one of the very best riderships of any new start that's in the federal queue," Haigh says.

The draft environmental impact on the central corridor proposal is out for public comment. The Metropolitan Council is expected to decide in six months whether to recommend either light rail of bus rapid transit there.

For the moment however, any transit ideas requiring federal money matched by state dollars is in limbo. Minnesota's elected leaders are unable to agree on a source of funding for transit. Business leaders have grown impatient, and are encouraging lawmakers to settle their differences and agree on a transportation plan including transit funding.

Pat Welna and others from the South Minneapolis Coalition met and lobbied for more than two decades against the freeway and for light rail. As cars of the new Hiawatha light rail service pull into the 50th St. station, she and others enjoy the moment.

"It means it was worth going to those meetings for 1,000 hours. And when I saw that first one going down on my way to work I started crying. I thought I'd never see this," Welna says.

Minneapolis' first rail service since the city trolley system stopped running in l954 begins on Saturday.

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