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Minneapolis, Minn. — Crowds lined both sides of the Hiawatha Rail line as if for a parade. They waved and cheered as the first official train passed, carrying elected leaders and other dignitaries. At least for this one day, the countless political debates and questions of light rail's future in the Twin Cities was replaced with celebration. Gov. Tim Pawleny, a past opponent of the Hiawatha line, said it's time to leave the disagreements in the past.
"It's important now that those arguments have been made, that we move forward and put our best efforts and good faith and genuine efforts to making the project as succesful as posssible," Pawlenty said. "So let's join together -- whether you were for it, whether you were against it, whether you were for it in different location or some other form -- let's join together and make this project the most successful project we can at this point."
Pawleny says light rail will teach the public and public officials lessons for future projects. Like many others at the gathering, he made a plug for the North Star commuter line from Minneapolis to Big Lake. Legislators left funding for the North Star proposal on the table during the last session.
U.S. Rep. Martin Sabo, a DFLer representing Minneapolis, was instrumental in securing $334 million in federal dollars for Hiawatha. Sabo said it's not just the completion of a project, it's the beginning of a new era.
"The Hiawatha trains are ready to roll, and our area will never be the same again," said Sabo.
U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, said the light rail line is the right thing to do.
"There are going to be one million new ... residents in the metropolitan area over the next 25 years. We cannot build enough roads and highways to accommodate all of them. It's not a one-size-fits-all, it's not one way to go," Coleman said. "It's having a broad vision and understanding change is coming -- and we have to adjust and adapt to that change."
Coleman also expressed hope for expanding light rail to St. Paul through the central corridor, along University Ave.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has been a long-time shepherd of the Hiawatha line. He said he had to pinch himself when he woke up in the morning. Looking out the train's window at the enthusiastic supporters, he said he's confident it will succeed.
"There are a lot of eager, happy, excited people who are going to be great customers for this line, who are going to build a momentum for other rail lines and other investment in transit in this region," he said.
McLaughlin said he knows there's additional political fights to expand transit to what he feels it should be.
"The North Star Corridor is next, we're working on the Central Corridor LRT line to St. Paul from Minneapolis, and we're working on the Cedar Ave. busway. All those things need to happen to keep this region strong," McLaughlin said.
Many of the riders who packed into the first few trains Saturday were also well-versed in the potential the new rail service offers. Joanne Ehren-Dalquist rode the train with her family from Ft. Snelling to downtown.
"I love it. Personally I wish they would expand the line to downtown St. Paul. I keep saying that to everyone I can," said Ehren-Dalquist.
Another passenger, Ben Wright, said he'll always choose the train over driving any time he has to come downtown.
"I think it's a historical moment to say you got on the train the first day. I'm happy that it's here. I'm was anxious -- disappointed it didn't start in April," Wright said.
Some others who came weren't as glowing. Howard Cusano of St. Louis Park says he recognizes the historical aspect of starting trains. But he maintains the $715 million in public money is a bad investment.
"I don't think we're ready for it. Maybe 10, 20 years from now, maybe. But I don't think now Minnesota is ready for light rail transit," Cusano said. "Light rail transit never made money everywhere it's been at. It just sucks down the money."
Officials put a dozen trains in service on opening weekend. They closed some streets and used traffic police to minimize the potential for accidents. The start of paid rail service is Monday.