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Light rail's finishing touch
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Light rail's two tunnels burrow 70 feet underground. (MPR Photo/Art Hughes)
Metro Transit officially opens the final portion of the light rail line to the airport and the Mall of America. The last four miles extends the downtown Minneapolis-to-Fort Snelling run that opened in June. Transit officials expect the already promising train ridership to increase with the addition of two key destinations. But no one has a clear idea of just who the new riders will be.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Every workday, Patricia Marshall faces a disjointed collage of public transit options to get from her home in Minneapolis to her job in Bloomington.

"(I take) the number 27 bus to 46th. Then the light rail. Then I ride the light rail to Fort Snelling. Then get off and transfer to the 155. So that's kind of like inconvenient. I'm transferring like four times so it's inconvenient for me," Marshall said.

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Image Underground platform

The opening of the last leg of the light rail line will cut the number of Marshall's transfers in half. Plus, she said she just likes the train better than the bus.

"It's more comfortable, there's more room and it's faster," she said.

Marshall is the type of rider Metro Transit planners hope will make use of the train now that its full length will be open. If the light rail's first months of operation are any indication, transit officials have underestimated their forecasts. Already, ridership is nearly double what they first projected. The average count of daily commuters has yet to drop below 14,000, even on weekends.

Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons said light rail transit planners will get a better picture of the overall ridership once the Hiawatha line is fully operational.

"What happens on Dec. 4 is we work on balancing the demand," says Gibbon. "It will remain strong in downtown Minneapolis, but we're putting strong traffic generators at the south end with the airport and Mall of America."

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Image The last four miles

Gibbons expects working commuters to make up the largest share of riders. But travelers and shoppers present an unknown factor that will also enter the mix. People flying into the airport, for instance, may not be aware that light rail is an option to get downtown.

"That's a market that's harder to define. It's a little bit less clear to us how we're going to capture them, but it's an important market," Gibbons said.

Airport officials are waiting to see exactly what light rail means for them. The Metropolitan Airports Commission ensured free, 24-hour-a-day train service between the Lindberg and Humphrey terminals, mostly for employees.

Dennis Probst is the MAC's director of land site development. As he rode the train on a test run in the tunnel 70 feet below the airport runway, he said airport officials expect to see the train used by airport employees and carry-on business travelers.

"Beyond that, we're in sort of a wait-and-see mode here, to see what effect it has on it," Probst said. "To some degree it could affect our parking operation, depending on how many people -- particularly the folks working downtown -- to leave their car there and ride the train out to the airport, versus coming out to the airport and parking."

Given the airport ramps are frequently at capacity, Probst says any reductions because of the LRT would probably be minimal.

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Image Julie Hansen

Parking is one of the concerns at the Mall of America, the last stop on the rail line heading from downtown. The mall has instituted a parking ban overnight until 8 a.m., to discourage downtown workers trying to avoid high parking rates from using it as a park-and-ride ramp.

Other than that, Mall of America public relations director Julie Hansen said mall officials don't know what the light rail opening will do for business.

"I think it will be a novelty at first," Hansen said. "But we haven't done any studies to see how many people will actually switch from using buses or driving their cars to using the light rail. So it's kind of a wait-and-see game for us right now."

The Mall of America is already a major convergence point for buses, but Hansen said many shoppers prefer to bring their own cars if they intend to carry any goods back home.

Transit officials are marking the opening of the final section of track with a weekend of free rides and events at the newly opened stations.

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