A setback last week for a long-anticipated light-rail line to the northern suburbs could prove to be a blessing in disguise for north Minneapolis.
The proposed Bottineau light-rail line has faced criticism for largely skirting transit-dependent North Side communities on its path from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. But planners abandoned that route last week after failed negotiations with the railroad that owns much of the land.
With all options on the table to redraw the route, some see an opportunity to have the train better serve north Minneapolis. Some suggest it could travel down the area’s busy commercial hub, W. Broadway, or link to the redevelopment of the city’s port alongside the Mississippi River.
“To me it’s an amazing new opportunity for north Minneapolis,” said Catherine Fleming, co-chair of Bottineau’s community advisory committee and a North Side resident. “Now the possibility exists that it will be embedded within our neighborhood.”
Until this week, the plan was to run the train west along Olson Hwy. toward Theodore Wirth Park, where it would head north beside freight tracks owned by BNSF Railway. That route bypassed the core of north Minneapolis and put key stops in the middle of a busy state highway that’s inhospitable to pedestrians.
As officials reconfigure the line, they expect the fundamental idea of running light rail from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park won’t change. But many questions remain about how it will get there.
“Both Hennepin County ... and Met Council see this as the same project,” said Metropolitan Council Chairman Charlie Zelle. “It’s just that 8 miles of it have to be shifted. But we also don’t want to just do the most expedient [thing]. This is going to be very much of an open canvas for how we can approach where and how it should go.”
Zelle said he has heard from a number of people saying the train should run closer to the heart of north Minneapolis.
“I think we’re going to be very much in a listening mode,” Zelle said.
Dan Soler, who oversees transit for Hennepin County, said the southern portion of the line poses the most challenges for choosing a new route. Farther north, Bottineau Boulevard offers a nearby alternative to the existing freight rail line.
“You could put the stations in approximately the same locations,” Soler said of the highway. “They’d just be in the roadway, rather than on railroad right of way. But there are some definite pros and cons to work out [regarding] what happens between North Memorial Health Hospital and Target Field.”
One route that was seriously considered for Bottineau ran the train north on Penn Avenue to W. Broadway — rather than traveling through Wirth Park. It was ultimately rejected, however, partly because it would have required leveling more than 100 homes. Now Penn Avenue is home to a new $37 million rapid bus line. Fleming still favors Penn for light rail.
“After having casual conversations with residents for the past five years, everyone has said at one point or the other, ‘Why don’t they go down Broadway?’ ” said Giuseppe Marrari, a north Minneapolis resident who sits on Bottineau’s community advisory committee.
The Northside Residents Redevelopment Council, a neighborhood organization representing Willard-Hay and Near North, said in a statement that light rail on Broadway would “allow for the significant investment in Broadway that is needed to make it a commercial corridor that is economically beneficial to north Minneapolis.”
Soler said W. Broadway was not initially studied in great detail for Bottineau. The 2010 alternatives analysis for the project says the street was ruled out for light rail because “stakeholders raised concerns about parking, traffic, and roadway geometry on the roadway segment east of Penn Avenue.” W. Broadway was later studied for a possible streetcar line, but there are no existing plans to build one.
The street is still recovering from the riots earlier this summer, which heavily damaged many W. Broadway businesses.
Kristel Porter, a north Minneapolis resident who runs the nonprofit organization MN Renewable Now, would like to see Bottineau improve access to the Upper Harbor Terminal, a redevelopment of the city’s former river port in north Minneapolis into a live music amphitheater surrounded by parks, housing and other development.
“North Side residents have been cut off from the river for many, many, many years,” Porter said. “And so now we’ve got this access to the river that’s actually going to be a destination spot for North Siders and people who are coming [from] outside of the city to come visit.”
Porter envisions the line traveling north near the river — through an industrial area expected to see development — toward Upper Harbor Terminal and heading west on Lowry Avenue, which touches both low-income and more middle-class communities. Porter said one reason north Minneapolis has high unemployment is that workers have trouble accessing entry-level jobs in the suburbs.
“They could benefit from riding the rail out to the suburbs and riding back home and not have to be on a bus for three hours,” Porter said.
One of the most vocal advocates for the Bottineau line, Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat, is retiring this year. De’Vonna Pittman, the DFL-endorsed candidate for the seat, said in an interview that she thought Bottineau should have traveled through north Minneapolis. The district encompasses much of the line, but not Minneapolis.
“People need access to employers and housing,” Pittman said. “And I strongly felt that something was missing in that conversation.”
She added: “This is just an exciting opportunity to be more intentional and thoughtful about planning and about how equitable distribution happens along that line.”