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Rail~Volution conference draws transit leaders to Twin Cities
Frederick Melo | Pioneer Press

 

Strong transit serves communities well, but there is little incentive for developers to build low-income housing along transit lines.

On Sunday afternoon, a NorthStar Commuter Rail train rolled into the St. Paul Union Depot to greet the mayor of Salt Lake City, top administrators from the Boston, Dallas and Denver public transit systems, and some 600 assorted politicians and planners.

 

So began Rail-Volution, an annual public transit conference that draws industry insiders from across the country. After an opening session on Kellogg Boulevard, the NorthStar train will take conference-goers to Target Field Station in Minneapolis, concluding the first of four days of transit trips, discussions and workshops.

 

"We're going to set a record for participants in this conference," said Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who has been pressing for Rail-Volution to come to the Twin Cities for the past several years.

 

The conference, which is celebrating its 20th year, will be based at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, but mobile workshops are drawing more than 1,400 attendees to sites across the metro area.

 

A session titled "Play Ball!" will take conference-goers along the Green Line to see how Metro Transit's new light-rail corridor was designed to link the new stadiums of the Minnesota Twins, the Minnesota Vikings, the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers and the St. Paul Saints.

 

Another session focuses on how Twin Cities buses are integrated into highways through MnPASS Express Lanes, bus-only shoulders, and park-and-ride lots linked to express commuter bus service.

 

Additional workshops focus on "transit-oriented design" and development opportunities along Metro Transit's Green Line and Blue Line light rail corridors.

 

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx will address conference-goers at 8 a.m. Tuesday, and additional workshops will focus on transit and the arts, healthy eating, investing in communities of color and bicycle infrastructure. In downtown St. Paul, the Minnesota Museum of American Art is hosting an exhibit of transit-themed photography and art.

 

McLaughlin sees urban redevelopment and public transit as two halves of the same coin, and he believes that young renters, empty-nesters and policymakers are embracing similar values.

 

"The suburbanization of America that occurred in the last generation, from the 1950s on, that didn't happen by accident," McLaughlin said. "It wasn't just people deciding to move. There was a body of policy and public sector investment that brought forward private sector investment. ... I think we're in a similar stage right now for the urban sector."

 

Nevertheless, public transit funding remains a challenge. Gov. Mark Dayton last year backed a proposed half-cent sales tax to fund transit in the metro area. The proposal passed the DFL- controlled Senate but failed in the House.

 

Move MN, a coalition of transportation proponents, have asked lawmakers to consider a new 5-percent sales tax on motor fuels to pay for road and bridge improvements and a 3/4-cent metro sales tax to expand mass transit.

 

In asking for Rail-Volution to come to the Twin Cities, McLaughlin had his detractors. Did the Twin Cities have enough transit infrastructure to showcase? Last year's conference took place in Seattle, the previous year's in Los Angeles.

 

McLaughlin, who chairs both the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority and the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB), knew that 2014 would be a pivotal year for the metro's burgeoning bus rapid transit and passenger rail network -- and that yes, there would be enough to show off.

 

Metro Transit's 11-mile Green Line opened in June and, with more than 40,000 passengers on an average weekday as of this month, has nearly surpassed ridership projections for the year 2030.

 

Despite political setbacks, the Southwest line, a proposed extension of the Green Line from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, is expected to open in 2019. "Two weeks ago, the combination of Hennepin County and CTIB committed over $650 million to Southwest," McLaughlin said.

 

The Bottineau route, an extension of the Blue Line, could open in 2021. The Metro Red Line, or Cedar Avenue busway from Dakota County to Minneapolis, began trips last summer.

 

"My goal in bringing this here was first and foremost to help people in this region learn from the best people around the country," McLaughlin said of the conference. "And second, to show off this region. ... We're going to get a chance to sell this region to the whole country." Click here to learn more about Rail~Volution.