Like many Canadians, I make an annual cross-border shopping trip.
Not really a mall crawl, although that does happen, but it’s more of a long weekend getaway, where I try and replenish both my wardrobe and liquor cabinet.
We usually head for Minneapolis on the Remembrance Day weekend. It’s within a day’s drive and we ordinarily stay downtown. Once there, we stash the car away in the hotel parking garage and spend the next few days travelling around by foot or by rapid transit.
The Mini-Apple has some excellent cultural attractions right downtown such as department store shopping, theatres, museums, fine dining and major league sports venues.
Most of those are within easy walking distance, but to travel further afield, Minneapolis has an excellent light rail rapid transit system. It’s far preferable to use this than pull out the car and drive around in unfamiliar territory where I may be scrambling for a parking spot.
For tourists, the light rail is a godsend.
It made me wonder why there’s so much resistance to our plan to expand our system here in Winnipeg, whilst in Minneapolis it appears to thrive.
Or does it thrive ?
Did Minneapolitans express the same concerns that we did while it was being planned and built?
The Twin Cities system initially opened in 2004. It had one line, the Hiawatha Line, now known as the Blue Line. It is 19 kms long and cost $715 million for trains powered by overhead electrical lines. Current ridership is 33,500 per day on trains that cruise at 60 kph but can travel at speeds up to 90 kph.
It is ideally situated linking the Mall of America at one end with downtown at the other, stopping at the airport along the way.
Fares are cheap, currently $1.75 for a ticket valid for transfers within 2.5 hours. Automatic ticket dispensers offer service in four languages and the whole system is easily accessed by those with disabilities.
This past spring, a second line opened called the Green Line. It is 18 kms long and cost $957 million. It connects the downtown hubs of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, passing through the University of Minnesota on the way.
To complement this, there are also two Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) lines, the Red and Orange Lines that were added in 2013 at a cost of $112 million and covering 17 kms.
Locals seem to both love and embrace it, whether commuting to the office or hauling their bikes onboard and clipping them into special stowage racks.
What then is the difference?
For one thing, it’s mostly a light rail system. Studies say that bus rapid transit may be cheaper to build, but there’s something sexier about travelling on a train. Especially as you zip along both urban and suburban streets, passing all the other traffic.
It also connects vital parts of the city, the two downtown business districts, the university, Mall of America, the airport, football, hockey and baseball stadiums, as well as giving access to Fort Snelling and Minnehaha parks.
Beware the risks though: in the past ten years, there have been 11 fatalities, including seven pedestrians.
Dakota county chairwoman, Kathleen Gaylord, hopes it will become a model for the state. Although she thinks the rail system is cool, she concedes there are some areas where the investment does not justify the return.
Locally, there was opposition, but the main concerns of residents were different from Winnipeg.
Cost was not the main issue, as most of the system was federally funded; local business owners were upset with the loss of car parking for their premises; some thought the distance between stations was too great; and others were opposed to what they perceived would be gentrification of their neighbourhood, while others lobbied for different routes.
In Winnipeg, our chief concerns are cost, disappearing wetlands and a proposed meandering route to the university that seems to serve no one except the new Shindico Grant Park Pavilion development.
The Minneapolis system had been in the planning stages since 1975, shortly after the city eliminated their streetcars; a similar timeline to former mayor Steve Juba’s mid-seventies vision of a monorail for us.
That local US politico Kathleen Gaylord may have expressed it best when she asked, “Is this what people want? Will they ride it?”
Winnipeg will have to decide.