outgoing general manager offers his view of light rail’s
June 2004—On a windy spring
day Mike Setzer paced the platform of the Hiawatha LRT station
at Lake Street, rattling off answers to questions about the
new rail service. It was all in a day’s work to be asked
these same questions over and again.
Of plans and specs and schedules he was a master, but as he
walked he watched his feet. He carefully brushed his hand
over the station’s computerized fare card machines,
the steel benches and the glass partitions, all squarely bolted
$715 million experiment was close to completion, but the physical
reality seemed less familiar than the theory. As Setzer described
the overhead heaters on the platform that would warm commuters
in winter like so many cafeteria dishes, his look was introspective,
as though he were reconciling what had long been in his mind’s
eye with what he encountered now in three dimensions.
Then came the quick, chest-thumping blast of a train horn.
“There she is,” Setzer said, his first unscripted
line and perhaps his most convincing.
No matter who you are, it really means something
big to see a slick new train easing into an elevated station
with the Minneapolis skyline as the backdrop.
With one blast of a horn, it becomes clear that Minneapolis
was one kind of city before and another kind now. That’s
what a train does.
Building market share
While the Hiawatha line may impress, will it do strong enough
a business to survive? The Metropolitan Council has struck
a determinedly cautious stance when it comes to the future
of its LRT investment, which was made under the previous administration.
With budgets tight and the usual clamoring for road projects
now joined by a host of other transit ventures, Hiawatha will
have to prove itself before its future, and the future of
other planned light rail projects in the region, is at all
Does the region truly have an appetite for light rail?
The journeyman transit manager says
unequivocally that LRT’s success will be driven by the
meaningful supply of transit, not pre-conceived measures of
“We will fill
all the seats we can provide,” he said.
Setzer said the main factors in transit market share are commute
time, scarcity of parking and all-weather dependability. As
the metro area population continues to grow (the Metropolitan
Council is planning for a doubling of the greater Twin Cities’s
population by 2030), and as downtown redevelopment continues
to replace surface lots with buildings, LRT should be able
to capitalize on regional trends.
Among workaday commuters, especially in south Minneapolis
and the southern suburbs, upcoming construction on I-35W and
Lake Street will help build LRT Ridership.
Convenient airport service will be another big LRT draw, especially
for convention traffic. Shannon McCarthy of the Greater Minneapolis
Convention & Visitors Association said her organization
has been priming the LRT pump for months.
McCarthy said most Minneapolis tourists are from smaller towns
and are often intimidated by the prospect of driving in the
city core. Tourists account for 40 percent of Mall of America
sales, and many of shoppers arrive by air from destinations
around the country and the world. Having a rail link to the
airport will increase the mega-mall’s appeal to upscale
shoppers. Likewise, she said, marketing to conventioneers
focuses both on the convenience of an added transit mode and
the prestige conferred on cities that have rail transit.
Setzer said Metro Transit is developing LRT promotional packages
with the area’s major venues. These will roll out in
the coming months.
LRT vs. other types of transit
Do local busway
backers or even PRT
advocates have anything to fear from light rail?
Setzer calls competition between transit modes a political
condition rather than a reflection of system planning. He
says multiple modes of transit geared toward specific needs
provides the best service, as can be seen in other cities
such as Portland, St. Louis, and Chicago.
“Single occupancy cars are the opposition, period,”
And while Setzer said he expects light rail to prove itself
and change the nature of local transportation planning, he
predicted that the bus will remain transit’s workhorse
for the next 50 years.
“Today the Metro Transit system is 900 buses and 24
rail cars. The proportions are not going to change radically
any time soon.”