Train Time

"There she is." Mike Setzer awaits an incoming train at the Lake Street LRT station, May 2004

A southbound Hiawatha line car arrives at the Lake Street station with downtown Minneapolis as the backdrop.
Workers put the finishing touches in place a train heads out from the Lake Street station.

Metro Transit’s outgoing general manager offers his view of light rail’s prospects

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 in place.

Metro Transit’s $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 clarified.

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 demand.

“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,” he said.

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.”