MN: The Green Line's First Month is in the Books

July 20--In the month since the Green Line light-rail route connecting downtown St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis opened for business, some things have become very clear:

People who used to take the bus between the cities seem to like it. People who've never taken public transit before have been willing to try it. And, while the negatives of lost parking and disrupted traffic are mostly past, it's still too early to tell if the nearly $1 billion line will be a business boon or bust.

"In the beginning, I was against it. Then we realized we had no choice but to try to make the best of it," said Ericka Trinh, who cuts hair at Anh's Hairstylists in St. Paul. Trinh said workers will soon break ground next door on a new business -- her own bakery/bistro -- sparked by the proximity to the line and the Western Avenue Station.

"Now, I want to take full advantage of it," Trinh said.

Despite travel times that were slower than promised -- several rides along the 11-mile route last week took an hour or more from the Union Depot in St. Paul to Target Field in Minneapolis -- more than 30,000 riders are hopping aboard the Green Line each weekday, according to Metro Transit. That's better than expected, and 2,500 more than ridership projections for 2015. And classes at the University of Minnesota, whose students are expected to swell the ranks of riders, have yet to start.

For many, it's been a smooth ride so far.

Dylan Smith takes the Blue Line from home in south Minneapolis and transfers to the Green Line to get to work in St. Paul. It's more comfortable than the Route 16 bus he used to take, he said. "It's much better. I get a seat. Before, I usually stood the whole time."

Mark Sprinkel, a Minnetonka native who now lives in East Lansing, Mich., was in town last week to catch baseball's All-Star Game. During his visit, he hopped the Green Line to St. Paul and met a friend for lunch.

"This is pretty cool," he said. "They needed something like this."

Four or five times a month, Claudia Nelimark heads from her home on the East Side of St. Paul to a volunteer job in downtown Minneapolis. On a recent morning, she caught the Green Line at Union Depot and rode west.

"I love it. I think it's great," she said.

Nelimark used to drive the route, she said, but that was expensive. And the bus was too crowded. While the rail car she was in became more crowded as she got closer to work one morning last week, she said it typically is no more than half full.

"Life is so busy," she said. "On the train, you can just sit and see what's happening along the way."

A month's numbers

In the month that the Green Line has been rolling, much has happened along the route or at one of the 23 stations. According to Metro Transit Police, there have been:

-- Six accidents, mostly involving cars illegally turning into a train, but none that involved injuries.

-- Five assaults.

-- One robbery.

-- Seven narcotics offenses.

-- 426 cases of people not paying the fare.

Deputy Chief A.J. Olson chalks up at least some of the fare dodging to riders not understanding how the system works. On buses, riders pay as they board; on light rail, they must pay at the station before boarding.

"As we get further and further into it, it will be less education and fewer warnings and more and more citations," Olson said.

Skipping the fare can bring a $180 fine. It could also mean worse. Of those caught, police discovered that 39 had arrest warrants.

"Thirty-nine people who should have been smart enough to pay $1.75 to ride the train went to jail because they had an outstanding warrant," Olson said. "Had they paid the fare we never would have checked their name."

Overall, however, the number of public safety incidents doesn't seem extraordinary for the Green Line's first month, he said.

"I don't think that there's any number on here that jumps out at me that gives me a lot of reason to be real concerned," Olson said. "If you look at 700 total incidents in a month ... that's a pretty low number on a route that's moving something in the neighborhood of 30,000 passengers a day."

Picking up the pace

One number that continues to vex Metro Transit, however, is a slower-than-advertised travel time.

According to timetables released before the line opened, a trip from Union Depot to Target Field was expected to take about 48-49 minutes. Metro Transit officials said last week that the westbound Green Line is averaging about 54 minutes, end to end and that the eastbound train is averaging about 53 minutes.

On a Tuesday morning last week, a westbound trip took 67 minutes while an eastbound trip took 57 minutes. The next morning, a westbound train took 61 minutes while an eastbound trip finished in an hour.

Traffic lights along the route -- even at quieter cross streets -- are clearly slowing travel times, said David Levinson, a University of Minnesota professor who specializes in transportation. Officials decided not to give the Green Line what is called pre-emption -- the ability to change a light to green when a train approaches. Doing so would speed the train, but probably slow car traffic.

Trips taken Tuesday and Wednesday included several minutes stopped at traffic lights.

"That is just seriously bad engineering," Levinson said. "If you are serious about transit and encouraging people to take transit, you need to make it as efficient as possible. My guess is that politicians don't understand the intricacies of traffic signal design."

John Siqveland, a spokesman for Metro Transit, said officials continue to look at making improvements, including "the sequencing of Transit Signal Priority to allow light-rail trains to continue through these smaller cross streets continuously."

Wait and see

For many who do business along the route, the end of two years of construction has been reason to celebrate. Fears of losing street parking were overstated, they say, and as a result, business has returned to near-normal levels. Folks at the Frogtown Daily Diner at University Avenue and Dale Street say business has picked up with Green Line riders from Minneapolis stopping for chicken and waffles.

Foot traffic also has gone up at Twin Cities Reptiles, near the Raymond Avenue Station, said co-owner Sara Szabo. But much of it seems to be folks who are curious about their critters -- or kids sent to the store by their parents to get them out of their hair.

"It's the free zoo," Szabo said, laughing. "I said, 'I'm going to start sending them home with a Monster energy drink and a hamster.' "

Staff Writer Nicole Norfleet contributed to this report. James Walsh -- 651-925-5041

Copyright 2014 - Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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