Can Light Rail Be an Engine of Opportunity? The Twin Cities Story

Transportation projects should connect communities to opportunity, but too often new roads and rail lines have isolated low-income people and devastated the economic prospects of neighborhoods of color. That's why diverse communities in the Twin Cities fought tenaciously to make sure the new $1 billion Green Line creates jobs and business opportunities for residents, links low-income neighborhoods of color to employment centers, and strengthens local businesses along the route.

"An infrastructure investment is not just about trains and rails," said Joan Vanhala, coalition organizer for the Minneapolis-based Alliance for Metropolitan Stability. "It's about people and their communities. It's about valuing, respecting, and investing in the unique characteristics that people and communities bring to the table."

The story of the Green Line demonstrates what's possible when residents, advocates, and public officials work through tensions and develop a collaborative, transparent approach to building transit that advances equity. The story also illustrates the challenges of improving long-struggling neighborhoods without pricing out families and small local businesses. As the United States invests billions in transit construction, including new or expanded light rail systems in cities from coast to coast, the story offers important lessons in how to build it right.

Organizing for equity

The 11-mile Green Line, opened in June this year, links the downtowns of St. Paul and Minneapolis and other employment hubs, including the University of Minnesota and the state capitol. With an average weekday ridership of 30,000 in the slow days of summer, the line is already exceeding projections. The area's largest infrastructure investment ever, it is projected to spur $6.7 billion in public and private development over the next 20 years.

Like light rail projects from Baltimore to Seattle, the Green Line traverses some of the lowest-income and most diverse communities in its region. These include large Somali and Hmong communities and Rondo, the historic heart of St. Paul's African American community. Rondo is a place emblematic of the economic and social fractures caused by inequitable infrastructure investments. The last major transportation project in the city — I-94, built in the 1960s — cut through the neighborhood, demolishing hundreds of homes and businesses, displacing thousands of residents into a discriminatory housing market, and hurting economic growth to this day.

That history propelled residents to action when they saw the initial plans for the Green Line. It was to bypass Rondo and other transit-dependent St. Paul neighborhoods, with stations a mile apart instead of the half-mile standard along the rest of the route. To secure access, a grassroots coalition, Stops for Us, fought for three more stations.

"People wanted the train to actually stop for them in their neighborhoods and they wanted to use it as a catalyst for economic development," Vanhala said. Community-organizing efforts led to public meetings, packed hearings, a civil rights complaint, and a lawsuit. After three years, the coalition won the stations — and more.

The campaign led to a change in federal policy on how federal New Starts transit investments are evaluated. No longer would projects be assessed strictly as a way to move commuters into the city but also on their potential to revitalize neighborhoods by making them accessible destinations for shoppers and visitors.

The campaign, which brought together the historic African American community and the newer Asian immigrant communities, also created a model for alliance building across neighborhoods, race, and ethnicity. "We had to build trust among ourselves and the only way we could do that was to talk explicitly about race and the inherent racism within our built environment," Vanhala said.

Finally, the victory of the stations set a tone of economic inclusion for all aspects of the Green Line, from hiring and contracting to supporting small businesses during construction, to building affordable housing in long-struggling neighborhoods poised to rebound.

"We didn't want to win one victory and see everybody fold their hands and go home," said Veronica Burt, public policy advocate and cultural organizer for JUST Equity, an organizing project of African American racial equity proponents in the Twin Cities. "We wanted to emphasize the importance of having comprehensive equity outcomes."

Inclusive hiring and contracting

Fair hiring and contracting were prime equity outcomes on a project creating 150 design and engineering jobs, 5,000 construction jobs, and a $252 million payroll. The issue was especially critical in a region with some of the worst workforce racial disparities in the nation. Before construction got underway, unemployment rates among people of color living along the Green Line ranged from 9.4 percent to 24 percent, compared with 6.3 percent for whites.

Transit officials initially set a minority hiring goal of 11 percent. The community, along with Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter, successfully pushed for 18 percent and with the support of a coalition called Hire Minnesota, the Green Line met and in some instances exceeded that. It happened in large part because of the partnership that formed — and evolved — among all the stakeholders: transit officials, unions, community leaders, workforce advocates, faith groups, and more.

This led to innovations that facilitated transparency and accountability, including a web-based tool to track hiring by trade in real time, and searchable databases of construction job openings and available workers. A broad-based committee provided strong oversight.

Building in part on these innovations and on the public attention to workforce inclusion, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights in 2012 raised minority hiring targets to 32 percent for state-funded construction projects in Minneapolis and St. Paul and 22 percent for projects in the wider region. A high-profile construction project in the area, the $975 million Minnesota Vikings stadium scheduled to open in 2016, is reportedly meeting its goals.

The Green Line also exceeded its goal of 15 percent for construction contracting — disadvantaged businesses represented about 20 percent of construction and design activity. With the books still open on the project, more than 135 disadvantaged businesses in Minnesota have earned a total of $115 million.

The opportunity was transformative for local contractors like Beatriz Mendez-Lora. A solo electrical consultant, she hired three people to fulfill her Green Line contract and now has her sights set on even bigger jobs in Minnesota and beyond

"Instead of limiting the amount of work that one person can handle, I am now pursuing multiple projects in both the transit/transportation market and the environmental municipal market," she said.

Supporting small businesses

More than 1,000 small businesses — many of them owned by people of color and immigrants — operate along the Green Line. Their ability to survive through construction and thrive afterward has been another important economic goal. The two cities collaborated with the Central Corridors Funders Collaborative and community partners in developing a $16 million package of forgivable loans, technical assistance, marketing support, and other resources for businesses.

During heavy construction, business turnover in the area was close to normal, and in a survey two-thirds of business owners said they expected sales to increase in the coming years.

Now, neighborhood merchants and leaders are trying to capitalize on the opening of the line to build economic and cultural assets. This summer, the Asian Economic Development Association kicked off the Little Mekong Market Nights in St. Paul, so far drawing 4,000 visitors and earning food vendors an average $1,020 a night. Efforts continue to promote historic Rondo as a cultural destination for the wider Twin Cities community and a gateway to learning about African American history in St. Paul dating back to just after the Civil War.

Keeping communities affordable

Whether the Green Line ultimately advances opportunity for all or reinforces longstanding inequities depends in large part on one question: Will low-income residents and local businesses be able to remain in resurgent neighborhoods?  

On the hopeful side, new transit-oriented developments like Frogtown Square in St. Paul, a senior residential and commercial development built by four nonprofits, create affordable housing units and small business opportunities along the transit corridor. In Rondo, the nonprofit Model Cities hopes to start construction in 2015 of the Central Exchange that would create 60 housing units, two small parks, and a library focused on local African American history.

Another good sign is the Big Picture Project, a coalition of 18 organizations developing a unified strategy to stabilize housing stock along the line, preserve affordable rentals, and make sure new developments improve the quality of life for residents. The project is closely monitoring housing trends along the Green Line, just as advocates kept tabs on hiring during construction.

The project's latest analysis finds that developers built just one unit of affordable housing for every 12 units of market-rate housing. The population along the line is growing, and average rents in the area have increased more than in the Twin Cities overall. So far the pressures do not appear to be displacing residents, but it will take continued vigilance and organizing to make sure that future investments preserve the cultural vibrancy of diverse neighborhoods and enhance economic prospects of the people who live there.

"Now that we have the line built, we have to really tackle the redevelopment all around it," Burt said. "That's the next fast train approaching."

Read the rest of the August 20, 2014 America’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Model issue.