The north metro needs the extension of the blue line, but residents fear this could increase rents.

Irene Fernando has spent years thinking about extending the Blue Line tram.

This is the reason she attended her first ward reunion in Harrison, on the north side of Minnneapolis, several years ago. Fernando still lives in Harrison today and represents his neighborhood, North and Northeast Minneapolis, and part of the Northwestern Suburbs on Hennepin County Council. But more than a decade later, no track has been laid for Minnesota’s long-running plan to extend Minnesota’s first light rail line from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park.

Fernando was elected in 2018, when the new Hennepin County Board of Directors made a final push to convince freight rail company BNSF to share its corridor through the Northwest Metro. But in 2020, the BNSF issued a final categorical no, leaving Metropolitan Council and Hennepin County to find a new route after nearly three decades of planning.

Now, planners are weighing options on how the commuter line should cross northern Minneapolis toward Robbinsdale, Crystal, and Brooklyn Park. They are trying to allay community concerns that current residents will be charged more, and recently hired the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to study anti-displacement strategies and the project’s potential impacts on gentrification.

“My priority is to have transit service to the corridor,” Fernando told the Sahan Journal.

Need for transit

The goal of extending the blue line is to make it easier for people to live without a car, which experts and climate advocates say is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the Pollution Control Agency. Vehicle emissions have fallen only 7% since 2005. State data shows people of color are more likely to be exposed to pollution from automobile traffic.

“Transit is a climate investment, period. We need more transit options to achieve our goals, ”said Fernando.

People of color are already more likely to use and depend on public transportation than their white neighbors. System-wide, 44% of Metro Transit riders are people of color.

There are more improvements that come with a light rail line, such as upgrading sidewalks, streetlights and other infrastructure that makes life without a car easier.

“We’re not just building a train,” said Sam O’Connell, deputy director of community affairs for Metro Transit.

Travel problems

Even though BNSF has said no to extending the blue line, some of Fernando’s neighbors in Harrison say they are seeing rental prices rise due to investments made along the old route. For years, the plan was to run the Blue Line extension out of downtown Minneapolis along Highway 55, making stops in northern Minneapolis before leaving the city west. into Golden Valley, and cut north again, through downtown Robbinsdale, into Crystal, and finally Brooklyn Park.

Now, Metro Transit planners are evaluating two routes that bypass the Harrison neighborhood: one that takes Washington Avenue north and cuts west on Lowry Avenue, and the other primarily uses West Broadway. Either of these two routes would stop near the North Memorial Hospital, on the border of Robbinsdale and Minneapolis, a major employment and health care hub.

Metro Transit planners are trying to decide the best route through northern Minneapolis for the Blue Line extension. Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Council.

“Even though the line doesn’t come here anymore, we’re still getting trips from long-term residents renting in the community,” said Qannani Omar, a housing organizer with the Harrison Neighborhood Association.

Harrison is a 70% tenant neighborhood, Qannani said, and when the route was planned along it, the area became ripe for real estate investors. The neighborhood association has heard from residents who are seeing their monthly rents go up to $ 200, she said.

The originally planned route along the BNSF alignment would have passed through the Harrison neighborhood along Highway 55, but the route was scrapped after negotiations with the railroad failed.

The fears are the same as those expressed about the nearby Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment project: If the neighborhood improves, will it still be affordable for working class people of color?

“People want there to be restaurants, amenities, more green space and fast public transport, but they don’t believe that if these things happen they can stay here,” Qannani said.

Fernando said she hoped the University of Minnesota’s relocation report could provide real data to support anecdotal evidence that rents are rising and long-term residents are being forced to relocate. Such a report is a first for a Minnesota transportation project, Fernando said.

Choose a route

When negotiations with BNSF ultimately collapsed, Metro Transit saw an opportunity to get the project further into the heart of northern Minneapolis, O’Connell said.

Planners hope to decide between Lowry Avenue and West Broadway roads by the end of 2022.

Metro Transit display materials can be seen at a Blue Line information open house on West Broadway Avenue in northern Minneapolis on November 12, 2021. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan’s Journal

Harrison wants other neighborhoods to learn from his experience, Qannani said. She is happy with the contract with the University of Minnesota to study the move, but hopes planners will wait for the final academic report before recommending a route.

The university began its contract in September and hopes to finalize a report within 18 months, according to a press release. Representatives from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs were not available for comment at the time of publication.

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