High hopes riding Green Line: Can University Avenue return to glory days?

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In just two days, the Green Line will make its first trek between St. Paul and Minneapolis with actual passengers on board.

After decades of debate and several years of construction, the Green Line opens Saturday, with free rides for passengers through the weekend. The 11-mile, 18-station route connects the two downtowns, which many say will help transform the Twin Cities.

St. Paul officials have called the Green Line a "game changer" because of its convenience and reliability, and they have lofty hopes that it will revitalize the area along University Avenue, which was once the busiest commercial strip in the Twin Cities.

"Light rail is game-changing for St. Paul in so many ways," Sue Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit, told the Pioneer Press. "It attracts residents back into the urban core, offers developers a fixed amenity to build near and ensures residents of all ages can be mobile and get to and from work, home, and school."

The Met Council says the construction of the Green Line has already attracted over $2.5 billion in development plans, and that's just the beginning. However, critics argue that it's not clear how many of those projects are a direct result of the new light rail line and they have also taken issue with the amount of public funding that's gone into redevelopment and creating affordable housing.

The Pioneer Press notes that St. Paul officials aren't just waiting for the area around the Green Line to prosper – they're making it happen by adjusting zoning laws, rebranding small-business districts and encouraging affordable and mixed residential and commercial housing. This was also highlighted in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's plan to give St. Paul a face-lift.

Moreover, the Green Line will "enhance people's feelings that the Twin Cities is a region," Peter Bell, who was chair of the Met Council when the Green Line was planned and approved, told the Star Tribune, adding that it will help the metro become a major urban center.

“For the first time people can stay in St. Paul and get on the train to go to anything,” St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer told the Star Tribune.

That's how it used to be, when street cars and trolleys ruled the streets. Opening the Green Line along University Avenue brings back those fond memories for some of Minnesota's oldest residents who hopped on public transportation to travel around the metro and even into the surrounding suburbs, the Pioneer Press notes.

Street cars ran continuously for more than 60 years, but ended in the 1950s, in part because of the popularity and convenience of the automobile. The Pioneer Press has an interactive timeline that details the history of transit in the Twin Cities.

So when the Green Line was finally in the works, seasoned street car riders were excited for signs of the old days.

"I would say it's a dream come true," 94-year-old Irene Muehlegger told the Pioneer Press. She plans to be one of the first passengers to board a train on Saturday. "I put this on my bucket list."

Opening day festivities will begin Saturday morning at Union Station in St. Paul. The first train will leave the station at 10 a.m.

Along with free rides all weekend and events at every stop along the route, riders will get the chance to learn more about what's around the Green Line with informational kiosks that were unveiled Thursday morning, KSTP notes.

The winner of the Green Line commemorative poster contest was also announced Thursday. The winner, Minneapolis graphic designer Genesia Williams, was among the 42 people who submitted a poster design.

Postcard-size versions of her poster will be handed out this weekend during the opening festivities and full-size versions of the poster are available online.

Although there is a lot of support for the Green Line in the last few days before it opens, there are a number of protesters who are planning to speak out at Saturday's event, the Pioneer Press reports.

Bob Tatreau is among the protesters, who told the newspaper that the nearly $1 billion light rail project was a waste of money especially because it will cost "$35 million a year to run it." He added that the light rail is better suited for the East Coast, where the population is more dense.

Opponents are also critical about the amount of public subsidies that will be needed to run the line. The Pioneer Press notes that fares are expected to cover 25 percent of the annual operating costs, with ads accounting for an additional 2 percent.

Annette Meeks, CEO of the conservative Freedom Foundation of Minnesota and former Met Council member, told MPR News that there may have been better, more flexible options for public transportation – like buses.

"No matter how you look at that, that's not really a good return investment for Minnesota taxpayers, especially for those folks in greater Minnesota that are never going to hop on board any of these trains," Meeks told MPR.

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