Irene Fernando has spent years thinking about the Blue Line light rail extension.
It was the reason she attended her first neighborhood meeting in Harrison, on Minnneapolis’ North Side, several years ago. Fernando still lives in Harrison today, and represents her neighborhood, north and northeast Minneapolis, and a portion of the northwest suburbs on the Hennepin County Board. But more than a decade later, no tracks have been laid for the long-planned project 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 made one last push to convince freight rail company BNSF to share its corridor through the northwest metro. But in 2020, BNSF issued a final resounding no, leaving the 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 cut through north Minneapolis on its way to Robbinsdale, Crystal, and Brooklyn Park. They are attempting to ease community concerns that current residents will be priced out, and recently hired the University of Minnesota’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs to study anti-displacement strategies and potential gentrification impacts of the project.
“My priority is getting transit service to the corridor,” Fernando told Sahan Journal.
Need for transit
The goal of the Blue Line Extension is to make it easier for people to live car-free, which climate experts and advocates agree is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota, according to the Pollution Control Agency. Emissions from vehicles have only fallen 7 percent since 2005. State data show that people of color are more likely to be exposed to pollution from vehicle traffic.
“Transit is a climate investment, period. We need more transit options to meet our goals,” Fernando said.
People of color already are more likely to use and rely on mass transit than their white neighbors. System wide, Metro Transit riders are 44 percent people of color.
There are more improvements that come along with a light rail line, such as upgrades to sidewalks, streetlights, and other infrastructure that makes it easier to live without a car.
“We’re not just building a train,” said Sam O’Connell, assistant director of community affairs for Metro Transit.
Even though BNSF said no to the Blue Line Extension, some of Fernando’s neighbors in Harrison say they are seeing rental prices rise based on 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 north Minneapolis before exiting the city westward into Golden Valley, and cutting north again, through downtown Robbinsdale, into Crystal, and ultimately Brooklyn Park.
Now, Metro Transit planners are weighing two routes that bypass the Harrison neighborhood: one that takes Washington Avenue north and cuts west on Lowry Avenue, and one primarily using West Broadway. Either of those two routes would stop near North Memorial Hospital on the border of Robbinsdale and Minneapolis, a major employment and healthcare hub.
“Even though the line is no longer coming here, we’re still getting displacement from long term residents who are renting in the community,” said Qannani Omar, a housing organizer with the Harrison Neighborhood Association.
Harrison is a 70 percent renter 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 increase by as much as $200, she said.
The fears are the same as those expressed about the nearby Upper Harbor Terminal redevelopment project: if the area gets nicer, will it still be affordable for working class people of color?
“People want there to be restaurants, amenities, more green spaces and fast transit but they don’t believe if those things come they’ll be able to stay here,”Qannani said.
Fernando said she hopes the University of Minnesota displacement report can provide real data to back up anecdotal evidence that rents are going up and long-term residents are being forced to move. Such a report is a first for a Minnesota transportation project, Fernando said.
Picking a route
When negotiations with BNSF finally fell apart, Metro Transit saw it as an opportunity to route the project more through the heart of north Minneapolis, O’Connell said.
Planners hope to decide between the Lowry Avenue and West Broadway routes by the end of 2022.
Harrison wants other neighborhoods to learn from its experience, Qannani said. She’s happy about the contract with the University of Minnesota to study displacement, but hopeful the planners will wait for the final academic report before recommending a route. Representatives with the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs did not respond to requests for comment.
The university began its contract in September, and hopes to finalize a report within 18 months, according to a press release.