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"This is not a sinister plot to make traffic as miserable as possible and move everybody onto the train.

Ted Balaker
June 30, 2004, 9:02am

So says Bob Winter, director of district operations at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Minneapolis just opened a light rail line, and not only has congestion not improved it's actually gotten worse: The past week of testing showed that traffic signals that give priority to Hiawatha light-rail trains have dramatically slowed the flow of traffic on Highway 55, which parallels the line through south Minneapolis. Motorists said that drive times were two and three times as long as usual because signal timing is off, holding traffic so long that some drivers run red lights. "Somebody has to take care of this. It's bad," said Steve Kieffer of Mendota Heights. His drive northward - typically 10 to 12 minutes took 50 minutes Thursday morning. Tweaking the lights will help, but officials say traffic might never flow as it has in the past. And Winter may not have a plot to boost rail ridership by making driving as miserable as possible, but what about his counterpart in Los Angeles? In April Metrolink Chief Executive David Solow, pointed to gridlock traffic and told an LA Times reporter: "That congestion, it's actually good for me. It drives people out of their cars." In other words, this is the incentive structure we've created. Rail transit officials will be judged by rail ridership, so it makes sense that they might actually want traffic to get worse. Back in Minneapolis, there are already plans for new rail lines, but only if this first one succeeds. So how will Minneapolis measure success? How about if the project meets it's modest goal of 9,500 passengers per day? Well, the mayor doesn't want get caught up in numbers. [Rybak] said he hopes to steer away from looking at numbers to determine the project's success. "There are going to be people looking at numbers, but that is missing the point," Rybak said. "The real point is how well this line serves as a backbone for a new transit network that takes the best of the existing system and creates excitement for the next wave." So now it's clear. Success will be determined by measuring "excitement." Now we just have to figure out how to do that.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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