A Community Fights for Light Rail, and its Health

Jun 16, 2014, 8:43 PM, Posted by Doran Schrantz

After 15 years of hard work and tireless commitment on the part of so many people—elected officials, engineers, urban planners, community leaders―the Green Line light rail line connecting downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul is open for riders. The light rail runs through the very heart of the Twin Cities region and touches people in every walk of life—with the potential to transform economic opportunity, equity, and health.

It is our hope that once residents begin to use the line, they will find it easier to get to places where they can buy affordable healthy foods. Air quality will improve because there are fewer cars on the road. People may even lose some weight―a study in Charlotte showed that a year after that city opened a rail line, residents who used it regularly shed a few pounds.

But even as we celebrate the Green Line, we also want to solidify the lessons we have learned over the past decade and a half spent designing and building the project. Because a critical part of the Green Line’s story is how its planning and construction created the opportunity for communities to organize themselves, to ensure that this historic opportunity did not pass them by.

The Green Line could have played out like many massive public infrastructure projects: well-intentioned, but blind to the lives, histories, assets, and experiences of black and brown communities. Early on, the stops that would best serve the diverse neighborhoods of Rondo and Frogtown, with their rich history of resilient African-American and new immigrant communities, were left out of the plan.

These neighborhoods are also made up of many people who ride transit every day to live, work, and play. But even with all the community participation in the planning, the rules of the transportation financing game were rigged. It became clear that the process favored riders who use transit to commute, instead of those who rely on it every day, to access lots of different activities. The seeds of racial and economic inequity were embedded in almost every aspect of implementation, financing, and planning. So we organized.

Local neighborhood groups, congregations and communities of faith, labor unions, transit advocates, civil rights organizations, policy experts, and public officials banded together to create the Stops for Us Campaign. We had to change the rules so we could build a light rail that was grounded in our history and values, and would be a catalyst for creating vibrant, thriving, healthy communities.

Once our diverse communities got organized, we got active. We engaged our Congressional delegation, we hit the streets, we wrote editorials, we knocked on hundreds of doors, we had mass public meetings, we designed new policy solutions and we built an effective, public, grassroots campaign to change the rules of the game. The light rail would not be built based solely on abstract decisions made in Washington, D.C. It would reflect the input of communities that knew best what they needed to thrive. That shift was an incredible victory. But what happened underneath was even better.

Communities became more united and more powerful. We strategized and argued, we came up against deep rivers of mistrust across race and class and location, we competed, we were afraid, we risked and lost, and risked and won. Homeowners, renters, pastors, lay leaders, community development organizers, and block club leaders became change-makers in a high-stakes public decision. We had the chance to build ourselves up as communities that can effectively advocate on our own behalf. And that advocacy was essential to ensuring that the Green Line was built in a way that supported equity, economic opportunity, and health.

Sometimes, especially in the worlds of public health and government, we evaluate a process on how smoothly it went or how much controversy it avoided. Or we think that health, transportation, and community development are all separate issues. The Green Line taught me that both of these concepts are false. Individuals and communities learn and gain strength from struggle. Transportation is tied to community development which is tied to health. And everyone, absolutely everyone, has the right and responsibility to be in this struggle, together.

Doran Schrantz is the executive director of ISAIAH.