Q& A with Curt Johnson

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July 12, 2004 // UPDATED 2:30 pm - April 25, 2007
By: David Brauer
David Brauer

As head of the Citizen's League, Curt Johnson fought the articulate fight against light-rail transit. But LRT's birth might have coincided with Johnson's conversion to rail during Gov. Arne Carlson's administration. Johnson, Carlson's chief of staff, notes that Carlson was the first governor to seek key federal funds for what is now the Hiawatha Line. We asked Johnson to assess light rail at its birth.

Why did you change your mind on LRT?

Intellectually, my head was stuck in the efficiency argument that said why don't we do [transit] with buses instead; you can get a lot more for your capital dollar by expanding bus service than investing in rail. I finally came to the conclusion that while that might be exquisitely accurate, we were not going to [expand transit] under those circumstances. We needed to elevate transit to a different level of political debate. And the way you do that is to put in at least one rail line that is a permanent, conspicuous piece of transit infrastructure. At that point, all these fragmented camps within the transit community who [favored] buses or rail or commuter rail would pull together for a transit system.

But it's just one line, and a "system" is far from certain. Will we stop at one LRT line?

No. I think we'll keep going. We know where corridors are where people need mobility choices, and where putting permanent transit investments would send a market signal to the real estate development community that this where you can put in more intense mixed-use [developments].

Where next?

Not every part of a system needs light rail. In the 35W corridor, all you're really trying to do is provide an alternative to being stuck in traffic. Even just a wider shoulder lane will give you a competitive edge over stuck traffic and is a good thing to do. On the other hand, in Central Corridor connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis, you have a wide-open opportunity to send that market signal -- you have people more inclined to ride than drive, plus a constellation of small businesses and a crying need to renew [street infrastructure] that is worn out. There, you can make a good argument that a light-rail line makes market sense.

How do we pay for it?

We need at least $150 million in capital spending we don't have now. I'm working with, 40 CEOs who formed the Itasca Group, who are going to ask the Legislature for it. And if the Legislature says no, then we'll ask for permission to ask the people for it -- a local, regional or statewide referendum. The message is that we can both fix the roads and create an alternative transportation system that is cost-effective. Currently, we spend only 48 percent of regions our size on transit. We have a lot of catching up to do.