I am writing this blog post after returning from the Fort Road Federation meeting. I attended the meeting tonight because mass transit was on the agenda and that is an issue that I am pretty passionate about for the Twin Cities.
I have a few thoughts on the Federation and some concerns that come to mind. This was the Federation's Annual meeting and it was held at Summit Brewing in St. Paul. They had the bar open and were serving $2 beer throughout the meeting. At first I thought this was great, but as time drew on, it was noticeable that it was impacting some members of the gathered meeting.
The highly promoted topic at this meeting was a discussion on the Riverview Corridor Study, a transit study that is looking into various transit options for the city of St. Paul one of which involves running light rail down West 7th Street, the use of an unused rail line, or a combination effort. Passion around this issue is elevated, it was very clear that this audience was vocally opposed to any discussion regarding light rail anywhere near our community. Never mind that the study involves different options entirely (street cars and enhanced bussing included), the audience was clearly opposed to any discussion regarding changing West 7th Street in any way.
An elected member of the Federation indicated that it is well known the Federation and the community is widely opposed to a fixed guideway down West 7th Street, which brought applause from many and one boo (from me). After a presentation on the study from Ken Iosso from Ramsey County they held a time for statements. Person after person rose to indicate that changing transit on West 7th would kill the businesses, destroy the neighborhood, and ruin everything we love about our neighborhood. I rose to speak, the only pro-Riverview Corridor supporter to say so in the room. I indicated that my concerns are specifically around pedestrian safety. I stated that the Federation and Business Association coming out completely opposed to Light Rail has painted the study in a negative way. I encouraged the Federation to do the difficult work of making West 7th a safer street for all modes: pedestrians, bikers, and drivers. I received some applause. After I sat down the train bashing continued. The individual who touted their unanimous opposition called for a new vote continuing to oppose any development of LRT on either the spur or the street. I was the lone nay, but I feel really good that they can't say that my community is unanimously opposed. As a sidenote, I now understand where all the people who say, the entire community is opposed to light rail, because they probably attend the Federation meetings and don't discuss things with those who might disagree with them.
After the meeting I had discussions with a number of people who sought me out indicating they also were supportive of the study and are honestly curious what the LRT options might be for our community. It is sad to me that the Federation is unwilling to allow for a difference in opinion, these people did not feel comfortable speaking to this crowd in any way, or even stating "nay" in opposition to the Federations condemnation of the LRT options.
Another awkward moment at the Federation meeting was when the Chief of Police was taking questions. Someone asked a leading question regarding light rail on University causing an increase in crime. Commander Axtell fell into this trap and stated that light rail has caused crime on University, a false statement per the 2014 statement in MPR. Now some might point to more recent criminal activity, but I believe that this crime is only well known because there is a train route there. The train has drawn attention to existing crime not increased the crime. Commander Axtell's satement brought some scattered applause. I commented under my breath, "yay! crime" which caused a few neighbors to realize what they were doing and one in particular sought me out afterwards and wanted to make clear that he was not cheering for crime, but cheering that light rail should not be in our neighborhood because of the increased crime. He did so in a way that had something more behind it, I politely disagreed with him, but his posture and tone made me feel as though he would rather see me not speak at the meetings at all.
Here are the things I am especially concerned about:
- The format of the meeting and its voice votes did not allow for meaningful discussion. It was merely an echo chamber.
- People are scared to dissent with what appears to the majority opinion in this group. It took a lot for me to stand and disagree in a room full of my neighbors and I am an extrovert that has a great deal of passion on this subject. I can't imagine what someone seeking information. This group has created a mob mentality. Their repeated advertising for the event was all around the trains, I was surprised it was an election night. You think that would be the draw. This leads me to believe they just wanted to skewer the Ramsey County representative with negativity.
- West 7th and the area that creates the Fort Road Federation is a massive recovery area. Many people in our community have gone through Hazelden and are living a life of recovery. If you want to be inclusive of our community as a whole, you might want to rethink hosting events like this (especially annual meetings) in a large tap room with discount beer.
- There was little to no publicity about this meeting outside of businesses that are anti-Riverview Corridor. Many who could not attend did not know this group exists or what the meetings are supposed to accomplish. I also have to question the connections between the Business Association and the Federation, they seem to be very tight.
- Those who live in the community are given a vote and those who own businesses in the community are given a vote. If you live and own a business in the community, do you get two votes?
These are some rambling post-meeting thoughts on my experience. I will probably attend another meeting in the future. Just to keep folks aware that dissent is healthy. Mind you, this is a room full of people that the majority of which are probably proud registered DFL people. You'd think they'd appreciate difference of opinion in some way.