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Twin Cities’ rail-transit proposals could be on a collision course

Hiawatha Line
MinnPost photo by Raoul Benavides
The latest projections for the Bottineau Corridor show LRT attracting 26,000 to 27,600 riders per day by 2030.

Within the next year or two, there’s the potential for a three-train pileup at the state Capitol.

Local officials from the southwest, northwest and east could be converging simultaneously at the Capitol seeking $100 million or more in state funding for each of three possible light-rail transit (LRT) lines – in the Southwest, Bottineau and Gateway corridors.

That could be mission impossible if Republicans retain control of the Legislature in this fall’s election. In the current legislative session, both houses have resisted providing even a $25 million down payment on the state’s share of the cost for the proposed $1.25 billion line in the Southwest Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

Multiple capital funding requests for transit could be a challenge even if more transit-friendly DFLers capture legislative control this fall. Transit requests of $300 million or more would constitute a huge share of any state bonding bill. Bonding bills typically are approved in even-numbered years and run in the range of $600 million to $1 billion.

Last September, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) granted approval for the Metropolitan Council and its project partners to begin preliminary engineering on the 14-mile Southwest Corridor line. Since then, the council has rented space for a project office, begun hiring staff and solicited proposals for engineering services.

However, the project could be delayed, if not killed, unless the Legislature begins providing its 10-percent share of the funding – $125 million.

Under FTA rules, the council cannot even apply for 50-percent federal funding of the project until commitments are in hand for the 50-percent state/local share. In addition to the state’s 10 percent, 30 percent would come from the Counties Transit Improvement Board through its quarter-cent sales tax and 10 percent from Hennepin County.

Stopping Southwest

Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chair of the House Transportation Committee, has vowed to stop Southwest “in its tracks,” though he suggested late last week that he might be open to some high-level political horse trading with DFL Gov. Mark Dayton.

Meanwhile, Hennepin County officials are preparing to propose another major transit investment – this one in the Bottineau Boulevard Corridor between downtown Minneapolis and Maple Grove or Brooklyn Park.

County officials have been evaluating multiple alignments for LRT or bus rapid transit (BRT) in the 13-mile-long corridor. It generally runs along Country Road 81, passing through north Minneapolis, Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove.

In a briefing last week for the Met Council’s Transportation Committee, Joe Gladke of Hennepin County said the county intends to recommend a “locally preferred alternative” for the transit mode and alignment in June.

Gladke, the county’s manager of engineering and planning, said county officials hope the Met Council would approve that recommendation before the end of the year and apply for federal approval to begin preliminary engineering.

Though he indicated the mode remains to be determined, Gladke strongly hinted that the decision will be LRT. He said the latest projections show LRT attracting 26,000 to 27,600 riders per day by 2030, depending on the alignment, compared with 19,600 riders per day for BRT.

Indeed, Gladke said that under the BRT option, it would not be possible to put enough buses on the street to meet the projected ridership demand. He also said the project’s policy advisory committee, made up primarily of local officials, “has expressed some preferences for LRT.”

Gladke said final cost estimates are not yet available. In previous studies, the county estimated that LRT would cost between $900 million and $1.2 billion, while BRT would be about $400 million less expensive.

Twin Cities Transitway SystemHennepin County

The bold-colored lines indicate the light rail, bus rapid transit and commuter rail lines now in place or under development. The light green lines indicate the corridors being studied or discussed for future transit investments.


Gateway Corridor

The Met Council’s Transportation Committee also received an update last week on the transit planning underway in the Gateway Corridor along Interstate 94 east of downtown St. Paul.

The studies, led by Washington and Ramsey counties, have been evaluating multiple alternatives, including LRT, BRT, commuter rail and operating buses in high-occupancy toll lanes such as those on I-35W and I-394. So far, the only option that has been ruled out is commuter rail because of the high cost and comparatively modest ridership.

Ted Schoenecker of Washington County, the project manager, said the alternatives analysis should be completed this summer, after which an environmental review is required. That timeline could have the project seeking state funding in 2014.

The cost of the alternatives being evaluated range from $420 million for BRT to nearly $1 billion for LRT. But light rail could prove to be a tough sell for the FTA, much less Republican state legislators. It is projected to attract only 9,100 riders per day, about a third of the riders projected for both Southwest and Bottineau.

Many East Metro officials complain that their part of the region has been left out of major transit improvements, notwithstanding the current construction of the $957 million Central Corridor LRT line   between downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul.

Washington County Commissioner Lisa Weik, chair of the Gateway Corridor planning effort, told the Met Council committee that the Gateway corridor “should be a regional priority.” She noted that it is home to major businesses such as 3M, and said “we need to be competitive in order to attract and retain businesses.”

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Comments (11)

Commuter Lines

The real problem here is that many of these proposals are for suburban commuter lines where there are dense employment and other destinations on only one end. Compare that to the two current lines under construction. One runs through a densely developed urban area from the airport to downtown Minneapolis. The other runs along a densely developed corridor between the two downtowns. In both cases, people will be using the line to reach destinations along the line, as well as at both ends.

The Southwest corridor also runs from downtown through densely developed areas in both Minneapolis and St. Louis Park to Eden Prairie, which also has significant employment areas that can attract riders. While not as high a value as the first two, it provides both service to existing development and opportunities for future development along the corridor.

By contrast, while Forest Lake is a fine community, it is not a major employment center. Likewise Lakeville, Rosemount and Stillwater. Providing access to jobs in dense urban centers for these suburban communities is better done by express buses, not a high cost capital investment in fixed rail. They may make sense politically, but they are really just expensive "urban jewelry", more important for community ego than their real transportation and community development benefits.

SW Corridor

You are right that the SW alignment is a commuter line. Even in Minneapolis it does not pass through any " densely developed areas." If you read the Minneapolis planning documents the City acknowledges that the potential for development at most of the stops in Minneapolis is minimal. The present alignment in Mpls is a failure of planning and political will coupled with misplaced enthusiasm that the SW line will spur development in North Minneapolis. Too bad the City didn't have the political will or planning expertise to put the route where it would have served urban density - like along the Greenway to Nicollet Ave.

No

SW LRT is NOT just a commuter line. Yes, it serves commuters from the sububs but it does much more.

If you read the Minneapolis comprehensive plan closely, you'll surely notice the Basset Creek Valley Master Plan, which proposes a large development around the Van White station. This is a key part of near northside redevelopment plans.

But even more importantly, the Kenilworth alignment for SW LRT will open up access to northside residents to a completely new opportunity corridor. There is currently no reasonable way for northside residents to get to jobs in the southwest suburbs via transit. They have been cut off from opportunity for decades. It is IMPERATIVE that they have access for our city to survive.

A SW LRT alignment through Uptown never made any sense. First, Uptown already has great transit service and the ridershiop studies showed that the incremental gain in new ridership was minimal. Who is going to ride a bus up Nicollet and transfer to the LRT at 24th St.? No one. They will continue to ride the bus into downtown.

Second, the Uptown alignment cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than the Kenilworth alignment. So we'd spend hundreds of millions of dollars to keep the northside cut off from opportunity while showing no ridership improvement. That's morally wrong and a bad plan to boot.

Third, the Grteenway alignment would have significantly altered the Greenway bike infrastructure. We would have had a huge biker overpass to get over the LRT where it turned north at Nicollet. One of the most attractive parts of the Greeway from a practical standpoint is its grade, owing to its former life as a railroad corridor. By and large, bike commuters don't like steep climbs.

Fouth, the Greenway alignment had multiple logistical problems downtown. It would have required sacrificing a good chunk of Peavy Plaza and some alternatives would have required skyways to be reconstructed. It would not have been able to interline into the Central Corridor and any transit planner will tell you that transfers cause a ridership hit.

The Greenway alignment was proposed because the federal process requires multiple alternatives to be considered. Once the initial evaluation was done, no one who'd been following things seriously thought it was viable.

The Interchange !?!

I like the imagination with which 8 or more service line converge on "The Interchange".

What is "The Interchange?".

It is a mythic transit station located on a sliver of land--between the ball park, the trash burner and the newly renovated Ford Center.

Eight lines converging one two-way platform. Really????.

If you have ever been in a city with a real subway/train system, you know how enormous and multi-level these type of hub stations are.

Perhaps the plan is to swallow the trash burner whole in the station.

By the way, has anyone really worked out how the metro area will subsidize ridership with up to $55 million a year or pay the operating costs and constructions bonds to the tune of $250 million a year for the first 4 lines of light rail?

The Interchange

It's not eight lines converging on the interchange. It's really two: the Green Line and the Blue Line. The BRT Orange line takes buses to the Marquette/2nd corridor. Southwest will be through-routed to St. Paul (hence it is all The Green Line) while Bottineau will be through-routed to the Mall of America (The Blue Line). There will be no more additional rail traffic downtown than what there will be once Central Corridor is up and running.

There will be no more LRT in the metro area after Bottineau and even that one is a bit shaky. The ridership just isn't there. There will be streetcar lines but that is a different mode entirely and serves a completely difference purpose. As Ross correctly points out, we only have so many dense urban corridors where LRT makes sense. Thank the 1950's and 1960's era transportation and land use planners for that.

As for the East Metro, a lot of the blame goes to the counties who have refused to build transit ridership. It is only recently that Washington and Dakota counties have begrudgingly come around to putting some modest support behind transit. Anoka and Hennepin counties have been building ridership along the proposed corridors for DECADES. That doesn't mean we shouldn't invest in East Metro transit. In fact it's critical that we do so. But it is disingenuous for those county officials to complain about lack of development in their areas as if they were somehow shut out of the process by others.

Re: the Interchange. It's

Re: the Interchange. It's also worrisome that the city hasn't killed the Dock Street development proposal for the below-grid-grade Hines development. It's great that we want to develop that chasm between Downtown and the North Loop, but we need to preserve the lower level for future transit platforms, etc.

Re: Rush Line, Gateway, etc.... it's really unfortunate how much politics can influence our priorities, because then these in-metro feuds get in the way of our success as a region. The Met Council has prioritized Central > Southwest > Bottineau in that order to build out the most successful system based on demand and leveraging other investments.

Nice Article

This was an informative article and a fun read.

I certainly hope the the SW corridor and Bottineau line put on track to be built as soon as reasonable. One thing that is not clear from the graphic: The Bottineau line would be an extension of the Blue Line -- much like the SW line would be an extension of the Green Line

Practical Matters

Beyond the lines that look relatively certain to proceed (Southwest, Bottineau and Gateway), the most interesting corridor to me is Riverview. It's been discussed for years and years and there certainly is demand for better service along west 7th. I don't think LRT will be practical, but a streetcar might work. More likely it will be some kind of improved arterial bus service (I refuse to call it BRT) along the lines of what's proposed for Lake St., Hennepin Ave. and elsewhere.

A streetcar would seem to do the best job serving both the transit demand and the redevelopment potential of the corridor. I could be a great tourist line, among other things. Unfortunately, there's not been much discussion of streetcars in St. Paul, much less in that corridor.

Everything else on the above map is so far off and has had so little discussion that it probably won't happen within the next 30 years. NLX will probably happen but to me that's not really in the realm of metro area transit. It's intercity transportation just like HSR to Chicago.

Over the next 10 years the bulk of the interesting stuff is going to happen along major local transit corridors: Lake, Chicago, Hennepin, Central, Nicollet, Broadway, Grand, 7th, Snelling, Ford, Robert and American. See http://metrotransit.org/arterial-study.aspx

Transit along dense urban

Transit along dense urban corridors is tricky business when you build at grade. Despite the conspiracy theories/histories to the contrary, what killed street cars in the US (including the Twin Cities) was not the bus manufactures, but auto ownership. As the lines got longer, and auto traffic increased, the non-grade separated nature of street cars meant the trips took way too long. Recall that streetcar systems were developed to sell suburban real estate, not create transit systems, and it all becomes clearer.

I have real doubts a street car along West 7th would succeed for just that reason. Buses can actually navigate a arterial like that faster than street cars (which cannot change lanes in traffic).

Central Corridor will be an interesting test of this notion - a high priced LRT system that runs along University Avenue, intended to capture the Route 16 bus traffic. What will happen to auto trip times because of the LRT? Anyone who drives along Hiawatha knows light rail had a profound impact on car transit times along a state highway that is largely separated from the LRT line. On University the trains run down the middle of the street. The built environment will certainly change, but whether total density along the route will increase is an interesting question (nodes will get denser, but development along the rest of University is likely to suffer).

Will LRT on University be able to run fast enough to sustain ridership? Will placing the stops further apart actually result in a drop-off of ridership? By way of example: transit users in Prospect Park traditionally included many going to the U campus. They could walk out to University and jump on a 16 bus. Now they will need to walk over to the 280 stop of the LRT to get a ride to the U. Will that increase, or decrease transit ridership?

LRT in dense areas needs grade separation to work, and too many of our lines (Central and SW) do not accomplish that.

The Central Corridor is very

The Central Corridor is very different from Hiawatha. The trains will have some level of priority over other traffic, but it won't be the absolute priority that Hiawatha trains have along much of their route -- I only expect to see a few crossings with gate arms, and they'll be over by the Metrodome and West Bank.

While the Central line won't be grade-separated for the most part, it will have exclusive right-of-way. Traffic should only be able to interfere at intersections, and about half of those are going to be blocked off by the median (right turns allowed, but no left turns). In my experience, that tends to smooth out traffic flow. For travelers going straight along University, I suspect that travel times may actually improve.

Left turns are an open question for me -- they're probably going to get more painful, but stoplights along University Avenue have traditionally had significantly faster cycle times than lights along Hiawatha. We'll see what the traffic engineers decide to do, but I'm hoping cycle times will stay relatively short. The system will behave something more like the stoplights at the UMN bus transitway and Energy Park Drive in Saint Paul, where buses usually get a green light as they approach, but sometimes they are required to stop if the green has been held for too long already.

But questions about traffic impacts distract from the fact that putting LRT down University will greatly increase the capacity of the road overall. A light-rail train can carry hundreds of people at a time.

Prospect Park residents won't have to go all the way down to 280 to get a ride -- Westgate station isn't quite that far. The western edge of the westbound platform is going to be right on Emerald Street, the border between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and straight south of the entrance to KSTP. But I suspect that a lot of Prospect Park residents will choose instead to start walking toward the UMN campus as they start their day and will instead board at the 29th Street station (which has been renamed "Prospect Park station").

Now, for some Prospect Park residents, University Avenue is just too far away in general. There really should be better bus service along Franklin Avenue -- the existing #8 bus is rather infamous among Twin Cities transit thinkers because of its very low service level today.

Traffic

I contest your assertion that auto travel times on Hiawatha are significantly worse due to the LRT. I traveled that route regularly to work for six years, during LRT construction, test and public operation. I did not notice much different in travel time for through routes. Consider also the growth of Dakota county over that period. I'll bet trips in the Hiawatha corridor increased significantly over the last decade.

Making left turns did indeed become a more timely affair and there are several reasons. The project team designed the signalling for trains running at 55 MPH. This had to be adjusted when speed was restricted to 45 MPH. Tweaks can be done but it was a patch job. Furthermore, the signalling technology chosen for the project was not state-of-the-art. We could have used smarter signals but for various reasons we chose not to. I don't know specifically what those reasons were but I suspect budget was a big driver.

That said, I also challenge the notion that auto drivers have some inherent right to no disruption or change in behavior to accommodate transit. The LRT takes a large number of autos off that same stretch of highway. A few seconds longer to take a left turn is not a high price to pay considering that the alternative is to have a roadway choked with traffic most hours of the day.

As for Prospect Park residents , the 16 will still run and make the same stops it always has, though at reduced frequency. I share the opinion of many that the 16 should retain its currently frequency. Hopefully with enough funding for tansit that frequency can be restored.