Bottineau LRT: Tiny step closer — but nowhere near a done deal

The Metropolitan Council the other day approved the 13-mile Bottineau Transitway between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park. The vote incorporates the project into the region’s transportation policy plan, which in turn makes it eligible for all-important federal funding which would pay about half the $1 billion cost.  

“Bottineau is key to the region’s future development and continued economic success,” said Susan Haigh, the Met Council chair. I agree. We really need this thing.

In case you’ve forgotten what the thing is or failed to commit the particulars to memory, here is a refresher. The proposed Bottineau light-rail line would connect downtown Minneapolis to the northwest suburbs. The chosen route, unimaginatively named the B-C-D1 Alignment, would start at the now-under-construction interchange near the baseball stadium, travel along Olson Highway and the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad corridor and wind up on West Broadway in Brooklyn Park. As envisioned now, it will have 11 stations, four clumped in North Minneapolis and Golden Valley, and the rest spread out in Robbinsdale and Crystal.

So why is Bottineau important? Well, with LRT lines already going south to the Mall of America, east to St. Paul and southwest to Eden Prairie, logic would assume that another line should travel to the north. But according to the Met Council, there’s more to the case. Communities along dear old B-C-D1 will add some 140,000 people by 2030. Large employers and institutions sit along the line, including North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, the Target Northern Campus in Brooklyn Park, a development that will eventually include 12 buildings for 7,000 employees, North Hennepin Community College, with 7,500 students, and the North Arbor Lakes retail district, which the town of Maple Grove is trying to develop. And, of course, unless it’s taken over by bedbugs or hostile aliens from outer space, downtown Minneapolis should remain the major commuting destination.

What’s more, the area along the Bottineau corridor currently offers little in the way of transit choice for those who don’t drive. And 14 percent of households there have no cars. LRT service would help them get to jobs and schools without requiring them to invest their dollars in a depreciating asset, namely a car.

Less congestion

The Met Council also asserts that Bottineau will reduce congestion. I’ve always felt that contention is a bit dubious. New York, where I lived for many years, is blanketed with subway, bus, train and ferry lines. But major highways still look like parking lots at almost every hour of the day.

As it turns out, research backs up my skepticism. A World Bank study found that public transit by itself would not induce people to drive less; the degree of congestion also depends on the physical shape of the city, where jobs and housing are located and how much coverage transit provides.

Jarrett Walker, a transit policy consultant (who worked on the Access Minneapolis plan back in 2006) and author of “Human Transit,” says that the Bottineau line (or any public transit addition, for that matter) “will probably improve congestion in the short term, but its major advantage is that it allows the economy to grow without increasing congestion.” Stores, businesses and housing will pop up around the stations and create jobs but won’t necessarily draw vehicles.  

Sounds good. I can barely wait. But transit, alas and alack, is not exactly an instant gratification item. Bottineau, if you can believe it, was first proposed in 1988. For 20 years it sat on a long list of possible transit investments for the area, only coming under serious consideration in 2008. Then it underwent an Alternatives Analysis, a federal process for the local evaluation of the costs, benefits and impacts of transit alternatives, the transitway type and the choice of alignment or what you and I would call route.

Bottineau Transitway recommended locally preferred alternative
Bottineau Transitway Draft Environmental Impact StatementBottineau Transitway recommended locally preferred alternative

And working out that route wasn’t exactly easy. Hennepin County ultimately rejected an alignment that would have had the train shooting through the North Side along Penn Avenue, cutting up the neighborhood and requiring the demolition of 150 houses. The more politically acceptable route, B-C-D1, has its own problems. For one, it travels alongside Wirth Park. More important, in my mind, its path, through relatively low-density neighborhoods, may make it less useful to residents.

The Met Council is projecting a daily ridership of 27,000, but that won’t happen unless Met Transit realigns bus routes to collect people and drop them at stations, says James Erkel, director of the Land Use and Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. (To help build ridership, he’s advocating the creation of a circulator bus system for passengers in North Minneapolis that would be called the Northside Hip Hop — but more about that another day.)

Last year, Bottineau had a near-death experience when the Golden Valley City Council rejected the route. (All the towns along the line have to approve it for the project to go ahead.) In December, however, a council member switched her vote. The argument that won her over, says Mayor Shep Harris, who is pro-LRT, was that a vote for the line did not make it a done deal. But it would release funds from the Met Council to conduct what he describes as “all the exhaustive studies and analysis” needed to answer officials’ and residents’ questions.

Years of such planning and fussing lie ahead. Under the Met Council’s best scenario, we won’t be boarding the Bottineau LRT for another eight or nine years. According to public relations manager Bonnie Kollodge, preliminary engineering and final environmental review will take two to three years, final design one to two years and construction three to four years.   

Money, money, money

But a big question hangs over the line — funding. The Counties Transit Improvement Tax and the Hennepin County Railroad Authority will together supply 40 percent of the dough. But the state has to kick in 10 percent. The money could come from Gov. Mak Dayton’s proposed seven-county transit tax, but outstate legislators, says Erkel, are unlikely to pass that unless they get money for roads, which is desperately needed since the state gax tax is now insufficient to finance what needs to be done.

State Sen. Scott Dibble (DFL-Minneapolis) put forward a fix: a 7.5 cent-a-gallon increase in the gas tax to pay for highways and a half-cent increase in the sales tax in the seven-county area to be served by mass transit. That proposal was left for dead the other day in the Taxes Committee, killed by members of Dibble’s own party who wanted to leave transportation where it is — which is nowhere.

Even if state lawmakers eventually get their act together, there are huge challenges in winning federal funding. Bottineau would be financed under the Federal Transportation Administration’s New Starts program, which requires cities to compete for grants. This year new transit legislation expanded eligibility of projects but kept funding flat; so more communities will be competing for the same amount of money.

“There are many scenarios under where Bottineau will get stalled,” says Mayor Harris. “My hope is that it won’t get stalled forever.”

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 05/13/2013 - 09:09 am.

    Should have gone up Penn

    “More important, in my mind, its path, through relatively low-density neighborhoods, may make it less useful to residents.”

    Totally right. I know demolishing houses makes people uncomfortable. It does so for good reason – freeways destroyed neighborhoods – but if you’re going to build a $1 billion light rail line, why not do it right? Light rail, unlke freeways, is *good* for neighborhoods, and there’s no neighborhood that could better use some good news than north Minneapolis.

    For that matter I’m still baffled why the central corridor line bypasses an existing trench a quarter mile north to bulldoze down an already-jam-packed Washington Ave. Who is routing these things? It’s like they want them to fail.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 05/13/2013 - 03:00 pm.

      Alignment

      The neighborhoods along the line were split on alignment 50/50. I’ve personally talked to many residents and community leaders there. I, for one, am not in favor of destroying peoples’ homes unless there is a clear mandate from the community to do so.

      As it is, Bottineau can work really well if at the same time (or preferably earlier) we build a streetcar on W. Broadway. The streetcar would have more stops in North Minneapolis and would not only connect to Bottineau for a tip north, it would also provide an alternate service for residents to get downtown. And then there’s the economic development aspect of such a streetcar, which is much better than it would have been with LRT.

      Personally, I would have preferred an LRT alignment all the way down Broadway to Washington, but that ship sailed long ago.

      As for Central Corridor, it’ll stop in the heart of campus, which is exactly what you want. Met Council looked at the trench and the ridership wasn’t there.

      • Submitted by Jeff Klein on 05/13/2013 - 03:53 pm.

        bigger vision

        That would be a really convoluated way to get downtown. I was told the north side leadership did a poor job advocating for and explaining the benefits of the Bottineau line to local residents.

        As for the Central Corridor, it’ll stop… and stop, and stop, and crawl, and stop again. Great. Students should be willing to walk a few blocks. What is it, an hour, downtown to downtown?

        The problem in both cases is there was a lack of overarching vision on the best overall solution and too much tweaking around the edges to find a solution that was inoffensive to everyone.

        • Submitted by David Greene on 05/13/2013 - 09:27 pm.

          You “heard?”

          So your heard something? I was there. NTN, neighborhoods and the county did an outstanding job engaging the community. There were countless meetings, county staff put in an effort like I’ve never seen before.

          Sure, not everyone was there. Not everyone shows up. It’s impossible to reach everyone. But there were big crowds at every single meeting.

          39 minutes downtown to downtown. It’s 24 minutes on the 94 express bus. That’s a pretty damn favorable comparison for the greatly increased level of service on University Avenue.

          And if you’ve been following the project, you would know that Central Corridor isn’t designed primarily to get people from downtown to downtown. It’s to serve people in the corridor.

          Is it so hard to do a smidge of research before making accusations?

  2. Submitted by Sean Fahey on 05/13/2013 - 12:21 pm.

    Not Smart Infrastructure

    About 2.2 of those 13 miles will run through or along park land, so that portion will cost about $170 million (assuming a low build cost of $1 billion). I agree more transit up Bottineau Ave would be nice, but we’re going to spend that kind of money to help out the landowners on that corridor?

    If our goal is truly reducing congestion, we’d build these trains where a large density of people live and work. That would be down 394, 94, 169, 100. That’s why I don’t think people are being honest when they make this congestion argument.

    The goal here is to raise the value of land that’s already owned by somebody. This is like the Stillwater bridge, or the Vikings stadium, it’s not about economic justice, or the environment. You wouldn’t cut trees on the corridor and build two tracks through wetlands if it really were.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 05/13/2013 - 02:39 pm.

      Yes I would

      “You wouldn’t cut trees on the corridor and build two tracks through wetlands if it really were.”

      I’ve got issues with the alignment as you do, but mostly because it doesn’t serve existing nodes of population but cuts through areas that turn their back to the rail line or have nothing at all.

      However, it is truly environmental to cut down one tree if it means not cutting down 50 others. If this line went through great nodes of enough people that could all arrive to the station by foot or bike (and therefore support the line’s operation financially), then you avoid that many people living in a place knocking down many more trees and getting around by car.

      This is an example of great intentions. Economic justice for those that need access to jobs and ‘smart growth’ being better than the alternative of sprawl for keeping housing + transportation costs down. Environmental concern in building a network of transportation modes that lower our climate change impact. But it is misguided in the alignment.

  3. Submitted by Stephen Dent on 05/13/2013 - 11:06 am.

    Golden Valley in the mix

    Mayor Shep Harris and council members Mike Freiberg (now House Representative) and Joannie Clausen did exactly the right thing when voting for the D-1 route. Golden Valley is a “transit poor” first ring suburb that has been all but left out of the transit mix. The result has been that Golden Valley has been stagnated in term of economic development and a declining population growth. Almost all new business development has been limited to the 394 corridor, an already jammed and outdated highway. Having a major LRT station in Golden Valley coupled with a park ‘n ride and circulator bus connecting various Golden Valley centers, such as Honeywell, Courage Center, Allianz, General Mills and downtown Golden Valley at Hwy 55 and Winnetka Ave will pull the whole community into an additional option we’ve never had before. I for one, hope it doesn’t take 9 years or more.

  4. Submitted by Joseph Lampe on 05/13/2013 - 11:25 am.

    Few Riders, Too Expensive, Wrong Route, etc

    Currently there are 12 million daily Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area trips by all modes of travel, of which only 300,000 are via transit, a mere 2.5%. More folks bicycle and walk than use transit.

    Met Council’s 2030 goal is to double transit trips to 600,000 daily. But total daily trips
    in 2030 will be about 14 million, so the transit share would be 4.3%. Most transit professionals seriously doubt that transit trips can be doubled. Five LRT lines would deliver only about 150,000 daily rides, and it is highly improbable that bus trips can increase to 450,000 per day.

    If five LRT lines are built, just 1.1% of metro daily trips in 2030 will be on LRT (150,000 / 14,000,000). A total of 75 stations would provide 75 x 74 = 5,550 origin/destination pairs. We actually need 500+ stations, with ten thousand or more origin/destination pair combinations.

    Our metro area contains about 1,225 square miles (35 X 35 mi). Five LRT lines would have about 75 stations, each drawing riders from perhaps one square mile. Thus, only 6.1% of the metro area would have access to LRT (75/1,225). Transit ridership and mode share are determined by the number and locations of origin/destination pairs, walk time, wait time, ride time, transfer time, fare, convenience, availability (24×7?). Few stations results in few riders.

    The total cost of five LRT lines will be at least $5 billion, so each of the 150,000 daily riders would receive a capital cost subsidy of about $33,300 in addition to an operating cost subsidy of at least $650 per year. The total subsidy for all Met Council transit is projected at about $500 million per year in 2030. Yet, after all of this expenditure, transit trip share would be only 4.3%. Many lane miles of roads could be built for $500 million per year. But the road building era is largely over, and no amount of money spent on current transit systems can significantly increase ridership. According to the Urban Land Institute about 14,000 persons / sq mile density is needed for successful light rail (“Successful Development Around Transit”). Only tiny portions of our metro area have this density.

    Wendell Cox’s article, “Transit: The 4% Solution” demonstrates why transit mode share in almost all US cities does not exceed roughly 4%. The only US cities with a 7% or higher transit work trip mode share are New York, Chicago, Washington/Baltimore, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Boston. Transit to downtown “works” to a limited extent, but most jobs are not downtown and Cox correctly states that “it is virtually impossible to get to a job in another suburb by transit that is auto competitive.”

    Met Council’s charts “Accessibility to Jobs (Auto 2000)” and “Accessibility to Jobs (Transit 2000)” dramatically visualize the situation. Met Council traffic flow maps (“Origin-Destination Travel Pattern between sub-regions in the Twin Cities . . .”) demonstrate the serious mismatch of LRT routes to our actual metro travel patterns. Our most heavily utilized bus commuting routes (pages 95-96 of Met Council 2030 Transportation Policy Plan) are on highway corridors that LRT will never be built in. This confirms that commute-hour BRT is a more effective (and lower cost) solution than more LRT.

    Some years ago MnDOT studied morning inbound traffic on 35W from Burnsville. They discovered that only 13% of the vehicles were headed to downtown Minneapolis. The Origin-Destination diagrams reveal where the other 87% are going.

    So LRT advocates have shifted the story line from improving urban mobility and congestion reduction to the alleged benefits of real estate redevelopment, “smart-growth” in corridors, LRT construction jobs, regional competitiveness, “travel choice,” availability of federal transit funding, etc., etc., etc.

    So why is rail being built? It’s a “proven technology” in the sense that the wheels roll along the track and, more importantly, the Federal government provides 50% funding. Without that funding, no rail systems would be built. And if all federal transportation funding came to states in one non-earmarked basket, no rail systems would be built. The FTA spends $2 billion per year on “New Starts,” but it is a nearly useless expenditure that contributes to our trillion dollar annual federal deficits. Few would notice if it were zeroed out, and perhaps it will be as a result of deficit reduction discussions in Congress.

    The corridor-oriented, scheduled-service paradigm for transit is fatally flawed.

    Goran Tegner’s paper “Severe Shortfalls in Current Transit” contains perhaps the best and most amusing summary of current transit systems ever written: “A public transportation system with fixed corridors and scheduled service is a system that takes you from a point where you are not located to a point where you do not want to go, and often at a time that does not suit you very well.” (page 23). One could add, “with a trip time that often is two or three times longer than an automobile trip, and with underlying costs and trip share that are unacceptable.”

    It’s obvious that transit is in trouble. Vast amounts of money are being spent, with little resulting travel benefit. Buses have a large network, but unacceptably long trip times, and LRT has trivial ridership, as a percentage of total daily trips by all modes. There is a tremendous unmet need for improved urban mobility for all demographic groups.

    The title of John Brandl’s book “Money and Good Intentions Are Not Enough” is an excellent summary of the problem. But an entrenched Transit Industrial Complex (committed to 1890 rail and 1920 motor bus technologies) is a major obstacle for government to do anything differently.

    The only travel technology that can feasibly increase transit trip share and reduce automobile dependency is Personal Rapid Transit. The capital and operating costs of PRT are low enough to permit private transportation companies to build and operate PRT systems at a profit.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 05/13/2013 - 02:18 pm.

      Yes, Transit is subsidized

      .. and so are the capital and operating costs of our roads. Yes, you are right, transit is in trouble because the way we’ve built out our entire region is in almost every way car-dependent. This is evidenced by the number of park and rides at transit stations outside Minneapolis or St Paul proper (let us also not forget the immense capital costs associated with lots or ramps that are not tied to subsidizing transit but subsidizing those that drive to transit). We need to stop using infrastructure as a tool for economic development, but rather the other way around. We build roads, highways, bridges, and yes even transit like light rail in hopes that we’ll have economic development around the freeway exit, the other side of the bridge or at a transit station (3 of which on this line directly abut farm fields ‘ripe’ for new development).

      We have transportation myopia. As stated before, nearly all of MSP’s residential, commercial, and industrial areas are car-dependent. This is not a natural development, we made this choice and continue to do so. And we continue to spend billions on road/highway expansion and maintenance, while being surprised that transit mode share remains so low. Your comment reflecting widely-held views by our population on infrastructure like I-394 being outdated (despite it being one of 2 MNPass corridors in our region) and jammed directly support this fact – we continue attempting to build our way out of congestion and in to economic prosperity, ignoring the reality of the last 50 years and the the future financial obligations this additional infrastructure puts on us.

      We limit development in already productive places through exclusionary zoning and wonder why we couldn’t justify (financially) a higher speed/capacity rail project such as tunneled rail through places like Uptown (ex Hennepin or Nicollet). We need to change our development pattern and stop spending billions on poor transportation that stretches us thin, and this includes the routing of Bottineau and how far it extends.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 05/13/2013 - 02:27 pm.

      Other Comment

      “The only travel technology that can feasibly increase transit trip share and reduce automobile dependency is Personal Rapid Transit. The capital and operating costs of PRT are low enough to permit private transportation companies to build and operate PRT systems at a profit.”

      PRT is an automobile that only shifts who is driving the vehicle and where it is stored. It does not increase mobility over our current system with the only caveat being slightly reduced trip times through autonomous driving slightly reducing congestion. They may slightly help land-use patterns by removing the requirement for personal vehicle storage at home (ie no garages, assuming people don’t own their own but rather use autonomous PRT as a taxi service) – which reduces personal residence land requirement. But unless we live in such a way where many of our daily needs are accessible by foot or bike – grocery, day care, restaurants, even jobs – PRT will have the same effect on land use as the automobile currently does.

      No one is claiming PRTs couldn’t operate at a profit. Taxis do, so do auto manufacturers. They do so conveniently because they don’t pay the full costs of the roads they drive on (nope, not through federal or state gas taxes), and they don’t pay the full cost of the pollution they spew (which could bring modes like transit to profitability if cars were forced to pay a carbon tax that equaled the future cost of CO2 emission remediation).

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/14/2013 - 07:04 am.

      Basic Math

      From the post: “The total cost of five LRT lines will be at least $5 billion, so each of the 150,000 daily riders would receive a capital cost subsidy of about $33,300 in addition to an operating cost subsidy of at least $650 per year.”

      I have to ask why would someone take the entire cost of the system and project it onto a single day of ridership? That’s like asking someone to pay off the mortgage on their house in a single day–it’s just plain silly and poor math.

      A more realistic projection would be to spread the cost out over twenty years, which brings the $33,300 cost per rider down to $4.57. Even that figure assumes that ridership never increases over that time period.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/14/2013 - 07:09 am.

      Personal Rapid Transit

      PRT is a pie-in-the-sky technology that hasn’t been implemented anywhere. We need transit options that can be implemented now, not in another 20 or 50 years. If the capital and operating costs are low enough that private companies can do it, then by all means have them step up to the plate and get their business plan operating. There’s nothing stopping them from raising the capital from private sources and start building tomorrow.

      I hope you don’t mind though if the rest of us keep on keeping on.

  5. Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/13/2013 - 12:14 pm.

    Skipping North Mpls is a mistake

    Going through North Mpls instead of around it should have been a no brainer.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 05/13/2013 - 03:20 pm.

      Respects

      Bill, I greatly respect your thoughts on transportation and urban development.

      From a theoretical perspective, Broadway/Penn seems like a good choice. But on the ground, not so much. The neighborhoods were evenly divided on the question. As white people, we need to pay particular attention to what communities of color are telling us.

      The community around Broadway certainly wants a streetcar. That much is clear. So I think early implementation of a W. Broadway streetcar combined with a circulator bus and the current Bottineau alignment would serve North Minneapolis well.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/14/2013 - 09:56 am.

    It’s true that rail transit doesn’t reduce congestion, BUT

    it makes it possible for people to avoid congestion.

    Tokyo has what is probably the world’s best public transit system, and yet its traffic is terrible. But when I’ve been there, either as a visitor or as a resident years ago, there has always been a surface train, a subway, or a bus that lets me leave the driving to someone else. Always. I have never driven in Japan and only rarely ridden in a private car or even a taxi.

    When I lived car-free in Portland, people used to say that they could never give up their cars because cars were so “convenient.” Yet when I had appointments to meet up with some of them for dinner or an event, I always brought a book, because they would invariably show up later than I did due to traffic or parking problems.

    By the way, Wendell Cox, whom one of the posters above quoted, is a well-known “cars only” advocate. He is one of three individuals who pop up predicting doom whenever any American city considers building any form of transportation that isn’t a road. (The other two are Randall O’Toole and John Charles. Remember those names.)

    Also by the way, PRT was first proposed in the early 1960s. There are a couple of short single-line systems running in various parts of the world, but no one has ever produced even a workable computer simulation of an all-PRT urban transit system with multiple lines, accounting for differing destinations, peak and off-peak times, and transfers among lines, without creating pile-ups of pods at certain stations.

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