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As Southwest Corridor LRT costs soar, here’s a better idea: streetcars

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
A Minneapolis streetcar on Cedar Avenue from a May 1930 photograph.

Wednesday brought the dismaying news from the Metropolitan Council that the Southwest Corridor LRT could cost as much as 32 percent more than originally forecast. That’s a pretty hefty bump, considering that the line was already pegged at $1.25 billion. And that total is in 2013 dollars. If the state Legislature and the Feds delay funding for a few more years, which is all too likely, costs will balloon even more.

At issue are eight different options for relocating freight travel to St. Louis Park or keeping it in Minneapolis.

There are six possibilities for running through what is called the Kenilworth neighborhood, which is the splotch of land between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, and two possible alternates in St. Louis Park. If you want to know the gory details, you can consult the Met Council’s announcement.

But briefly, they sort out like this. Running a shallow tunnel through Kenilworth would cost $150 million to $160 million, while rerouting the freight train through St. Louis Park (notably its high school football field) would cost up to $210 million. Sending the train into a deep tunnel through Kenilworth would raise the tab by as much as $320 million; it would probably disturb neighbors least, although I don’t think they’ll enjoy the three or four years of Big Dig-like construction.   

I am a stout supporter of mass transit. But I am also an advocate of taking the path of least resistance; and the Southwest LRT is starting to look like anything but. I realize that a train already runs through Kenilworth. My grandmother lived in an apartment in front of the rail line, and she said that one could get used to it — she slept right through the noise. But freight trains don’t run as frequently as the LRT will. And the alternative — smushing a railway through St. Louis Park — will, according to the Met Council, require the taking of 46 homes and businesses.   

How much simpler things might be if we instead ran the commuter line, maybe a streetcar, along major arteries instead of tracking it through neighborhoods, particularly those near lakes and bike trails. And aiding and abetting this odd-ball thinking is an old map (pictured below) of the Twin Cities’ trolley lines, which were dismantled in 1954.

In the heyday of trolleys, a line did run southwest all the way to Hopkins. And talk about disturbing the peace! One segment traveled down now posh East Calhoun Parkway. Any government entity that tried to repeat that nowadays would likely face crowds with pitchforks and torches. Nevertheless, the old lines suggest some ideas for the new route.

Currently, the plan is for the Southwest LRT (which has been rebranded as “the Green Line”) to start in downtown Minneapolis at Target Field, proceed to the intersection of I-394 and Dunwoody Boulevard and then head west to Penn Avenue and then to Kenilworth, where it would stop at 21st and Thomas — and wreak all kinds of expensive havoc, what with rerouting freight trains and so on.

Instead, how about having a streetcar line run from Dunwoody, down Hennepin Avenue — or along the parallel Grand Avenue, take a right on Lake Street (with maybe a stop at Hennepin and Lake and perhaps points in between)? From there it could hit the next planned stop at West Lake and Chowen and continue on its merry way to Eden Prairie.

I could also see putting a streetcar down the Mall (which parallels Lake Street). It’s wide enough to accommodate a tram, and the route could veer slightly along the mostly uninhabited portion of East Calhoun Parkway to hit Lake Street and travel west.

Not much difference

Now, you are probably saying: We want light rail, not dinky streetcars. But there’s not as much difference between the two as you might think. The vehicles are pretty much the same, and so is the technology. The conventional distinction is that light rail has its own reserved right-of-way, while streetcars share the road with other traffic.

But many lines mix both. Portland’s light rail, for example, runs alongside cars downtown while the city’s steetcars have segments that are fairly isolated from the street. To work, the Southwest LRT should provide lots of stops downtown and then high speed out in the suburbs, which distances and sprawl make fast travel a must.

Southwest LRT Alignment

Several ideas lie behind the push to develop a rail system in this day and age. People overwhelmingly prefer rail travel to buses. So in theory, a rail line of some kind may lure people out of their cars, reducing congestion and dependence on fossil fuels, which mess up the environment, if not the entire weather system.

Second, a new rail line may draw more intense development. Again, real-estate investors prefer rail to bus because it’s permanent, giving their new building a longer useful life. Concentrating at least some of a city’s housing and businesses along a new rail line would attract more riders, with the same virtuous effects.        

Two examples

The evidence shows that sometimes this happens, and sometimes it doesn’t. Success may depend heavily on design. Arlington, Va.,  for example, managed to attract new riders to the Washington Metro, because according to one report, it “prioritized walkable construction immediately adjacent to subway stations.”

In contrast, Rosemount, Ill., didn’t do as well in connecting riders to the Chicago L because it “put the rail line in the median of a highway, separated buildings from the station by hundreds of feet, and minimized pedestrian amenities.”  

My suggested route (and there may be, probably are, better solutions) will no doubt provoke shrieks of horror from many quarters, especially from the engineers and planners who’ve been working on the Southwest LRT. They have all my sympathy. Getting a project of this size and cost off the ground takes Herculean effort, what with all the required environmental impact assessments, cost estimates, legal permissions, government applications, meetings with citizens groups and contract negotiations that they face.

But given the mounting cost of the Southwest LRT, maybe we should rethink whether such a line needs a reserved right-of-way. It would be terrible to spend so much money and possibly wind up with a white elephant.

Southwest LRT LPA
Metropolitan CouncilThe Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) for the Southwest LRT project, selected by the Metropolitan Council in 2010.

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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by jody rooney on 07/19/2013 - 09:45 am.

    Now this is an idea I can get behind

    Excellent article. The other alternative is to take back the rail trail that runs through Hopkins. I know it is an important bike commuter route but bikes don’t need the design specs of the rail line and could be provided a safe bike way else where.

  2. Submitted by craig furguson on 07/19/2013 - 10:20 am.

    Portland

    When I visited Portland last spring, I brought along my folding bike (it seemed to be the thing to do). There really didn’t seem to be much difference between the rail transit running at the airport and what was running in town. In town, the rails ran up the middle of the street and the bike lane was next to them. The advantage of having the bike lane in the middle was that you are not always being cut off by cars turning. You do get used to running next to the streetcars, much the same as the bike lane running down 4th by the Govt center next to the bus lane.Maybe we don’t need to build such a infrastructure intense system after all.

  3. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 07/19/2013 - 10:22 am.

    committing to transit

    At some point if we’re really serious about having legitimate mass transit for the future of our city we’re going to have to get a little bit more aggressive about using eminent domain and taking on local NIMBYs to do so. There’s too much power for a handful of people to prevent the building of a transit line that will change life for thousands. Otherwise we’ll keep ending up with half-hearted, slow, expensive routes that don’t make any sense.

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 07/19/2013 - 10:58 am.

    Hard to tell if this is a good idea

    We have in front of us the added costs of moving the existing freight traffic, but not the added costs of constructing a street car line on two of our busiest and most congested surface streets.

  5. Submitted by David Frenkel on 07/19/2013 - 11:01 am.

    Trolleys

    The original trolleys were pulled out thanks to a local wealthy family that owned the transit system at the time and GM which favored buses. It is interesting that the saying what goes around comes around applies in this discussion.

  6. Submitted by Brian Lavelle on 07/19/2013 - 11:26 am.

    Mass transit

    This problem was tackled decades ago by architect Jamie Lerner in Curitiba, Brazil. If the transportation system is well designed, people will want to use it and it will be an asset to the community. His model is worth emulating. Also, some futuristic work is being planned for Geneva Switzerland. Google the following for a short video:
    135-passenger electric bus that can be flash-charged in 15 seconds to be deployed in Geneva

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/19/2013 - 11:32 am.

    Mass Transit

    It’s worth adding to the story what each of the mass transit systems are designed to do. You have trolleys (street cars), light rail (LRT), and heavy rail. Each one serves a different purpose, which I didn’t see mentioned in the article.

    Trolleys: made for relative short hauls with stops every few blocks. Services the local businesses.

    LRT: stops are every few miles. Made for getting commuters downtown and servicing major employment, entertainment, and shopping centers.

    Heavy Rail: stops every 5 – 10 miles. Made for getting commuters between major population centers.

    A lot of people say the southwest line should be run through Uptown to catch that retail and population hub, but what they really need there is a trolley to support the local establishments. Conversely, a trolley isn’t the best fit for the SW line as it would take an hour or more to get commuters from Eden Prairie to downtown. Light rail is a much better fit for that situation.

    • Submitted by Elliot Altbaum on 07/19/2013 - 12:36 pm.

      Different modes for different needs

      I get your point that LRT and trolleys have different goals, but I don’t think they are so far different they couldn’t be reconciled in this case.
      The goal of getting large numbers of commuters from LRT is diminished when you miss all of the commuters in Upton by by-passing it in the current LRT route.

    • Submitted by Alan Burden on 07/20/2013 - 10:43 pm.

      Mass Transit

      Todd,

      You’re confusing Heavy Rail and Commuter Rail. Heavy Rail equals Subways & L’s, like NYC’s Subway or Chicago’s L. Heavy Rail can have stops that approach 5 miles apart, but typically are less than that. Commuter Rail (Northstar) is what has stops 5 to 10 miles or further apart and is used to bring people from the farthest burbs.

      To some extent, light rail is sort of a cross between Heavy Rail and the Trolley/Streetcar. It has stops further apart like Heavy Rail and can carry more people, but it can mix with traffic like the Streetcar.

  8. Submitted by Elliot Altbaum on 07/19/2013 - 12:26 pm.

    On the right track

    Marlys proposes a good idea without fully fleshing out the details or truly explaining why a streetcar would be better. Maybe a streetcar would be the cheaper alternative but that is not the best argument for a change in the route.

    The current LRT route doesn’t get near to many high population or work density areas within Minneapolis. The best reason for a streetcar approach is that it will make its way through Uptown. It is one of the fastest growing population centers withing Minneapolis. All the young urban professionals moving into Uptown might even work at Opus or in the Golden Triangle. It would be short sighted for the SWLRT to pass Uptown and all of the development between Hennepin and Lyndale and Lake and Franklin. A upgrading of mass transit will need to happen in this area within the coming decade anyways so why not do it now? It will be cheaper to do one project now than one now and another in a decade.

    Some will argue that travel times to the suburbs will be slower. Some of that could be alleviated by more limited stops: Uptown Station, 25th, Franklin, and then the Walker/Loring Park. Second it would facilitate the ability of people living in the suburbs to do their shopping on the way home form work.

    Let’s make the SWLRT good for the both the city and the suburbs, not just the suburbs.

    • Submitted by Elliot Altbaum on 07/23/2013 - 03:22 pm.

      Found the documents from the MetCouncil

      When I reviewed the documents outlining all of the alternatives to the current path, none were particularly good. The current path makes the most sense. I understand that a different method of mass transit will go through Uptown or Nicollet. Until something better does go down Hennepin a circulator that goes from the Uptown Station to the closest station on the green line could help lessen the traffic load on Hennepin.
      Others have made the good point that North MPLS has too often been slighted and this is a worthy development. Thank you to the fellow contributors for shifting my perspective.

  9. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 07/19/2013 - 01:00 pm.

    Options

    I wish I could find a specific citation to back this up, but I’ve read previously that the cost of building LRT will only increase. If that’s correct, the “build it later,” idea will end up being more costly.

    As to the streetcar instead of LRT on the SW corridor, I’m not sure that’s as viable either, though it would depend on the precise details of what you’re proposing. As I understand the proposal, the SW corridor would be an extension of the Green Line (aka Central Corridor) so that you could get on a train in downtown Eden Prairie and not get off until you get to Union Station in St. Paul. The studies justifying the construction of the SW corridor presumably demonstrate some need/demand for this.

    If you’re talking about running a separate streetcar line instead of the SW corridor, then you’d have to get off in downtown Minneapolis and get on the LRT to make that trip. If you’re talking about running the light rail track down Hennepin and use the same Green Line rolling stock but just change the right-of-way, I’d be for it but I don’t know if it’s politically tenable.

  10. Submitted by Eric Saathoff on 07/19/2013 - 02:03 pm.

    Transit Method Purposes

    “Trolleys: made for relative short hauls with stops every few blocks. Services the local businesses.

    LRT: stops are every few miles. Made for getting commuters downtown and servicing major employment, entertainment, and shopping centers.

    Heavy Rail: stops every 5 – 10 miles. Made for getting commuters between major population centers.”

    What about subways like in Paris? Some heavy rail is for much more frequent service than every 10 miles. These different systems seem to be more interchangeable than this statement purports.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/19/2013 - 03:00 pm.

      Rail

      They’re meant primarily as a guideline, not as a hard and fast rule. It gets down to what your goals are: do you want to move a lot of people quickly over long distances (express service) or make frequent stops for local service? The type of vehicle you use will be a function how many passengers you need to move on a typical run. I haven’t checked to see what Paris uses for rolling stock, but the double decker units we use here probably wouldn’t fit through their subway tunnels.

      I have to imagine that while the Uptown users would love to have frequent local stops on an LRT line, the people who come from farther west wouldn’t like it that they quickly get 90% of to downtown and then have spend a lot of time stopping every other block. At that point we’re mixing service types–local and express–which won’t make anyone happy. If you want local service, then build a line for that. And if you want express service, then you need a separate line for that one too.

  11. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 07/19/2013 - 02:52 pm.

    My suggestion

    North Mpls gets Penn and Van White stations, but the line goes west to West End with future extensions to 169 (Metropoint/General Mills) and Rosedale. This becomes the actual Green Line Extension.

    Southwest LRT becomes the Red Line (oh wait, we wasted that color) and routes via 29th and Nicollet, and across the bridge to the famous White Castle northern terminus with future extensions north on Central and/or northeast towards Rosedale. This would be grade separated from 29th St to Northeast with the exception of running across the Hennepin Ave bridge.

    This would use the new Streetcar TIF funds to accomplish it (since, after all, many European cities use LRVs as “trams” so this replaces the streetcar). Since we’d likely end up keeping local buses with the streetcar plan, even this would be wash- we’d still keep buses at grade on Nicollet, although with aBRT amenities. Buses could stay at grade on the mall portion, or could be routed to Hennepin or Marq2 so Nicollet Mall can become a fully-pedestrianized piazza above the new underground transit spine.

  12. Submitted by THOMAS MAUS on 07/19/2013 - 04:17 pm.

    My 1954 memories of clackety-clack streetcars

    As a kid living on Stinson Boulevard in NE Minneapolis, I fondly recall riding the streetcar to go downtown. I was very surprised when all the streetcars suddenly – or so it seemed – just disappeared. But if bringing them back means delaying the expansion of LRT by many years, and adding new costs, I oppose it. Rather than driving, or riding those awful buses, I’d like to enjoy a light rail service connecting the western metro area to downtown Saint Paul.

  13. Submitted by Merton Backlund on 07/19/2013 - 06:56 pm.

    Monorail Systems

    I haven’t heard anything about a monorail system since the proposal to build one in St. Paul was scrapped years ago. It seems to me a monorail system would be less expensive (at least compared to digging tunnels), wouldn’t necessarily take away a traffic lane, could easily follow freeways where need be, and would be as fast or faster than LRT. Maybe it has been considered. Just wondering.

  14. Submitted by David Greene on 07/19/2013 - 10:02 pm.

    Wrong, wrong, wrong

    Marlys, I am usually not one to scathingly criticize, but this article demonstrates a shocking ignorance of the project for someone purported to focus on urban development issues.

    The line is “rebranded” the Green Line because it is an extension of the Green Line. It’ll be a one seat ride all the way from Eden Prairie to Union Depot. A streetcar is a non-starter because it would require a transfer, defeating the point of a Central Corridor extension.

    Bypassing Kenilworth (it’s a freight rail corridor, not a neighborhood) means leaving North Minneapolis behind. Again. No Royalston, Van White or Penn stations. Royalston is a huge reverse commute generator for the line and the Van White station is central to Ryan Co.’s Basset Creek development. Penn also has some interesting development opportunities. I am not willing to further disinvest in North. That’s an equity non-starter.

    And no, it’s *not* a 32% cost increase. We’re not going to do a deep-bore tunnel. At best we will do a shallow tunnel if there is a tunnel at all. That’s about a 10% budget increase and we take that budget hit no matter where we route it. A shallow tunnel saves homes and that’s why we’d do it.

    We’d have at least double the budget increase by trying to ram this thing through Uptown with questionable benefit over current transit service, much less the improved aBRT and/or streetcar service planned for the area. Past analyses demonstrated that clearly.

    • Submitted by Michael Liquori on 07/23/2013 - 05:37 pm.

      I agree. The longer you wait, the more expensive things are getting. Interest rates are going up, inflation is picking up. Just get the thing done, it has been through a very, very long process already.

      I was hoping for a different routing too, but let’s not delay this any further.

  15. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 07/19/2013 - 10:47 pm.

    Look again at the picture

    Did anyone notice the ice and snow?

  16. Submitted by Bjorn Awel on 07/20/2013 - 11:12 am.

    A correction is needed. Streetcars did not run on East Calhoun Parkway. They had their own right of way above the bank around the lake and this is still there today as a sort of trail. The closest they came to the parkway was between the parkway and the cemetery where the historic line runs today.

    Just to add also, the travel time reduction of a streetcar in place of the light rail would make the project unfeasible. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a streetcar or bus improvements connecting uptown and other areas. In fact, I think that is the city’s plan.

    I think David makes some good points about development opportunities in N. Minneapolis around Basset Creek. In the end, it really isn’t worth second guessing the entire project too much but instead to move forward with the most feasible option. The line will not be a white elephant given the ridership projections, it will carry more people per day than the hiawatha corridor given the demand and congestion.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/20/2013 - 10:39 pm.

      SW LRT

      You can certainly count me in as one of the early adopters of the line. It’ll be a bit of a walk to the station, about 20 minutes, but a little exercise wouldn’t kill me.

      I noticed on the ride home yesterday a billboard at the intersection of Cedar Lake and Kennelworth trails looking for donations. They’re working to get an underpass built beneath the rail line so bikers and walkers can get through more easily. Total funds they’re looking for is $500,000.

  17. Submitted by Brian Lavelle on 07/21/2013 - 11:19 am.

    Bang for the Buck

    The lessons learned by Lerner’s team in Curitiba, Brazil were in how to accomplish great things with very little money. For example, boarding tubes were employed to enhance safety and maintain schedules. These are weather-proof structures, and lend to orderly on/off routines. This is much safer and cheaper than tunneling.

  18. Submitted by Marcus Nielson on 07/21/2013 - 01:05 pm.

    Wrong corridor for streetcars

    *There* are plans for a streetcar down Nicollet and the Midtown Greenway (and possibly continuing down East Lake), which to me are no-brainers to build (esp. if it fixes the Kmart mess)

    Running a streetcar to Eden Prairie would simply be way to slow especially if it mixes in traffic. This is mainly a commuting line not a local local access line.

  19. Submitted by David Greene on 07/22/2013 - 10:35 am.

    It Serves Minneapolis

    To those who say this line doesn’t service Minneapolis:

    Is downtown not a part of Minneapolis?

    What about all the people in North? Are they not part of Minneapolis?

    What assumptions are we making about who is part of Minneapolis and who “deserves” this line?

  20. Submitted by Erik Hare on 07/24/2013 - 09:56 pm.

    Good planning makes all the difference

    There is a place for LRT and a place for Streetcars. Other cities have not had the confusion between the two that has been foisted on us by the MetCouncil and their chosen transit planning firm URS – recently booted from the SW Corridor process.
    What is critical is the development of a system that uses appropriate technologies that respect the built urban landscape funneling into a fast, reliable backbone. That approach has not been used here – but there are many other cities that have done a very good job. The horror that was built on University Avenue should be a warning to everyone – and should not happen again.
    We should insist on better. There is a place for streetcars and we must consider them when appropriate. I fought for many years to have this part of the process on University, but sadly I lost. We can do better and learn from that sad mistake.

  21. Submitted by Courtney Kiernat on 07/25/2013 - 02:22 pm.

    kenilworth Greenway

    The Kenilworth Greenway is a transit corridor that runs through neighborhoods. It carries freight rail that has a temporary status and nearly a million bike riders each year. The changes proposed in the last two months to co-locate LRT and freight rail on Kenilworth is the issue that threatens to delay and increase the costs of this project. The neighborhood was in support of the project until a bait and switch occurred that keeps freight in place. The city of Minneapolis agreed to the alignment with the understanding that freight would not be there and the Kenilworth Greenway would remain a regional trail that connects Minneapolis parks, lakes and suburbs. As Hennepin County tax payers, we have a responsibility to demand that LRT be done right, respecting the environmental impact, safety issues and cost.

  22. Submitted by David Greene on 07/26/2013 - 09:11 am.

    Shallow Tunnel

    Courtney,

    A shallow tunnel under Kenilworth accomplishes all of the goals that you put forward. Visually the corridor will look very much as it does today. It seems like a good compromise to me.

    I am not willing to destroy people’s homes in St. Louis Park when we have an option that preserves everyone’s dwelling.

  23. Submitted by John Wexler on 08/03/2013 - 11:44 pm.

    Personal Rapid Transit- the 3rd Alternative

    We should consider Personal Rapid Transit. This would include a smaller public investment and reduce pollution.

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