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Highway battles of past can offer Southwest LRT solution

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
I-94 between Pascal and downtown St. Paul, looking east, August 1967.

Seeing an orchestra perform (as we used to do here in the Twin Cities) gives you hope for humanity. If a hundred or so people can get together to play instruments as various as flutes and trombones without lawsuits or recriminations, then maybe we do have a future.

Contemplating transportation planning is another story. So many actors — public officials from myriad jurisdictions, business groups, citizens and experts — with agendas that are poles apart can stall a project out or transform it into a misbegotten mess.

That’s my fear for the Southwest LRT, a necessary addition to the system, which now seems hopelessly bogged down. We’re faced with a Hobbesian choice between having the line running through a Minneapolis lakeside neighborhood or putting freight trains on a two-story high berm in St. Louis Park or tunneling underground, which would save everybody the hassle — for a mere half billion dollars, not to mention a lot of construction disruption. And, if we don’t hurry up and decide, the Twin Cities may lose its place in line for federal funding which will pay up to 50 percent of the cost.

So, I wanted to harken back to the past to see what it might have to say about this dilemma. And I immediately thought of the 28th Street Expressway, a highway proposed in the late 1960s to travel from downtown Minneapolis to Highway 7 by way of the isthmus between Lake Calhoun and Lake of the Isles.

As we all know, a freeway has the same effect on land as a broadsword has on flesh. With six 12-foot-wide lanes of traffic, plus another 30 feet for shoulders and a median, both lakes and their surrounding parkland would have become wastelands, unusable, polluted and ugly. Obviously, the decision not to build it was sound. So how did all the conflicting interests come together to make that happen — or in this case, not happen?

Well, sad to say, I still don’t know. It seems as though the idea just got dropped at some point. But in my research, I came across “Politics and Freeways: Building the Twin Cities Interstate System,” a 2006 doctoral dissertation by Patricia Cavanaugh, who is now an assistant professor at Carleton College in Northfield. It made me think that when it comes to transportation planning, slow may be the way to go.

Freeway building, Cavanaugh says, took place in three time frames: 1) the era of the mega project, from 1956 when Congress authorized the interstate highway program to the late 1960s; 2) an “expansion of debate” period, from 1970 to 1990, when the government started requiring highway designers to produce environmental impact statements and give voice to community groups; and 3) the era of “falling behind,” which starts in the ‘90s and continues to this day, thanks to stingy public funding, anti-tax sentiment and disillusion with government enterprises.

Progress and prosperity

In the era of the mega-project, there was broad consensus that federal highways would lead to progress and prosperity. In Minnesota, public officials assumed that the Interstates would invigorate downtown business (not really understanding that what could whoosh people into the city could also whoosh them out to the suburbs) and, when coupled with federal urban renewal programs, remove blight.

Elected officials readily acceded to the expertise of engineers whose efforts produced I-94 connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul, I-35W and the Highway 62 Crosstown Expressway. Planning for projects back then was rushed to completion; states had only one year to get cost estimates to the Department of Public Roads to capture as quickly as possible federal funds, which would pay for 90 percent of construction costs.

That wholesale acceptance of professional expertise — and hurry — produced two notable botches. First was the wholesale destruction of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul. I-94’s path was to run along St. Anthony Avenue, its main drag, and even though another route to the north came under consideration, Minnesota Highway Department officials made it clear that there was no time for disputes. The result of the freeway project: one-eighth of the African-Americans in St. Paul lost their homes and black-owned businesses went under and never came back. “What formerly had been a vibrant mixed community became primarily black and economically depressed,” writes Cavanaugh.

Interestingly, the wealthier Merriam neighborhood, on the western edge of St. Paul, got an interchange switch from Prior Avenue, where it would have run through a Catholic school, hospital and two colleges, to change to Cretin, largely because the Archbishop of St. Paul threatened to take his case to Washington.

The second mess was the I-35/62 Crosstown Commons, which would connect Fort Snelling and Highway 100. The result, which married the high-speed Interstate with a local highway, requiring cars to weave back and forth, turned it into what state troopers called “Blood Alley.”

“The tension between building a high-speed limited access freeway and the needs for local access in the neighborhoods through which it travels has resulted in compromise designs, inadequate capacity and disgruntlement all around,” wrote one public official after it was built. The two highways were finally separated a couple of years ago at a cost of $288 million.

In Era 2, citizens, having witnessed what freeway construction did to urban neighborhoods, ramped up participation. And they managed to stop the worst of the worst and improve things somewhat. A dedicated group of local residents opposed the construction of a North Ring freeway, which would have traveled from Johnson Street and I-35W on the east to I-94 on the west, pretty much gutting the now artsy Northeast.

The road would have nicely completed a ring of highways around the city and supposedly ease traffic pressure on the Lowry tunnel to the south, which would, according to business interests, “save downtown.” The Minneapolis City Council approved the plan in 1971, but the I-35 Concerned Citizens Committee lobbied for eight years, catching the attention of U.S. Sen. Walter Mondale and Rep. Don Fraser, who helped convince then-Transportation Secretary John Volpe to halt funding for the project “pending further study” in 1972.

From then on, it was all downhill. Gradually, the road lost the support of the city, the Legislature and the governor. It was delisted from the federal system in 1978.

Winners and losers

Winners and losers in other freeway battles weren’t so clear. The creation of the I-35 link to downtown St. Paul (I-35E) in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s provoked the ire of citizens groups, some of whom merely lived on a bluff overlooking what would become the highway. Armed with new tools made available under the National Environmental Protection Act to require impact assessments, they won a moratorium on construction but were labeled “eco-freaks” by pro-highway groups who felt that downtown St. Paul needed a high-speed link to the suburbs. The project became mired in lawsuits.

Eventually, then Gov. Rudy Perpich turned the project over to St. Paul, and after a final legal defeat, the major citizens’ group, RIP 35E, worked out a compromise with the city — a parkway, with a connection to I-94 that managed to preserve the surrounding neighborhood. The ribbon-cutting ceremony didn’t take place until 1990, 26 years after construction first started. Cavanaugh notes:

If the measure of a successful compromise is that no one is totally happy with the result, then the I-35E link was a success. Members of RIP 35E and other neighborhood freeway opponents were unhappy because there was a direct link with I-94. Dakota County residents were unhappy because they wanted a high-speed freeway. Truckers were unhappy because they could not use the route…Yet, the result was undeniably innovative, drawing interest from highway engineers from around the United States.

The development of Highway 12 (Wayzata Boulevard) into I-394 was also messy — one citizen group campaigned with the slogan “It will make an alley out of Golden Valley” — and lasted from 1968, when the route was first listed as a potential Interstate project, until 1991, when the eastbound lanes opened. In those years, reports Cavanaugh, public opinion surveys showed an increasing interest on the part of Twin Cities residents developing in mass transit.

Somewhere along the way, agreement formed that if the former Wayzata Boulevard was to turn into an Interstate, there would have to be accompanying light rail or bus rapid transit projects to supplement it. Some wanted the LRT to run in the middle of the highway (that would have been my preference); others wanted it to run along Highways 55 and 7 (which would have become the Southwest LRT).

The result of all the negotiation, lawsuits and endless environmental impact statements was a freeway with: High Occupancy Vehicle lanes that accept car pools and buses; park-and-ride lots to accommodate car-poolers; and bus stations for commuters.

The Metropolitan Transit Commission wasn’t allocated enough money to buy all the buses it needed; so in its early days the highway was backed up from downtown to Louisiana Avenue. By 1993, however, ridership in the HOV lanes had already met its year 2000 goal; half of those in rush-hour traffic were in carpools or buses. (Those HOV lanes have since become High Occupancy Toll lanes, which allow for a kind of congestion pricing. The greater the amount of traffic, the more a single-occupancy driver pays.) The highway became a nationally recognized model of multi-modal transportation.

If there’s any takeaway from all this, it’s that the contentiousness and foot-dragging can pay off in a better outcome — not the best engineering solution perhaps, but something that really works. So it should go with the Southwest LRT. If we step back, maybe we’ll find some better options than what we’ve got now. 

Comments (36)

  1. Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 09:58 am.

    Get You Facts Right!

    The tunnel option is *not* half a billion dollars. It is $150 million for a shallow tunnel.

    My God, there’s so much misinformation being spread about this line I’m starting to think it’s a deliberate campaign to kill it.

    Does it really take that much effort to double-check your statements?

  2. Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 10:05 am.

    Better Options

    I’m all for better options on SW LRT as long as:

    1) The Penn, Van White and Royalston stations stay

    2) It gets built in a reasonable time frame

    We’ve been waiting three decades for this line. It will, for the first time, connect Near North neighborhoods that have the highest unemployment in the city to jobs in the southwest suburbs. It is an absolute game-changer for North Minneapolis.

    But of course no one is talking about that. They’re just worried about a “park” that has been a freight rail corridor for over a century and a designated transitway for decades.

    I know which one is more important to me.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Steele on 08/13/2013 - 11:30 am.

    David, the misinformation was actually in the planning docs. 1000 daily boardings at 21st St for 3A, but only a hundred more at Lagoon/Hennepin? Oh and let’s not forget that $100m typo from last year.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 09:09 pm.

      Prove It

      Matthew, as I have said before, prove the numbers are wrong. They are the only numbers the feds care about.

      3A and 3C were projected to have about the same ridership. I don’t find that particularly surprising given the transit that already exists in Uptown and the lack of transit along the 3A alignment.

  4. Submitted by Christopher Williams on 08/13/2013 - 01:43 pm.

    It’s hip to be slow!

    All of the Minneapolis mayoral candidates, and now these reporters are suddenly urging us to slow down. This has been great propaganda. Somehow, the people that want this thing killed have managed to slowly convince everyone that we’re rushing into things, and wouldn’t it be better to slow down and plan this out?

    As if that wasn’t already the case, and we were staring down a raging locomotive trampling our property rights!

    This thing has been in development for over 10 years. How much more feet dragging do you propose? The line was proposed in the 80’s. The impact studies were done and completed over a decade ago. Line alignments proposed 7-8 years ago with a 5 year study period. The finalized line option over 3 years ago. We already have our place in line for the federal money. Are we really proposing to re-do all of this work all over again? NO ONE is going to find a magic bullet that pleases all parties. It just won’t happen.

    I mean, unless “slow it down and do it right” is a secret euphemism for “do it my way or kill it”, I really think you’re being disingenuous. Traffic is horribly congested now and getting worse. Taking another decade to study this isn’t going to help anyone. There will always, always, be someone declaring NIMBY!

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/13/2013 - 04:06 pm.


      While the overall LRT project has been in process for a long time, it’s only in the past year that we’ve seen some concrete details come out. And really only in the past few weeks that a 23′ berm needs to be built through St. Louis Park. So to say that it’s been studied to death for ten years is a little bit of a stretch. Yes, the line was finalized three years ago. No, it did not include the level of detail that we’re looking at today. And that’s simply the way these sorts of projects go. As they move along the engineers do studies in ever greater detail, getting down from the 30,000′ level to the nuts and bolts at 5′.

      No one, with the exception of some Republicans, are saying to kill the project. Most people want it to go through, but not as an abomination. While we won’t be able to make everyone happy, I’m sure with a little more discussion and compromise we can work out a plan that the majority can live with. That’s just part of the messy process of democracy.

      Personally, i think we need a dedicated funding source for rail so we can get planning and construction rolling for several lines at once instead of this ridiculous piece meal process. Banging out one line every ten or twenty years is just too darn slow.

  5. Submitted by Christian Franken on 08/13/2013 - 03:12 pm.

    Sadly, NIMBY battles will almost always be won by those with the most political power (which corresponds more often than not to those having the deepest pockets). The examples cited by the author, including the Rondo neighborhood and the Calhoun-Lake of the Isles isthmus are good illustrations. Unfortunately, she fails to fully acknowledge the relationship between (un)successful citizen action and political clout. Maybe in another article?

  6. Submitted by Marlys Harris on 08/13/2013 - 03:27 pm.

    A half billion

    David is partly right. I was thinking of the deep tunnel, which would raise the price of the project by $320 million—not a half billion. And that’s in current $$ With an inflation rate of almost 2 percent, it’ll be $325 million next year.

    Still, if a project isn’t done right—for example, if the Southwest LRT doesn’t get a decent ridership because the route isn’t running through the most populated areas, fixing it or running it at huge losses will cost much, much more than increases due to inflation.

    Thanks for reading.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 08:53 pm.

      Keep Digging

      Marlys, did you even read my follow-up?

      This is not just about ridership. This line is the best equity producing project we have in the state. It’s way more important to a lot of us to connect North Minneapolis, which doesn’t have halfway decent transit to the southwest, to the jobs in that corridor than to connect Uptown, which already has pretty decent transit.

      Doing this line “right” means different things to different people and I wish you could respect that.

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/13/2013 - 03:57 pm.


    I’m personally not convinced Uptown is a good fit for LRT and vice versa. True, Uptown has a lot of people, but I think those people mostly want to move within the area, not out to Eden Prairie. It seems to me that Uptown would be better served with something that makes short trips and frequent stops, such as a street car that links east and west Lake Street rather than an LRT that stops once or twice in Uptown before moving downtown or off to the ‘burbs.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 09:11 pm.


      That is in fact exactly what is under study along with arterial BRT on Hennepin. This would serve Uptown a lot better than LRT.

    • Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 08/13/2013 - 11:18 pm.

      Actually, Uptown residents DO want to go in both LRT directions

      You’ll have to scroll down quite a ways, but there are two maps in this post showing where people along SWLRT want to go — the first to downtown, the second to the Golden Triangle. Turns out that Uptown is where those people are.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/15/2013 - 04:32 pm.


        I see what you’re driving at, although the maps show population density, not where people want to go. In the map of the Uptown area, the most dense residential neighborhoods are just south of downtown and are already well served by buses. Wouldn’t a street car also serve to get those workers downtown?

        The red route through the greenway is good for a train, but when the route makes a 90° to head north it looks like the author just drew a line through the center of neighborhoods. There isn’t a rail corridor in that area and we can imagine how upset people would be if the line ran up Hennepin or Lyndale. Just look at the impact the line has running near Hiawatha–not even on it. You would lose a couple of lanes of traffic as well as on street parking. Shoot, just look at all the people who are worked up about the train going down University.

        I’m still not convinced LRT would be the right fit for Uptown. Some type of train, yes. Like street cars, which are smaller, make more frequent stops, and are easier to intermingle with car traffic.

  8. Submitted by Mary Jo Iverson on 08/13/2013 - 06:45 pm.

    Southwest LRT is Great

    SAINT LOUIS PARK, you are good enough, smart enough and love your neighborhood. Put the Southwest LRT underground and you will never regret it.

    LOOK TO MINNEHAHA PARK if you wish to see how a large project can cut a neighborhood off from it’s resources. If the Highway 55 Reroute and LRT had been put underground, today we would have our fabled Minnehaha Park Oaks, a lot of green space and the neighborhood one with Minnehaha Park.

    AND, ABOUT THE PRICE TAG OF GOING UNDERGROUND, ask MNDOT what was the real cost of arguing about the Highway 55 Reroute through Minnehaha Park. If the 55 project had gone underground there wouldn’t have been any arguing, unfortunately activists did not realize it was an option.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 09:13 pm.

      Not an Option

      The only place where a tunnel will be an option is in the Kenilworth corridor. It is far too expensive to bury the line for any longer distance. I can argue strongly against even a Kenilworth tunnel and for doing a simply reroute of the bike trail but I’m willing to compromise in order to get this project done. We needed it a decade ago.

  9. Submitted by John DeWitt on 08/13/2013 - 08:50 pm.

    Why Uptown is not a good fit for SW LRT

    In my years watching the SW LRT project, I’ve observed that most people promoting the Uptown alignment either live in Uptown or live along the Kenilworth corridor and want light rail anyplace else.

    SW LRT is not a good fit for Uptown for a number of reasons.

    1) Uptown is served with one of the densest transit networks in the Twin Cities and it’s well used. There simply are not a lot of new riders that can be squeezed out. Most existing riders live near a bus stop and it’s questionable if they’d walk blocks out of their way to for a short train ride rather than a short bus ride.

    2) SW LRT really can’t replace Uptown bus routes so no money to be saved there. Most bus routes serving this area extend far beyond Uptown, think Southdale, so they still need to be run.

    3) Bus routes could be shortened by terminating them at Uptown, Lyndale or Nicollet and forcing a transfer to LRT but this would result in more bus traffic circulating through already congested neighborhoods while improving no one’s ride.

    It’s really about the network.

    The only significant employment cluster in south Minneapolis is the Allina/Wells Fargo/Abbott-Northwestern complex with some 13-14,000 jobs, fives times that of Uptown. In addition, the neighborhoods east of Nicollet include some of the most transit dependent in Minneapolis.

    Metro Transit is currently conducting a Midtown Corridor Alternatives Analysis that’s been narrowed to enhanced bus on Lake Street and streetcar in the Midtown Greenway. Either one would connect SW LRT to Hiawatha LRT and serve every major node on Lake Street between the two light rail lines as well as link to BRT on 35W. Minneapolis’ proposed Nicollet-Central streetcar line would serve Nicollet from 46th Street to downtown Minneapolis. The strength of this network would serve Minneapolis far better than any single light rail line could.

    LRT is a regional investment funded by the FTA, the state, and the 5 countries making up CTIB. If SW LRT is just about Minneapolis, support from the counties is questionable. 75% of the residents of Hennepin County do not live in Minneapolis.

    At an early Hiawatha meeting, maybe 1999, a Minneapolis legislator stated “I don’t care if any of those white collar suburbanites ride this train, it has to stop every block in Minneapolis.” I do care that they ride our trains as that’s what will keep Minneapolis the economic center of the upper Midwest. The reverse commute also links Minneapolis residents to jobs at the airport and in Bloomington and Eden Prairie.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 09:17 pm.

      Very Well Said

      As always, John, you bring the proper perspective.

      Southwest LRT is about much more than one line. I completely agree with John:

      “I do care that they ride our trains as that’s what will keep Minneapolis the economic center of the upper Midwest.”

  10. Submitted by Gary Cohen on 08/13/2013 - 08:55 pm.

    LRT down the 394 corridor….brings back memories

    As a city council candidate in Minneapolis in 1981, I along with a number of others spent many hours at Met Council hearings trying to get them to even consider the concept of a light rail line down the center of the I-394 corridor. We were basically laughed at during those meetings. Every time I look at the “sane lane” I just shake my head and dream of what could have been done versus what we ended up with.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 08/13/2013 - 09:16 pm.

      Not a Great Idea

      LRT in the middle of a freeway would be a huge missed opportunity. Such a project would not promote the kind of economic development that the current Southwest LRT alignment will bring. It might be an ok way to move people (prety pedestrian-unfriendly, though) but it’s not a good way to promote the kind of efficient development we need to have happen in our region.

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/14/2013 - 06:45 am.


        I agree that LRT down the middle of 394 would be problematic. While it would be convenient for construction to put the line there, one can only imagine how unpleasant it would be to get to the station in the middle of a noisy stinking highway in the middle of a windswept winter. Summer would be somewhat better, but the traffic noise would still drive people away.

      • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 08/14/2013 - 10:22 am.

        I know! Think of poor Chicago- such a sprawling, non-dense, non-urban, pedestrian unfriendly city. Too bad they have so many elevated rails and rails down the middle of freeways. That city could have really been something.

        • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/16/2013 - 10:21 am.

          Elevated Rails

          Did Chicago become a great city because of elevated rails down the middle of highways or in spite of this alignment? Would another alignment have been more economically beneficial to the region?

          I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer, but that there are trade-offs to consider here. The elevated rails on a freeway take up less space, but they’re harder for people to get to. A line off the freeway and on the ground is easier for people to access, but then it gobbles up real estate that could be used for an apartment building. You need to pick one that you think will work best for your area.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/20/2013 - 08:23 am.

        Elevated rails down 394

        I don’t think a 394 line would work well as a southwest corridor alignment but it would have been a great people mover. If people could’ve hopped on and got downtown in twenty minutes I don’t think would’ve been able to build park-n-rides fast enough.

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/14/2013 - 09:14 am.

    The 394 model?

    As a life time resident of St. Louis Park who’s been driving around here for 34 years I have to raise questions about the 394 portion of this article. For one thing, traffic on 394 has always and still does back up to Louisiana (and beyond in the morning rush hour). Congestion on 394 has never actually been relieved in any meaningful way.

    At the time of the rebuild they were deploying 20 year old technologies, i.e. HOV lanes and control lights on the entrance ramps, it was never a cutting edge design or application of new technologies.

    The problems aren’t necessarily design flaws, 394 falls victim to the law of traffic and sprawl, the more lanes you build the more cars you attract, you never build your way out of congestion. Sometimes there’s a short gap between the time a highway is expanded and the attending congestion but there was no such gap with 394, traffic always kept pace with the expansion.

    The HOV/Toll lane has a very dodgy history, and I simply don’t believe that 50% of the people traveling on 394 are in buses or in the HOV lane. There’s a pedestrian bridge just East of 100, go stand there and watch the traffic at rush hour and tell me only 50% of the traffic is in the normal lanes. You have to remember traffic goes both ways but the toll lane only goes one way at any given time. East of 100 you have 10 lanes with 2 toll lanes and West of 100 you 7 lanes with 1 toll lane. That toll lane is NEVER congested.

    The HOV/Toll lane’s history is dogy for several reasons. First, it was something of a flop as a straight forward HOV lane (limited to cars with two or more occupants). It didn’t relieve congestion at all and although it did promote car pooling to some extent, it never met projections. The failure of the HOV lane as a HOV lane led to discussion of the toll component in the first place because the HOV lane was being under-utilized.

    The toll component (letting single drivers pay to use the HOV lane) was a very murky affair. Originally it was a Pawlenty era financial scheme to make money on a highway lane. Republican lawmakers claimed that it would be a cash cow since the lane already existed and all we had to do was rake in the tolls. Those claims rested on two failed assumptions: 1st, that tens of thousands of drivers would flock to the tolls and 2nd, that the state would get the all the money. The problem is that the toll use lagged, it took years for the toll increase usage by 30%. The other problem was that in typical Republican fashion they outsourced the actually management of the toll collection to the oh-so efficient “private sector”, but not the lane maintenance. Originally some European (I think it was a French company) actually collected the tolls but was not responsible for maintaining the lanes or even the toll technology. Of course the contractor was paid to collect the tolls but you couldn’t find out how much they were being paid. Even then it took two years before MNDOT was claiming that the toll lane was breaking even, i.e. collecting enough to pay for itself. Of course we don’t know what that actually means, was it collecting enough to pay for the lane maintenance AND the profit margin for the contractor or was it just collecting enough to pay the contractor, or just the maintenance? It looked to me at the time like they were claiming that they were breaking even on the administrative costs, but road repair and maintenance was still coming out of the MNDOT budget.

    Today it’s almost impossible short of actually calling MNDOT (and good luck with that) to find out who’s administering those tolls, and what if any “profit” is being made. I kind of have a feeling that somewhere along the way MNDOT took over the administration (which in theory would lower the administrative costs) but I don’t think the financial aspect is anything to brag about… because MNDOT never brags about it. They’ll occasionally brag about how many drivers are using the toll lanes, but they NEVER talk about how much the tolls are contributing to the budget or offsetting maintenance costs like they were supposed to. I think if the toll lanes were the cash cow they were supposed to be we would have heard about it.

    MNDOT claims the the toll lane has increased over-all “throughput” on 394 by 4%. 4% in 7 years? That’s less than a percentage point a year. The claim that increased throughput can be attributed to the toll lanes is a statistically dogy claim depending on the assumptions you make. Listen: one suggestion at the time was to simply open up the HOV lanes to normal traffic, how do we know that wouldn’t have increased throughput even more?

    Those lanes are great for car poolers, they cut time in half. But they never really reduced over-all congestion. I don’t know who’s bragging about 394 being a “model” of some kind, but there must be shortage of models out there.

    • Submitted by David Greene on 08/14/2013 - 10:38 am.

      What is the Purpose?

      > Those lanes are great for car poolers, they cut time in half. But they never really reduced over-all
      > congestion.

      The question to ask here is, “what is the purpose of HOV/HOT lanes?” I agree that they do not reduce overall congestion. This is in fact the same argument ant-transit types make to justify cutting transit. I fully acknowledge that transit doesn’t decrease congestion.

      That’s not its purpose.

      The purpose of transit with a private right-of-way (and I would argue HOV/HOT lanes as well) is to provide people a choice to avoid the congestion entirely. In that view, the HOV/HOT lanes are a great success. They are never congested. If people choose not to use them, well, that’s their choice. Same with transit.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/14/2013 - 05:39 pm.

        Well “yes” and “no”

        I see your point David but it’s important to remember that 394 was not redesigned just to accommodate the HOVs, the redesign WAS supposed to benefit everyone, not just car-poolers. Second I didn’t say the HOVs failed because they didn’t relieve congestion, MNDOT decided they failed because they were underutilized. You had millions of dollars of road, a whole new big damn bridge running from Penn to downtown, and no one was using it… THAT’s why they converted it into a partial toll. I was responding to the claim in the article that congestion had eased at some point, it didn’t.

        Surely 394 moves more cars than old Hwy 12 ever could have, but sprawl just dumped more traffic into it and clogged it up. 394 was obsolete the day the last lane line was painted on it. This is just the nature of roads and traffic. It just surprises me to see that someone is pointing to this project as a “model” of something. I’m not saying it’s a “bad” road, but it can’t escape it’s nature. That claim that 50% of the people using 394 are car-poolers or bus riders is simply daft. For one thing, MNDOT has no way to count the number of people INSIDE vehicles, so what kinds of assumptions are being made to arrive at that claim?

        • Submitted by David Greene on 08/15/2013 - 05:53 am.

          I Agree

          Oh, I completely agree with everything you’ve said here. But I do object to the “Lexus Lanes” label used by some. People can always drive for free in the lanes if they carpool.

          We’ve completely overbuilt our freeway network and now we’re paying the maintenance price. And for what? More congestion from induced demand.

          • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/16/2013 - 10:16 am.


            I live in St. Louis Park just a few blocks from the freight rail line, a mile from a proposed LRT station, and I’ve driven highway 12 and 394 since the ’70s, and I drove the HOV lanes quite a bit in the 2000s. (I know I know…you kids get off my lawn.) So I have a bit of an invested interest in how transportation in the west metro plays out, although I’m not in toes deep like David is.

            It looks like the HOV lanes pull in $1.2 million a year in tolls. Whether or not that pays for the switch from the car pool to the single user system, I can’t say. Probably not though as this is most likely gross revenue and not net.


            Personally, I was pissed that they opened up the lanes to SOVs. My contention is that if people want to use the HOV lanes, then all they have to do is get one other person to ride in with them. That’s not a high bar to jump over. In other parts of the country you need three or even four people per vehicle to qualify as a carpool. It’s my recollection that one of the main purposes of the HOV lane was to encourage people to carpool and opening it up to single occupancy vehicles (SOV) took away a lot of that incentive. If people want to use the lanes, that’s cool: just get a freakin’ passenger. They’re stuck in traffic heading to downtown and all they have to do to find someone to ride with is look to their left and right–not that big of a stretch.

            While the HOV lanes haven’t eliminated congestion, they certainly have reduced it. There are times when traffic backs up on 394 due to people trying to get off at the 12th Street exit downtown, stoppering up the HOV lane too. There can be a substantial number of cars and buses backing up all the way down the HOV lane, all the way to Penn Avenue in some cases. Now imagine all those cars and buses packed in with the regular traffic instead of the HOV lane.

            People complain about the HOV lane because it looks like no one is using it, but that’s simply because the cars are whisked along instead of getting queued up. They don’t see how many cars, buses, and people are being moved along because traffic isn’t stacked up like the regular lanes for them to sit there and count. Just looking at the express bus that goes through my area, there are eleven runs they generally carry from 60 – 105 people per bus, translating into 660 – 1155 per rush hour. And that’s just for one bus line that uses the 394 corridor. Imagine how much more congested the regular lanes would be if all those people drove SOVs instead of taking the bus.

            To be sure, even if we didn’t have the HOV lanes the buses would still roll and people would still take them. But there would be some people who wouldn’t bother with the bus if it’s not any faster than driving in themselves.

            Switching topics, one of my biggest complaints about highways is they’re underutilized. We build these large ribbons of concrete to try and handle peak capacity for a few hours around rush hour. While not idle the rest of the time, they are certainly underutilized. It’s a system that doesn’t work well when you want it to and is too big the rest of the time.

            Yes, an LRT line is expensive at a billion dollars. But how much money have we spent on highways? Hundreds of billions? Trillions? And it’s got us a system that creaks and groans at the best of times, costs us too much money to maintain, is an eyesore, and is obsolete the moment a new section is opened. It’s way past time to give a few other transit options like rails and trails a try to see what they can do.

            Sorry, man. I got on a soap box and now the post is TLTR as the kids say: too long to read.

    • Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 08/14/2013 - 12:11 pm.

      The Lexus Lane scam

      Politicians had no interest in the cost versus revenue for turning the HOV lane into one which SOVs can use it for a price. Under no possible scenario could that make money, considering the initial cost of the diamond lane. It can’t even cover the costs of the modifications and service for its use as a toll lane. It’s a complete perversion of the purpose of a diamond lane, which is to make things better for everyone by rewarding socially-beneficial behavior, ie, sharing rides with others either on transit or in personal vehicles.

      It’s simply a mechanism for well-heeled people who live on Lake Minnetonka not to be impacted by congestion on their way to and from their high-income employment in downtown Minneapolis. It’s just an extension of the old mentality of using cities to make money, then having congestion-free, smooth highways to whisk one away to some verdant retreat. Since the masses bought into that and traffic became a nightmare, they needed a way to keep that arrangement alive for certain people. They’re now building one for people in North Oaks and Dellwood, widening I-35E and cutting off bike routes on St. Paul’s East Side.

      The whole idea came from Robert Poole, founder of the libertarian Reason Foundation. A lot of confused people buy into it because it’s been branded as a form of “congestion pricing”.

      • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 08/15/2013 - 10:05 am.

        And now we’ve hit the nail on the head. The HOV lane works if people want to car pool. That the lane is not deemed successful might indicate people don’t. Similar arguments were used to build the Central Corridor- it is supposed to free up congestion because people will want to live in a more dense location and give up their cars. We’ll see, but the Hiawatha line is not successful because people gave up cars. It has park and ride locations, which I suspect helps.

        To do something right may increase success of a project. First step is to actually do something people want.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/18/2013 - 11:41 am.


        They may not have had an interest, but that’s exactly how they sold it. I actually called into Midmorning one time when a Republican was on the show claiming that turning the lane over to a private company (kind of) would save money and make it cheaper.. yeah he actually the lane would be cheaper for taxpayers.

  12. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 08/15/2013 - 01:04 pm.

    Benefits of HOT/Lexus Lanes by income

    There is scant hard data on this topic, which should be a red flag from the outset.

    RFF, though, did a study of the lanes in DC and calculated the “welfare change” (ie, benefit before subtracting toll costs) of these lanes by income quartile.

    Top: 54.7%
    Bottom: 2.9%

    So, the richest receive 19x the benefits that the poorest do. Ergo, the term “Lexus Lanes” is more than apt.

    What’s even more telling is if one subtracts the cost of tolls from the welfare change. Now the top quartile gets 62% of the benefits and the bottom actually loses 1%.

    See Table 6 in the following:

    Most “studies” are really promotional pieces and they tend to focus on opinion surveys instead of actual measurement of usage and benefit. The toss-off line is “everyone benefits” then often the anecdote of the poor working mother late to day care is offered as an example. Of course, this is actually never quantified by measuring to see how much such usage actually occurs.

    One could easily measure these things directly, through the agencies managing them, or even do video surveys over a period of time and comparing make and models of the SOVs versus the average US car fleet to see the disparity. Or plate data could be linked back to residences and then home values, which are a strong proxy for income and wealth.

    People carpooling and taking transit already benefited from the I394 lane before it was tolled, so they actually do worse with SOVs added to their lane. It’s a public road built with public tax dollars, using government power of eminent domain to purchase the right-of-way. People are certainly free to build private roadways and charge for them, but doing so would be extremely cost-prohibitive, especially into an urban core. That’s why they get the government to do it for them.

    The argument that there’s underutilized road capacity, like on I394, isn’t really relevant, since there are any number of different metrics which could be used to grant people access to the lanes besides ability/willingness to pay. It could be the fuel economy or emissions of the vehicle, it could be given to parents driving children, it could be allocated randomly, it could be given to teachers, etc. Money is a red herring, since it’s a value judgment about who should get the benefit and also since these things don’t pay for themselves in the least.

    It gets even more absurd when widening highways to create these lanes, as obviously the total marginal reduction in congestion (for the limited time it might last) would be spread equally among all commuters and would result in better total flow than having a segmented lane, which has some congestive effects getting to and from it.

    Even if one wished to preference certain vehicle choices or payment into a special lane that’s been added to a highway, it still gets back to who should get that preference and why. Before this HOT/Lexus lane thing started, diamond lanes rewarded transit and carpoolers because that’s more people in a fixed amount of space and thus less fuel and emissions – and congestion – compared to if they were in SOVs.

    The last argument, that people aren’t using transit or carpooling enough, begs the question as to whether the government is doing enough to incent people to use transit or carpool, which has a lot to do with funding choices. It’s not some natural phenomenon.

  13. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/16/2013 - 09:09 am.

    The other Lexus angle…

    Another thing that hasn’t actually been discussed is the fact that all of these Hwy’s were designed to accommodate sprawl, not relieve city congestion. 394 for instance was designed primarily for commuters who live West of 169 or 494. There’s was very little in the new design that made it faster or easier for people from St. Louis Park and Golden Valley, but if you’re coming in from Orono or Minnetonka you can settle into a lane and ride in. I would bet a dollar that the majority of toll payers are coming in from beyond 169, and even the buses from that area are express buses that can slide into HOV lane and cruise into downtown. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that an express bus ride from Ridgedale is faster than an express bus ride from the Louisiana Transit Center for instance, or least just as fast. My wife carpools from St. Louis Park to the Capital every day and they risk their lives crossing 4 lanes of congested traffic just to get into the HOV lane. They almost got smooshed by a couple buses the other day.

    It was kind of funny a few years ago when anti-transit State Senator Dick Day got MNDOT to turn off the traffic control lights on the entrance ramps for a month; the effect was to screw up his own exoburban constituents. If you look at those entrance ramp systems you see that the number of lights, and the waiting times increase the closer you get the city. The practical effect is that people who live closer get stuck waiting for traffic lights while people coming in from further out drive by. When they turned off the lights it completely reversed that process putting the people who live closer to the city on the road in front of drivers coming in from further out. People like me thought it was great, our commutes all got shorter, but Day’s constituents cried bloody hell and wanted the lights turned back on. Guess what, the lights went back on, albeit with shorter waiting times… supposedly. It was funny because Day thought he was going to demonstrate how stupid MNDOT is but it blew kind of up in his face as far as his own constituents were concerned.

    At any rate these roads are designed to get drivers into the city from further out, they don’t do a lot for drivers who already live here. You’re better off driving into downtown St. Paul from Wisconsin than you coming from St. Louis Park.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/16/2013 - 02:14 pm.

      So True

      These days I ride my bike from St. Louis Park to downtown Minneapolis for work due to a variety of reasons. But one of them is that it’s faster. The morning commute usually isn’t too bad as I can usually work 394 to get through in about half an hour, the same time it takes to bike in. But the afternoon commute has become a nightmare, typically taking 40 – 50 minutes to get through and 60 – 90 minutes on some of the worst days.

      The bike, by contrast, is 25 – 30 minutes, and that’s for a middle aged guy who’s old and slow riding an old mountain bike. I’m thinking about getting a road bike in a couple of years as that will probably shave ten plus minutes off the commute.

      Highways are great for moving people quickly across vast distances, but for short hauls they don’t work so well due to the volume of traffic and various bottlenecks in the system.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/17/2013 - 09:50 am.

        Way to get to the Twin Stadium as well that bike path is

        I always tell people who live around here that the bike is the best way to get to Twins games as well. I’m not a Twins fan but that stadium has the most bike racks of any stadium in the country and in twenty five minutes you’re there and at the gate, no parking, no traffic crunch coming or going. That section between stadium and the new bridge can be a little spooky at in the dark but after games it’s well traveled and well lit.

        Todd, get a highbred, not a road bike. It will be just as fast for you and it will be more comfortable, and safer. The problem with road bikes is the handle bars and the brake location, unless you ride with your hands on the brake hoods at all times you have to reposition your hands to reach the brakes and I think that’s getting people crashed.

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