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Southwest light-rail route: The wise transit choice may not be the popular one — yet

There’s weeping and gnashing of teeth in some quarters of Minneapolis over an advisory panel’s recommendation that the planned Southwest light-rail transit (LRT) line bypass the busy Uptown area in favor of a more direct route to Eden Prairie on existing trail right-of-way along Cedar Lake.

The Hennepin County Board and the Metropolitan Council have yet to weigh in with final route decisions, but every indication points toward the Cedar Lake alignment, called 3A, from the Target Field multimodal transit station to a jobs-rich area of the southwest suburbs. Despite resistance from some south Minneapolitans, that is probably the wisest choice. Here’s why:

Cost. Building 3A would run $250 million to $700 million less than Uptown routes via the heart of downtown Minneapolis, which require costly tunneling. Operating costs also come in $2 million to $6 million a year lower for 3A, according to Hennepin County’s feasibility studies.

Ridership. 3A attracts as many or more riders (up to 30,000 a day by 2030) than the Uptown routes, the studies show.

Travel time. It’s a faster ride end-to-end on 3A than other routes, which will attract more commuters from other transportation modes, particularly private cars on congested southwest area freeways.

Mobility. 3A “provides for enhanced transit service with relatively little duplication of bus service and substantially increases the capacity of the overall transportation system,” a county study asserts. Uptown routes have opposite effects, it adds.

Cost-effectiveness. The above advantages for 3A make it a strong candidate to meet federal funding requirements. The Uptown routes are projected to fail those tests.

Transit-dependent service. 3A provides stations in densely populated low-income neighborhoods of north Minneapolis now poorly served by buses. Uptown routes along Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street have better bus service and fewer residents dependent on transit.

Planning compatibility. 3A strongly supports current county and metro land use and transportation plans, including transfer-free light-rail access to the University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul; Uptown routes do not, county studies show.

Environment. 3A impacts fewer known environmental resources and presents less environmental risk than the Uptown routes, the studies say. By whatever exact route, the Southwest LRT proposal has risen to the top of the Twin Cities’ transit to-do list (after the downtown-to-downtown Central Corridor, which should start construction next year) because of its strong potential to serve commuters.

That makes it different in kind from the Hiawatha and Central LRTs, which are laid out for a broader array of trip types, including shopping, entertainment, medical appointments and access to the airport, the State Capitol and the university’s Minneapolis campus. Running the Southwest through Uptown would allow it to serve more of those kinds of functions, but at a cost of appeal to workaday commuters to downtown Minneapolis and large office parks in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

Trolley for the Greenway?
Meanwhile, there is another option to serve Uptown and the rest of commercial Lake Street with a 21st century transit improvement: a Midtown Greenway trolley. That would probably come years after the Southwest LRT, but the advisory committee endorsed continued steps to develop it as a link across south Minneapolis between the Southwest and Hiawatha lines.

This dust-up is reminiscent of the current controversy over routing fast passenger rail service to Chicago through affluent Rochester or more directly and inexpensively along the Mississippi River. In the Southwest dispute, the relatively well-off Uptown and Nicollet Avenue areas are asking to move ahead of the poorer Near North Side at a greater cost to the public, as well as to the efficiency of the entire Twin Cities transportation network.

Rochester has benefited from hundreds of millions of dollars of improvements to its highways in the past decade. Uptown already has some the metro region’s best bus service. They both want more. It’s time for the fortunate among us to get out of the way of well planned transportation projects that serve the best interests of Minnesota as a whole.

Conrad deFiebre is a fellow at Minnesota 2020, a nonpartisan, progressive think tank based in St. Paul. This article originally appeared on the organization’s website.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by Michael Rhodes on 10/22/2009 - 12:15 pm.

    Some of these points are news to me, and news, I suspect, to residents of the neighborhoods mentioned.

    “Uptown routes along Nicollet Avenue and Lake Street have better bus service and fewer residents dependent on transit.”

    Nicollet and Lake must have some of the highest concentrations of transit-dependent residents in the state. They’re dense, not high-income, and have bus service now because it’s truly needed – but it’s not adequate for the future. Since when is Cedar Lake a haven for the underrepresented and transit-dependent?

    As for planning considerations, good luck getting anyone to zone up anywhere near the proposed 3A line. Will Cedar Lake mansions be torn down to make way for high-rises? The transit-oriented development potential along Nicollet/Lake dwarfs the 3A alignment’s, more than making up for the cost difference.

    As for suburban commuter spending a little longer on the train, perhaps the NYC subway system shouldn’t have so many stops in Manhattan. Really slows down those suburban (or outer-borough) commuters.

  2. Submitted by Adam Platt on 10/22/2009 - 12:17 pm.

    This is a useful contrarian take, and there are several compelling reasons to choose the 3A routing, the most compelling being that it is the only one that can meet federal funding guidelines.

    But a couple points are misleading.

    –The 3A alignment’s ability to serve transit dependent underserved areas of the Near North Side will consist, at best, of a tiny area of southern Bryn Mawr and areas by International Market Square with small populations and few traffic-generating destinations. I am unaware of any grouping of “stations” planned for this area and based on the station adjacencies of other local LRT lines, planned and built, I cannot imagine more than a single station being justified in this stretch. The line quickly dips into Kenwood as it reaches Penn Avenue, an area also underserved by transit, but not a population without options.

    –The primary practical reason buses replaced streetcars in the 1950s was the lack of fixed infrastructure needed to respond to changing commuting and settlement patterns. Denying Uptown/Nicollet an enhanced transit option because it already has a lot of bus service is tenuous reasoning. That bus service could all be redeployed to the Glenwood Avenue corridor at little expense or difficulty. No one would use it, of course, but it would be simple to do, and then Uptown would be underserved.

    These imaginary reasons being seized upon to create some sort of critical mass in favor of the routing don’t help the case, they just call into question the wisdom of the reasoners.

  3. Submitted by David Thompson on 10/22/2009 - 01:29 pm.

    I live in Uptown, and I strongly support the 3A route. This route brings suburbanites to downtown without their cars, which reduces traffic through Hennepin and Lake for the rest of us. By catering to the needs of SW suburbanites, this route expands the constituency for mass-transit-oriented transportation solution. Do we really want to build more freeway lanes as our population grows?

    In contrast, the Uptown LRT route is not a transportation solution. SW suburban residents do not want to come to Uptown, and vice versa. They want to get downtown and back as quickly as possible. The Uptown route map looks like it was laid out by a tour bus operator.

  4. Submitted by Nicholas Baker on 10/24/2009 - 01:22 pm.

    This is pretty ridiculous. “3A provides stations in densely populated low-income neighborhoods of north Minneapolis now poorly served by buses. Uptown routes along Nicollett Avenue and Lake Street have better bus service and fewer residents dependent on transit.” Serously? Have you been anywhere near these proposed “North Minneapolis” stations? There aren’t even any streets at at least one location, and last time I checked I didn’t see ANYONE living there ! Unless, of course, you’re talking about the poor disadvantaged folks of Kenwood and Bryn Mawr. The Uptown routing, in contrast, passes through some of the city’s most densely populated areas and along a major commercial corridor. Here’s an idea: how about putting transit where people actually live and will want to go? At best, 3A is poor planning – at worst it is downright discriminatory.

  5. Submitted by Brendon Slotterback on 10/29/2009 - 12:07 pm.

    You’ve done a good job of repeating the findings of the advisory committee without doing any independent thinking or reviewing the data. I will not address the problems with your assertion that transit-dependent populations will be better served with 3A, as others have done a good job there.

    Your assertion that planning compatibility is achieved with 3A is simply wrong. You can view the Minneapolis comprehensive plan here. The land uses surrounding 3A stations include Park and low density residential. Neither of these uses are appropriate for transit oriented development and will do nothing to support transit in the long run. The plan actually states that these residential areas are not intended to accommodate new growth.

    As for ridership, there has never been an explanation of how riders in Minneapolis were assumed to choose between existing bus and new rail service, and therefore no way of knowing whether these assumptions are accurate. Showing boarding numbers that at 21st Street Station equivalent to those at Uptown Station is just one example of the reason to call for the detailed explanation of ridership calculation that the public was never provided.

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