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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 exi

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.

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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.