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Transit planning ‘debacles’ and the subway option

As we saw with controversy over the Central Corridor Green Line, the fight over Southwest light rail isn’t your typical left-right tussle over whether to develop rail transit. It’s more about how and where to build it.

With a divided vote by the Minneapolis City Council on Aug. 29, municipal consent by all six jurisdictions along the planned Southwest light rail Green Line extension was wrapped up, qualifying the $1.7 billion project for final engineering approval from federal funders.

Conrad DeFiebre

Susan Haigh, chair of the sponsoring Metropolitan Council, touted the 15.8-mile link from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie as “a key addition to our regional economy” and “an equitable transit investment” that will connect residents of all incomes to “good jobs, education and community amenities.”

All arguably true, but, as Yogi Berra said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Obstacles to getting the trains running in 2019 still abound, particularly potential legal challenges from the Minneapolis Park Board and residents of a quiet, leafy lakeside neighborhood along the route. And, as we saw with controversy over the Central Corridor Green Line, this isn’t your typical left-right tussle over whether to develop rail transit. It’s more about how and where to build it.

Similar division on Bottineau plans

The same thing is already happening with the Bottineau Blue Line extension, which last week got preliminary engineering approval from the Federal Transit Administration. Progressive critics say the line should follow the run-down West Broadway commercial strip on its way from Minneapolis to a Brooklyn Park cornfield rather than the planned route along lightly developed Olson Highway and through Theodore Wirth Park.

Similarly, the Southwest naysayers are holding out hope for a subway reroute down Nicollet Avenue to the Midtown Greenway, where displacing or pinching the current bicycle trail might stir opposition, too. Planners rejected that one years ago on grounds of higher costs, lower ridership and longer travel times to the suburbs, although the current Kenilworth Corridor tunneling plan has added many millions to the preferred option’s price tag. 

Besides the NIMBY and environmental issues at stake in Kenilworth, these debates and another brewing over bus rapid transit plans for the Gateway Corridor from St. Paul to Woodbury involve broader questions about whom and what transit should serve. Suburban “choice” riders or “transit-dependent” ones (reframed as “transit-reliable” by some insightful observers) in the inner cities? Busy existing urban nodes or suburban park-and-rides, office parks and greenfields considered ripe for development?

‘Not an urbanist vision’

This has brought the Met Council’s entire transit planning process under credible attack. The council’s draft 2040 Metropolitan Transportation Policy Plan “is not an urbanist vision,” protests U of M transportation guru David Levinson in a new blog. “It is, unfortunately, not a bold vision. It is a fiscally constrained vision. It is a vision of an organization … representing seven mostly suburban counties.”

That last point goes a long way to explaining why the council’s drawing boards are now full of rail and bus lines extending far beyond the limits of Minneapolis and St. Paul — a politically expedient counterbalance to the first two light rail lines that serve only the core cities, the airport and the Mall of America.

Still, there’s great sense in coordinated, metrowide planning of transport development. The alternative of walling off high-quality transit in the urban centers and leaving the ‘burbs to their autocentric ways appeals to some. However unlikely the prospects of achieving that politically and fiscally, it might address some glaring inequities pointed up in the current debate.

Levinson says the Met Council’s transit planning maps fail to “focus on areas with more people … service provided per person is not as great in the center as at the edges.” That’s a complaint heard in many other places, where transit agencies allegedly ignore reliable riders in dense neighborhoods, who are cheaper to serve, to chase sprawled-out suburbanites at great cost. 

“Little is proposed for the urban core cities and some first-ring suburbs,” Levinson says of the long-range plan. “Arterial BRT is an improvement, of course, but there is so little of it.” I’ll quibble with professor here: 12 routes in planning seem like more than a little.

The issue of fiscal efficiency

Besides the question of fairness, fiscal efficiency is at issue here, too. A recent Cal-Berkeley study identified what makes a successful transit investment: Place it where it will connect a lot of people to a lot of jobs and give it as much grade-separated right-of-way as possible, and it will attract a lot of riders, Payton Chung summarizes on Streetsblog USA, adding that “the success of a transit project is almost synonymous with whether it serves areas that are dense in both jobs and population and have expensive parking — in short, lively urban neighborhoods.”

Drilling down further, transit works best when it reaches “concentrations of high-wage jobs and leisure jobs (in shops, restaurants, arts and entertainment)” and serves “metro areas that are simultaneously large and congested,” Chung added. 

Grade-separated transit — subway trains — also is being brought up here. By some measures, Minneapolis has the largest central business district and the most downtown transit commuters in the United States without a subway. Levinson raises these points, saying the underground option deserves serious consideration, although he focuses not on Nicollet Avenue but on two lines criss-crossing downtown Minneapolis. The time savings to be gained “would both benefit current riders and induce more transit riders, and with positive feedback mechanism between accessibility and development, lead to more intense land development at stations.”

Nothing like this is in the Met Council’s plan, however. On the flip side of the coin, Nick Magrino at wonders if it is “too late to stop the Blue Line extension from cutting around north Minneapolis” or the Gateway plan “to run through mostly undeveloped areas of Oakdale and Lake Elmo?” How you take that depends on whether you think transit-oriented development should happen only in the core cities.

I’m not ready to answer all these questions. But the Met Council’s long-range plan is still open for comment, with many workshops and a public hearing coming up. Here’s the schedule. These difficult issues need as much citizen input as possible. Show up and make your voice heard.

As Magrino said: “It’s very easy to sit on the sidelines and throw rocks at the process while professionals work under complicated circumstances and, at times, confusing political mandates. But policymakers should realize that if we continue to make objectively bad decisions with transit planning, we’re going to have more debacles like [the Southwest]. We can and should do better for the future of our metropolitan area.”

Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020, a progressive, nonpartisan think tank based in St. Paul. This commentary originally appeared on its website.


If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/08/2014 - 09:15 am.

    My main criticism of transit planners in the Twin Cities

    is that they seem not to have given much thought to how all their plans are going to fit together.

    For example, their excuses for not running the Blue Line farther into North Minneapolis are that 1) the Bottineau Line will serve North Minneapolis, and 2) North Minneapolis already has a lot of bus service. However, the Bottineau Line will run at a right angle to the Blue Line, serving the northwestern suburbs, and if Northside residents have to take a bus to reach the Blue Line, that’s an added inconvenience.

    To one who has experienced well-integrated transit in three cities, it seems as if the planners just said, “Let’s put a line here and a line there.”

    As much as I love rail transit, I wonder if the money planned for the Blue Line might be better spent on a major upgrade of bus service within the cities and first-ring suburbs: frequent service (i.e. every 15 minutes or less, seven days a week, 20 hours a day) on all arterial streets, shelters with posted schedules at all transfer points.

    I live on a line (#6) that supposedly has frequent service, but in fact, service is frequent ONLY if you travel between downtown and 39th and Sheridan Avenue South. On the east side of the river or south of 39th and Sheridan, buses run only every 30 minutes. A major route to the U that doesn’t offer frequent service to the U? That does not make sense.

    Long waiting times are a disincentive to ridership. If Metro Transit wants more riders, it needs to serve its core constituency (the central cities and the first-ring suburbs) much better.

  2. Submitted by Joe Salvator on 09/08/2014 - 10:44 am.

    Common Sense

    Great piece! This was a very insightful article. Listing the meeting days is great, and I think we need a serious lobbying group for good transit that can organize people to come to meetings the way there is one for biking.

    It is frustrating however, when we need the most recent study from UC-Berkeley to inform us on what type of transit works. Minnesota is not embarking on a unique experiment by running trains through core cities. This has been done for over a hundred years around the world, and the evidence is overwhelming that you need to build where there are people that will use the transit. I think car culture has distorted the way we think about transit. When critics pointed out the long time for the Green line to get between Target field and Union Depot, they seemed to forget that most transit riders do not go from beginning of a line to the end. If it is a dense corridor they will almost always only use a given segment of the line. The Southwest Light rail will be used as an example of a “boondogle” because it will only be used during rush hour. The train will be empty most of the time because no one will be leaving Minneapolis for Eden Prarie to grab dinner after 6PM.

    If we are trying to save money, 10 streetcar lines, separated from cars, could easily make car use for Minneapolis residents obsolete. This would also negate the need for the majority of buses, which would tremendously decrease operation costs. Additionally, this would cost little more than the one Southwest rail line that will see little use. If Minneapolis is serious about growing and becoming a healthy city with less pollution, we need to have a .5% sales tax dedicated to transit development and stop relying on Hennepin County & MetCouncil to design our transit. The Green Line is amazing, but all the other proposals are truly designed for places where no one will realistically abandon her/his car.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/08/2014 - 02:30 pm.

      I’ve ridden the Green Line once, and indeed,

      I was the only person in my car who rode the whole length of the line. There were major “exchanges” of passengers at such points as the West Bank and East Bank campuses of the University and the shopping area at Snelling and University, as well as at the Capitol.

      The remodeled Union Station is lovely, although sadly under-utilized.

      The most disappointing aspect of the Green Line is that it does not go past two institutions that could have motivated greater ridership from Minneapolis and the west side of St. Paul: the Ordway and the Science Museum. What were the planners thinking when they routed the train several blocks east of those two major destinations?

    • Submitted by Nick Magrino on 09/08/2014 - 04:37 pm.

      Green Line

      Just as a general note about the Green Line, it’s kinda nuts how many people have been a part of the following conversation without pointing out how silly it is:

      “The Green Line is considerably slower than it was advertised as when we bought it.”

      “It doesn’t matter, hardly anyone is taking the line from end to end.”

      …what? If the line is slower than it’s supposed to be, that impacts everyone who uses it, regardless of whether or not they’re going from end to end or from the Capitol to Snelling. We built a train for St. Paul, which was a smart regional decision, but their local elected officials appear to be refusing to make the necessary signal changes on University Avenue to make the billion dollars count. As of today, it’s basically a streetcar, which is not the same thing as light rail, and it’s less useful for actual mobility than light rail. From the standpoint of an actual (and not theoretical or projected or academic) transit user, this is a bad outcome, and more people should be unhappy about it.

      R.I.P. Off-peak Route 94 buses.

      • Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 09/08/2014 - 05:54 pm.

        I’m not sure the Green Line is a planning failure

        Besides the shoddy implementation of signal priority by the city of St Paul, the Green Line has been an example of successful transit planning. It connects a high density of uses on each end of the line, it (mostly) replaces buses that were near capacity anyways, and it has enough developable land along its path to initiate a virtuous cycle of higher density leading to greater transit demand leading to higher density. That the ridership has outpaced projections is indicative of this successful planning. None of the alternate scenarios offered by the lines critics — tunneling or elevating the train above University, running down the median of 94 — would have been cost effective, a conclusion arrived at by the planning process.

        I don’t think either the Southwest, Bottineau, or Gateway corridors come anywhere close to hitting the sweet spot between walk-up accessibility, destinations, and cost effectiveness that the Blue and Green lines achieve, which is very unfortunate. Is the planning process broken? Maybe. It could also be that we’ve exhausted our supply of easily-buildable corridors, and continued system expansion will require messy compromises.

        Last — the green line is doing much better, of late, with respect to speed and schedule. Unfortunately, it seems the City of St Paul treated the opening of the line as a kind of beta test, and the last three months as a debug operation. But they seem to be getting things moving in the right direction.

      • Submitted by Joe Salvator on 09/09/2014 - 12:00 am.


        Nick, you are absolutely right. I was not clear when I made my comment, but I was not referring to the recent problem with the lack of signal priority for the Green line. I ABSOLUTELY support that in all cases! I was referring to the initial criticisms of even building the line because the express bus between the Downtowns could be even faster. I failed in an attempt to communicate the importance of good transit to connect multiple dense nodes, instead of just two, with little in between. As far as the timing of lights is concerned, it is pretty ridiculous that this was not a priority from the beginning.

  3. Submitted by David Markle on 09/08/2014 - 11:49 am.

    Bad Process

    Yes, we certainly have a bad transit planning and approval process, whether compared to a number of other cities or considered in the light of our own recent examples. The Southwest Corridor, a messy plan and notoriously messy process, will likely end up in court! The Central Corridor/Green Line lost its regional value and became a poor local transit service because of St. Paul and Ramsey County officials’ desire to use it as a questionable redevelopment tool by routing it on a busy street where it must stop at traffic semaphores: the oversight body–the Met Council–said that’s just fine with us!

    We seem to have a practically congenital resistance to tunneling for rapid transit, an obvious deficiency in downtown areas for both Blue and Green Lines.

    Transportation problems need fully adequate solutions, not half-hearted efforts and poor compromises. The alternative is transportation strangulation for both individuals and the region’s economy.

    We must reform the process, beginning with the Met Council. We need to put pressure on the governor and our legislators!

  4. Submitted by Janne Flisrand on 09/08/2014 - 02:56 pm.

    “Only?” Where’d he find the word “only?”

    “How you take that depends on whether you think transit-oriented development should happen only in the core cities?”

    deFiebre twists words to make his case. As a reader of both Magrino and Levinson, I haven’t seen them ever make the case that we should serve ONLY the core cities. Rather, they make a compelling case that we are investing the majority of our funds for new services in ways that serve ONLY suburban communities, skirting those who are both the most reliable riders and who are the most affordable to serve well.

  5. Submitted by Matthew Dickens on 09/09/2014 - 10:08 am.

    Preferred Corridors?

    “Progressive critics say the line should follow the run-down West Broadway commercial strip on its way from Minneapolis to a Brooklyn Park cornfield rather than the planned route along lightly developed Olson Highway and through Theodore Wirth Park.”

    Uhh, why on earth would it be better to run it through a “lightly developed” area and a park? If you want people to ride it, it should probably go through areas where there are actually people! Or at the least “run-down” places that have the potential to grow into areas with lots of people.

  6. Submitted by James Hamilton on 09/09/2014 - 11:44 am.

    It’s not a matter of either or

    but when and how various areas will be served.

    We have limited funds for mass transit. Granted, that funding could be increased if there were the political will to do so. Absent that, every decision must be made in light of the avialable funds and the political realities. Suburban counties won’t participate if there is no direct and immediate benefit to them. The core counties (Hennepin and Ramsay) can’t afford to go it alone. So, rather than making the best long term decisions we can, we focus on what’s attainable today. There’s little new in that. It is, after all, politics.

    Running LRT thorugh areas which are relatively lightly populated today is not necessarily a poor choice, particularly if we’re seeking to encourage in-filling of the metro area. We must be careful, however, not to encourage further leap-frogging by creating park-and-ride destinations at the ends of the lines.

    One other thing we might consider is why we allow the decisions to be driven by a perceived need to serve the downtowns rather then where the jobs are. Saint Paul’s current investigation into a streetcar system with a downtown hub is a case in point. Wouldn’t it be better to consider routes which intersect with LRT? Why do we continue to run bus lines in tandem with LRT?

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/10/2014 - 11:50 am.

    This is getting tedious

    This “Urbanism” or Urban-Centric narrative is getting tedious. We start with a bunch self appointed “planners” who make all kinds of dubious assumptions and conclusions under the guise of expertise and it goes down hill from there. Here we have an “expert” who claims that successful transit lines have to be underground despite the fact that millions of people are riding on street cars and, commuter rails, and light rails all over the world AND in the United States. We also have the assumption that density is “better” for a variety of reasons that turn out to be dubious upon inspection. In theory urban areas could be more efficient because of the density, but in reality per capita expenses are higher in our cities because all they’re over a 100 years old and the infrastructure supporting that density is crumbling and out of date.

    When we get to MPLS specifically this Urbanism is simply transformed into a combination of nimbyism and entitlement. It’s time for a: “come to Jesus” discussion here.

    To begin with, if you urbanist want a subway system in MPLS start figuring out how you’re going to pay for it. The fact is that MPLS is only paying 30% of it’s current inner city bus system (70% of your bus fares are county subsidized) and your paying next to zilch for these Light Rail lines you’re complaining about. The fact is neither MPLS or St. Paul have the populations or tax base to finance their transit, and the expectation that your suburbs are going to foot the bill for transit systems that stop at your city borders is simply a bizarre expectation. You don’t even the tax base to pay for your own government services, MPLS gets something like $80 million a year in Aid to Local Government (St. Louis Park get zero ALG dolars). You’re also getting $50 million for your street car line.

    Furthermore, wake up and smell the coffee regarding commuters. The population of downtown is doubled every weekday by people commuting into the city to work and your telling us that these LRT’s aren’t connecting with anyone? Building a better system to transport commuters in addition to shoppers, diners, and event goers, is anything but a bad idea. Those commuters and visitors are keeping downtown MPLS alive, pure and simple. You want everyone should keep driving into the city? Look the acres of parking lots and ramps preventing you from developing more housing, retail, and shopping space downtown.

    For crying out loud we’ve brought hundreds of millions of dollars into MPLS. You want desnity? Look at the development along University and Hiawatha Avenue. Look at the development along the Greenway. All gifted to MPLS with Federal, State, County, and River District financing. Now your telling me it’s “bad planning” to build a transit system that I can use to get into your city? We’re turning your city into major regional transit hub and you’re complaining that we’re building transit that everyone can use instead of building you a subway that only you can use? There’s a word for that attitude, and its NOT “urbanism”.

    Look, you want subways, don’t blame Henn Co. or the suburbs, talk to your mayors and council people. I don’t see them working on your transit, it’s like pulling teeth just getting them to fix your roads. THEY’RE putting their energy as well as hundreds of millions of your dollars into building arenas and stadiums for billionaires that don’t even live in MPLS if even the state for that matter. Instead of fighting for a billion dollars for inner city transit they fight for billion dollar stadiums. While the Met Council is planning and building LRT lines that have revived your broken city corridors, your city planners have come up with what? Block E? And you’re complaining about the Met Council?

    Listen, I don’t mind chipping in for MPLS schools, or transit, or bikeways. I love MPLS even though I don’t live there. But don’t pretend the “systems” broken just because you’re not getting subways out of the deal. Don’t pretend regional planning is a violation of common sense. And you can show up 10 years after the fact with your big bright idea that tunneling under uptown is better than going through an existing transit corridor, but it’s not better idea just because it’s YOUR idea. If you want to know how these routes are chosen it’s not a secret, the planners have had regular public meeting and are happy to explain it. No one says the process is perfect, but the process has to conform to reality, not “new-urbanist” principles that appear to ignore reality.

    As far as Broadway routes are concerned, my two cents- you might be able to run a street car up say Washington Ave and down Broadway, but I don’t think it’s practical to run a LR line down Broadway. Broadway dosen’t have have the width of University Ave. but I have to admit I haven’t made any measurements.

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