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We need to stop the Southwest Corridor

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It’s hard being a mass transit proponent in a medium-sized Midwestern city. It’s hard being an urbanist in state whose legislature is filled with mostly rural and suburban representatives. And it’s hard being a person who tries to grasp complex issues in 2013 in general. All these things (and more) make it rather hard to get good public works projects done. On occasion, when we’re thrown a bone, we take it, regardless of quality.

As a result, there are lots of half-measures and compromises in the Metropolitan Council’s 2030 Transit Plan.

Twin Cities transitways: almost none of this is optimal.
  • The Blue Line (Hiawatha) was our first rail mass transit project in several decades. It shouldn’t have been the first line, but we owned the land already, and so it got to be first. In a 40 minute trip traveling 12 miles from Target Field to the Mall of America, it passes parking lots in Downtown East, big box stores on Lake Street, and mostly skirts through neighborhoods filled with single-family houses along a near-freeway corridor in South Minneapolis. In Downtown Minneapolis, it travels at grade along Fifth Street and moves about as fast as I can walk. It has (probably) spurred a modest amount of transit-oriented development. It is not terrible, but it is not fantastic. In spite of this, it has absolutely crushed all ridership projections, and runs at a lower subsidy than almost all bus routes in the system–don’t tell Mike Beard this.
  • Northstar Commuter Rail was basically the same thing as that story in the Bible where Solomon wants to cut that baby in half to see who the real mother is, except the real mother (transit proponents) was like “cut the baby in half; we’ll take half the baby”. That was a bad idea. In a 45 minute trip traveling 40 miles from Target Field to a cornfield in the northwest metro, the Northstar Line is an actual boondoggle, $317 million dollars worth of transit whipping-boy for conservative politicians and low-information voters. It was supposed to connect Minneapolis to St. Cloud, but that was too expensive, so we built half the line and doomed it to near-pointlessness and $18/ride subsidies.
  • The Green Line (Central Corridor) is okay. Given that it will connect the three largest employment clusters in the state, it will be hard for it to not do well. It runs at grade from Downtown Minneapolis to Downtown St. Paul. When finished, it will take 39 minutes to travel 11 miles. It will continue to be much faster to take the Route 94 bus between the downtowns, and the Route 16 bus will still be in service. It remains to be seen how everything will work out, as it does not open until sometime next year. It ends at another questionable investment, the recently renovated/restored/empty Union Depot in St. Paul, which was $243 million dollars of lip service to the East Metro, who will likely now demand more questionable investments to fill it up.
  • The Red Line (Cedar Avenue BRT-ish) is absolutely bizarre. It’s unfortunate that we wasted such a good color on some buses connecting the Batteries Plus in Apple Valley with the Mall of America. It’s a $117 million dollar highway improvement pretending to be a mass transit project.

I hate to be a drag. But it’s worth noting that our peer cities are lapping us in mass transit investments. Cities in Texas are lapping us in mass transit investments. But these are things that are already done. What about the future? We fought hard in 2008 to get a dedicated funding stream. Are we going to continue to spend billions of dollars this way?

So far it looks like, yes, we are. The Green Line extension planned for the Southwest Corridor is a mess. I want to use the word disaster, but I also want to avoid the hyperbole of the people yelling about freight trains crashing into the children. The situation has…deteriorated.

Without getting into a very technical, complicated explanation, here’s a summary: We’ve wanted to build a rail connection with the populous, wealthy southwestern suburbs for a while. Luckily, we already owned a lot of right of way in the middle of the route, by way of the popular bike trails that extend from Minneapolis out to Chanhassen. Back when the Alternatives Analysis was done, we had two choices to route the train out of Minneapolis. Option 1–let’s call it “3A”–would have left the city by heading straight west from Downtown Minneapolis, amongst the bike trails and train tracks in the Kenilworth Corridor. Option 2–let’s call it “3c”–would have traveled through the city, heading south from Downtown Minneapolis, probably in a tunnel under Nicollet Avenue, and swinging west at the Midtown Greenway to exit the city. 3A was projected to cost $1.25 billion, while 3C would have run us $1.5 billion.

We picked 3A as the locally preferred alternative in 2010 in a very…mysterious…decision that involved lots of…mysterious…math. Highlights include a $100 million dollar typo, a station with1,000 projected daily boardings in Kenwood, and the Feds changing the funding formula after we chose our alignment. We’ve recently discovered that we won’t be able to accommodate a bike trail, freight trains, and the light rail in the same right of way, and so we’re considering options to build a tunnel in the Kenilworth Corridor–the cheapest of which would increase the project cost to at least $1.37 billion dollars and as much $1.7 billion dollars, depending on the option.

Let’s not muck this up too much — we were told that building a tunnel through the city was too expensive, so we decided to skip the city and build what amounts to a commuter rail line (in the vein of the Northstar Line) for suburbanites. Now, three years later, we have been told that we’re probably going to build a tunnel anyway. This is crazy. Again: This is crazy.

We need to start the process over. Arguments about us having to get in the back of the line for our federal match are unconvincing. The money isn’t really the important thing — this is a hundred year investment. Cost overruns aside, Uptown has been booming. The blocks along the Midtown Greenway have added thousands of new residents and from my south-facing window in Loring Park, I see cranes adding many more. Downtown Minneapolis is growing like crazy, too. There are real mobility problems in both places. Trend pieces about “the new urban lifestyle” are a dime a dozen, but gas prices aren’t going down anytime soon. The 30 minute rush hour travel time from Downtown to Uptown on the Route 6 bus is unacceptable. I’m not going to speculate about what the perfect route for Southwest would look like, but it doesn’t dodge tens of thousands of Minneapolitans and avoid Uptown.

Here is a district map for the Metropolitan Council. Here is a list of council members. You should contact your council member, and we should get this stopped. It has officially stopped making sense, even for the glorified commuter rail line it claims to be.

P.S. All of the above, with different proper nouns and dollar amounts, applies to Bottineau (Blue Line extension) as well.

This post was written by Nick Magrino and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/24/2013 - 09:43 am.

    Nice. But remember…

    For decades one of our two major political parties (Republicans) have actually fought and sabotaged mass transit planning tooth and nail. They just don’t get “choo choos”. It’s not just benign neglect or a failure to get our act together. Look at Zeller’s recent interview with Brucato and you’ll see that if anything these guys are more determined than ever to make any kind of public transit planning impossible.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 07/24/2013 - 09:50 am.

    Yes, mysterious are the ways of transit planners

    I’m a huge fan of public transit, having lived happily without a car for ten years in Portland, Oregon.

    However, much of the Southwest Line makes no sense. The only part that does make sense is better transit service for the Excelsior Boulevard corridor, which has lots of potentially transit-friendly development (Excelsior Grand) and an existing walkable downtown (Hopkins), but less frequent bus service than the more conventionally suburban Minnetonka Boulevard corridor.

    But transit planners SHOULD be looking at maximizing ridership and serving the needs of residents and businesses. The idea of going down Nicollet (Eat Street), along the Midtown Greenway (access to Lake Street businesses and the Uptown Transit Center, as well as the lakes) and then continuing to Hopkins is a good one.

    And why go to Eden Prairie? Let the car potatoes stew in their own traffic. Extend the line to another walkable downtown, that of Excelsior.

    • Submitted by Sean Olsen on 07/24/2013 - 12:30 pm.

      Why Eden Prairie?

      If you’re interested in maximizing ridership, you go to Eden Prairie — the line connects to a major existing transit hub (SW Station) and goes through major employment areas (Golden Triangle/Opus areas) between that transit hub and Hopkins.

  3. Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 07/24/2013 - 11:42 am.

    We deserve a public response from Hennepin County / Met Council

    “We need to start the process over. Arguments about us having to get in the back of the line for our federal match are unconvincing. [This decision making process] has officially stopped making sense.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. After the public outcry for reexamining an urban alignment for this line at the recent meetings over the freight “situation”, I believe that we, the public, the taxpayers, the potential users of this line, deserve a public response from either someone at Hennepin County or Met Council.

    The bottom line is this: the extra freight-related costs, now anywhere from $100M-$300M (excluding the preposterous Kenilworth deep tunnel option) WERE NOT INCLUDED in the CEI (Cost Effectiveness Index) calculation that played a determining role in selecting the LRT route. How is that even acceptable? It’s borderline fraud with numbers to force the alignment that would be more politically palatable, but far less usable. An urban alignment serving Uptown via the Midtown Greenway would not require realignment of freight rail. If those costs had been included back in 2008-09 when the LPA (locally “preferred” alternative) was chosen, I am not convinced that the same outcome would have occurred. Nick mentions that the Federal Transit Administration changed the rules shortly after we made “The Decision” to take our talents to Hidden Beach. The FTA’s newer rules favor economic development more, and time savings a bit less. The old rules highly favored NEW riders and time savings… basically saying screw those poor saps sitting on a bus for 25-30 minutes to travel 2.5 miles from Lake Street to Downtown.

    Is the 3C or 3C-2 alignment perfect? No. But as Nick points out repeatedly, these things rarely are. The “perfect” alignment is one that serves the existing Uptown Transit Center via the Greenway, then turns northward in a tunnel all the way into downtown. More expensive? Absolutely. More effective? You betcha. The 3A alignment, however, is another Northstar-esque failure waiting to happen.

    The chief argument in not choosing 3C (or other urban alignment) was that the FTA wouldn’t fund that, so the only “choice” was 3A. Where is the proof of that argument? Did the FTA explicitly state that 3C wouldn’t pass muster? They sure fund a lot of lightly-used LRT lines in other metros, compared to MSP. Things have changed since 2008. The costs of 3A have changed. The FTA rules have changed. Preferences for urban living have changed. The population living along the Greenway in the Uptown area has grown exponentially and isn’t done yet. If we’re going to put LRT in a tunnel, for the love of god, put it under ANY STREET between Hennepin and Lyndale.

    *When considering a $1.5 BILLION transit investment, one does not simply AVOID four of the five most densely populated census tracts in the state.* The urban alignment is out there, we just need to demand it. For me, the argument that we’d have to go to the back of the FTA line is highly suspect. On the Eden Prairie end of the line, we don’t even know what the routing is yet! The route that was penciled in on the Locally Preferred Alternative has been thrown in the garbage, and they are coming up with something new that actually serves existing residents and employers. Why is it so outrageous that we would demand the same in Uptown? Ask the FTA for a waiver. They want this project to get built. If Southwest LRT is a top-ranking project as-is, it will remain a top-ranked project if we re-jigger the Minneapolis portion to actually serve our densest neighborhoods.

    • Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 07/24/2013 - 01:13 pm.

      An excellent refresher on the issue from 2009

      In addition to my above comment, I just wanted to share this exellent summary of the alternatives by The Tranport Politic from 2009: http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/08/11/southwest-minneapolis-transit-route-selection-process-may-rule-out-light-rail-to-uptown/

      Also, Minneapolis’ own Net Density has contributed several strong articles about Southwest LRT: http://netdensity.net/tag/southwest/

      Going back even further in time before 3A vs. 3C, there were additional alternatives including a subway tunnel under Hennepin and subway/elevated track on Lyndale. These were thrown out very early due to engineering challenges at the Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck (aka Virginia Triangle), but that whole area needs to be re-done anyways. By the time shovels hit the dirt on SWLRT, MNDOT & Minneapolis will be talking about improving that area. Can we please just have these agencies talk to eachother and coordinate a once-in-a-lifetime transportation investment for all users in the most densely populated neighborhoods in the entire state?

  4. Submitted by Elliot Altbaum on 07/24/2013 - 02:21 pm.

    Cheaper than you’d think

    Thanks for the excellent article.
    Even if the project is more expensive in the short term is will most certainly be cheaper in the longer term. A huge amount of mass transit investment must be made to Uptown in the coming decade. The SWLRT through Uptown would satisfy those needs. If you roll the money saved by not building a second mass transit option through Uptown then the Uptown-SWLRT option becomes even cheaper. I do hope we do the right thing.

  5. Submitted by Jay Barnes on 07/24/2013 - 03:12 pm.

    How about a rail line from the MOA/MSP to St Paul?

    How about a rail line from the MOA/MSP Airport to St Paul? Doesn’t this connection make sense? It starts to create a network of rail transit (a web) versus spurs like we are currently building. This existing bus route along this alignment from MOA/MSP to St Paul is one of Metro Transit’s most productive.

  6. Submitted by Adam Miller on 07/24/2013 - 03:34 pm.

    Which way does Uptown growth cut?

    Do we build transit to move people around from where they are? Or do we build it to back fill density into areas that need redevelopment? Maybe we do both.

    Anyway, I’m not sure what the answer is for the southwest. But I’m much more optimistic about the green line, which is already having an effect along University Avenue without even being open yet. We will finally have an example of transit providing real synergy, which hopefully will ease future transit investments.

  7. Submitted by Xandra Coe on 07/24/2013 - 06:43 pm.

    Back to the drawing board for this one

    LRT is a wonderful idea. But unless it’s implemented well (not the case here), it’s likely to do more harm than good. I don’t think we want to go backwards on the huge progress we’ve made in becoming a more livable, healthy, green community. It’s not a good scene when a purportedly “green” initiative negatively impacts an already existing, beautifully functioning, completely non-polluting greenway.

    And to my mind, these federal dollars that we may lose aren’t worth it if they force us into compromising our core values.

  8. Submitted by Erik Hare on 07/24/2013 - 09:50 pm.

    The Planning Process by URS was the problem

    The current choices foisted on the community came from URS, the company only recently booted from the process for their general incompetence. They were held responsible by the NTSB for the I35W Bridge collapse and ultimately lost this contract over the failure of their Martin Sabo Pedestrian bridge. They also gave us the University Avenue “Green Line” which features substandard 10′ wide sidewalks immediately adjacent to a driving lane with no buffer of parked cars – hardly a Pedestrian Friendly environment by any measure.
    Please, do not let their shoddy work destroy another neighborhood! Transit is important, but we cannot allow inferior designs to be implemented. I fought for streetcars on University for years to no avail, but there is still time to stop the SW Corridor. There are better options for sure – and a competent firm would have found them.
    Please learn from our mistake in St Paul and do not allow an inferior design to move ahead. A good firm is in place now and the process must be re-started. This is not an anti-transit position, it is a smart transit position. We all deserve better.

  9. Submitted by Erik Hare on 07/24/2013 - 10:17 pm.

    Why and how the University Avenue Green Line is Inferior

    I understand that many of you may not understand why the University Avenue “Green Line” is so inferior by design, so here are some of my posts from up to 5 years ago outlining in detail the problem:

    Where it went wrong at the start:
    http://erikhare.wordpress.com/2008/01/30/crazy-train/

    What should have been done on this street – a streetcar in a dedicated guideway:
    http://erikhare.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/pedestrian-friendly/

    When the budget blew up and the problems became obvious:
    http://erikhare.wordpress.com/2009/10/23/reboot/

    Finally, what a good transit planning process looks like!
    http://erikhare.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/transit-planning-2/

    I hope you don’t mind this indulgence, but the process that produced the inferior designs for SW has all the same problems that we saw on University. It should indeed by junked and a better process used to create a better design.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 07/25/2013 - 12:46 pm.

      So if I follow you

      The Green Line in the Central Corridor is not as good as it could have been had it been done as a street car, which would have allowed wider sidewalks and more trees. That sounds right, and certainly if all you are building is a connection between the two downtowns, streetcars make a lot of sense.

      But wasn’t the plan all along to have the same line and rolling stock extend out into the suburbs, where higher speeds are a plus?

      While I’m sympathetic that streetcars would have been better for the urban portion of the project, LRT is/was certainly better than the status quo.

      And I’m not sure what lessons we are suppose learn from it for SW corridor. The points you make about the Green Line certainly suggest that if SW is going to be re-routed through Uptown, it should be a street car. But if it’s a streetcar, should it run all the way out to Eden Prairie, given it’s reduced speeds? Perhaps a rail connection to Uptown should be a next step rather than a replacement for SW.

  10. Submitted by Steven Prince on 07/26/2013 - 11:35 am.

    Start Over

    Amen to this post.

    Minneapolis planners signed off on this route, and have steadfastly resisted revisiting that decision despite conceding that the stops on the Kenilworth alignment have almost no development potential. This route should provide downtown connections for the (new) existing density along the Greenway where it could have a real impact on City traffic.

    Take a look at the “Minneapolis Station Area Strategic Planning – Final Document” and the “Station Area Strategic Planning – Market Assessment” at: http://www.southwesttransitway.org/station-area-planning.html, which notes the following about the planned Minneapolis stops:

    Royalston
    Planners note no residential development opportunities associated with the stop but claim Royalston will allow nearby research and office redevelopment for employers who want access to LRT. This will be accomplished by replacing the blue collar industrial jobs in the area with white collar jobs.

    Penn Stop
    Planners concede almost no one will use this stop because of topography, and there is no development potential for this site except for the tiny commercial strip on the west side of 394.

    West Lake
    This stop would also exist on the Greenway route. The County wants a Park-N-Ride lot at this location.

    Van White
    This station isn’t even mentioned in the “Market Assessment” document. The planning document is comical, claiming the Walker “could provide significant ridership” for this stop. Really? Planners note the stop does not connect to any existing or planned bus service. I got a real chuckle out of the observation that Bryn Mawr is used for youth soccer (I don’t think that’s happened for a decade).

    21st Street
    According to the planners this station will “provide[e] amenity for local residents to travel into downtown Minneapolis for business or pleasure.” Very convenient for home owners on the west side of Lake of the Isles, but hardly a reason to build a LRT line.

    (re-posted from April 2011 comments to an earlier MinnPost.)

  11. Submitted by Patrick Wells on 07/26/2013 - 09:23 pm.

    Agree with Nick Magrino

    I live in the path of the proposed reroute in St. Louis Park. The proposed reroute is unprecedented in its destruction of peaceful neighborhoods. The planners have admitted that the proposed 20 ft berm through SLP neighborhoods and past the schools is the first proposal of this type in the world. It is absurd on its face.

    We are getting bad plans because the Met Council is unelected and is not subject to public election. The Met Council is not a democratic institution. The Met Council has been criticized for lack of democratic representation by the legislative auditor (see Met Council, Wikipedia).

  12. Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 07/29/2013 - 12:25 pm.

    Misplaced blame of Met Council

    Look, the Met Council is unelected, and some people have decided they don’t like that. However, are our democratically elected officials doing any better? The blame for this entire debacle belongs to the Hennepin County board, who chose the “locally preferred” alignment, including their $48M estimate to relocate freight rail to SLP. All of the cities along the line, including Mpls and SLP gave their “consent”–there’s your elected officials again. Robert Lilligren, representing the Whittier area, opposed the 3C routing with all of his might, because it would preclude the building of his precious toy trains (streetcars) that do next to nothing to increase mobility. The electeds are batting 0 for 2 it seems. I, too, agree with Nick Magrino that we need to start over with fresh population numbers, ridership estimates, new FTA formulas, and true costs of freight mitigation known.

    Frankly, I trust the unelected Met Council to make the correct PLANNING decisions, because that is what they focus on, rather than the whims of the electorate and wealthy DFL donors (*cough* Kenwood, Cedar-Isles *cough*). Perhaps if the Met Council had been planning this line from the very beginning, rather than Hennepin County (getting to make up ridership and cost estimates, then abdicate themselves from all responsibility after the “handoff” in 2010), we’d be in a much better place today. At one the recent meetings, Peter Wagenius (Mayor Rybak’s transportation policy aide) said that the real problem here is that the decisions of where the line goes and how to pay for it are made at two different times, by two different bodies. We could eliminate one of those problems by having the Met Council plan all transit improvements from the very start, rather than doing this awkward handoff that clearly isn’t exclusive to Southwest LRT.

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