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What are we trying to accomplish with Southwest light rail?

Now is a perfect time to step back and ask ourselves why we’re building light rail in the first place.

From the very start we have asked not “How can we improve our transit network?” but “Where should we put our next rail line?” That makes no sense.
Courtesy of Metro Transit
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The Southwest Light Rail debate puts transit advocates in a difficult spot. Do we champion any transit expansion even if its benefits are questionable and opportunity costs very high? Why support a major project that benefits a relatively small group of people while doing nothing for anyone else?

If the reason for rejecting the Nicollet Avenue alignment was the cost of tunnelling under the street, and now we learn that the current option also requires a tunnel of equal length in a corridor that must remain undeveloped, we must ask, what are we doing here? The analysis doesn’t seem to be very thorough: it considered a very narrow set of alternatives and nobody even considered elevating the bike path (way cheaper than building a tunnel).  We also have plenty of space available on every arterial street in the city — those places where people actually live, work, visit and travel through — so there’s no reason to build transit somewhere else.

This tired fixation on cost is purely arbitrary — whoever decided what the SW LRT budget should be? — and short-sighted because cheaper does not mean better.

Moreover, what are we trying to accomplish here? That’s the first question a transit planner or advocate should be asking of any proposal. I’m afraid we’re doing it all backwards. At some point in our recent history, people became obsessed with trains — not with improving the usefulness of our transportation network, but with building rail lines. From the very start we have asked not “How can we improve our transit network?” but “Where should we put our next rail line?”  That makes no sense.

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Many well-intentioned transit advocates make the mistake of assuming that rail always equals better transit, as if simply having steel wheels on steel rails is somehow automatically faster and more frequent than rubber tires on asphalt.

The characteristics people value when moving from A to B are directly related to the quality of their travel options, or how it is designed and operated, not the vehicle type. Does the service run frequently and reliably, when I need it? Does it move quickly? It is safe, comfortable and easy to use? If you look around any North American city you’ll see why we associate these things with trains: only because we have arbitrarily (politically) decided to prioritize trains and not buses.

This is also not to say that rail is never a good investment. But rail is expensive and generally only necessary to upgrade the capacity of an overcrowded route previously served by buses. Trains can carry many more people with fewer vehicles, thus requiring fewer operators and lower costs (making a one-time capital investment to reduce annual operating costs). Yet building a rail line in a corridor where no busy bus route exists is a complete waste of money.

If train stations are built along the Cedar Lake & Kenilworth Trails, they will have predictably low ridership due to the low density, limited street connectivity and being out of easy walking distance from higher density uses on Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues. Nothing will change the character of the Kenwood and Isles neighborhoods enough to produce transit demand that the existing route 25 bus can’t handle.

Now is a perfect time to step back and ask ourselves why we’re building light rail in the first place. I love trains more than most people (call me a railfan if you like), but it seems to me that we got caught up in the idea of building a rail network for the sake of building a rail network.

Instead, we can make it easier to get around by thinking critically and following these basic steps:

  1. Review the current system to ensure it is running as smoothly as possible.
  2. Identify deficiencies in the transit network (general and specific routes/locations).
  3. Develop short- and long-term plans to address these deficiencies (improve service).

A good plan strikes a balance between large expensive projects and much smaller improvements spread over a large area. Los Angeles Metro is using a hybrid strategy of building new rapid transit lines at the same time as it makes incremental improvements to speed up its high-frequency Metro Rapid bus routes.

When you undertake a comprehensive service analysis you can understand the trade-offs involved in various potential projects. The opportunity cost of building Southwest Light Rail is whatever other improvements could have been made but cannot happen if all the money is spent on one megaproject. For example, the $1.5 billion dollar SW LRT budget could buy us 3,000 hybrid buses (more than we can dream of), 25,000 heated shelters (enough for three per stop), free fares for 2 years (!!), or 15 million hours of service (about 6.5 times what Metro Transit currently operates). Right now the entire annual budget for all Metro Transit service is only $310 million.

To be fair, this is not an honest question in our current situation because funding decisions are not made this way and non-rail options were never part of the studies. But if you were in charge, which plan would you choose?

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Good long-range transit planning is about identifying significant mobility problems and setting priorities for improvements, so that when money becomes available you are ready to move forward.  The current plan for Southwest Light Rail does not even attempt to solve any actual mobility challenges and therefore is a solution in search of a problem.

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

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