Embracing LRT: How one Minneapolis neighborhood plans to have a major impact on the Blue Line extension

Metropolitan Council
A detail of the map of the Bottineau line showing the Penn Avenue station.

One after another, residents of Minneapolis’ Harrison neighborhood took to the microphone to testify.

They were at the community hearing to speak about the extension of the proposed Bottineau light rail line, which would extend the Blue Line from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. The meetings were part of a state-created process called municipal consent, in which each city along the proposed route must approve the alignment before it can proceed.

But at two of the recent  hearings — one on Jan. 19 before the Hennepin County Board of Commissions and the Metropolitan Council, and another this week before a Minneapolis City Council committee — elected officials heard something they might not have expected from those who took the microphone.

Support.

Or, in legislative parlance, “support with concerns.” Unlike the public meetings that were part of the municipal consent process for the extension of the Green Line, however, the concerns raised aren’t aimed at scuttling the process. Far from it. In fact, the testimony by Harrison community members has been meant to make the Bottineau Line more useful — and more fair — for the neighborhood’s residents.

“I’m looking forward to the light rail, as are many of the people I talk to,” Richard Panzironi, a board member of the Harrison Neighborhood Association, told the Minneapolis City Council’s transportation and public works committee. “If we can all just get together and see that it is designed in an efficient fashion that serves the needs of everybody.”

‘They’re not asking for the moon’

The Harrison Neighborhood Association, along with neighborhood institutions such as Redeemer Lutheran Church, has been engaged for a long time in the planning of both the Blue Line extension and Southwest LRT. Shauen Pearce, executive director of HNA, said the organization has been a part of all of the working groups and committees that have been meeting to help plan and design the line.

Shauen Pearce

Harrison Neighborhood Association
Shauen Pearce

“We were on the CAC, the BAC and we were at the TAC,” she said, in reference to the community advisory committee, the business advisory committee and the technical advisory committee. “So this is not a new level of engagement for us.”

So far, HNA has hosted 45 meetings and knocked on hundreds of doors to keep residents and businesses up to date.

The proposed Bottineau Line, an extension of the Blue Line, will pass through Near North Minneapolis and then ride the border between North Minneapolis and Golden Valley on its way north. Four stations on the 13-mile, $1.5 billion extension will pass through or touch the edges of some of the city’s most-economically challenged neighborhoods.

Critics of the preferred alignment have complained that the line should have passed directly through North Minneapolis — at street level on Penn Avenue. That route was rejected by the Met Council as too expensive and disruptive because it would have taken out many houses on Penn. Instead, the proposed route will travel west from downtown on the median of Olson Memorial Highway to the border of Minneapolis and Golden Valley, where it will descend to the Burlington Northern right of way and head northwest until it transitions to West Broadway Avenue in Brooklyn Park.

The current alignment would mean that two of the stations serving north Minneapolis residents would be located in the railway gully beneath Plymouth Avenue and Golden Valley Road. The other two, at Penn Avenue and Van White Boulevard, are located along the northern border of Harrison. But they are awkwardly located as well: in the center of what is now and what will remain a busy, six-lane trunk highway.

Denetrick Powers

Harrison Neighborhood Association
Denetrick Powers

Denetrick Powers is the transit organizer for the Harrison neighborhood group. He and others have been vocal about their worries about the line — but also their hopes. “The Harrison neighborhood as well as the Harrison Neighborhood Association supports the development of the Blue Line Extension light rail project as an investment to catalyze development and investments for the neighborhood,” he told Minneapolis council members. “But we do not support it as a commuter line…Harrison is not an extension of downtown or the North Loop, and we do not want a downtown feel.”

A “commuter line” means a train that simply passes through the city neighborhoods en route to delivering suburban commuters to downtown. Pearce said the neighborhood wants a line that connects residents to jobs, not only in downtown and beyond, but also north to jobs in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park.

Powers said the HNA also wants better safety for pedestrians and bike riders; mitigation for noise and dust during construction; and a requirement that at least 30 percent of any new housing units developed along the right of way be affordable. The neighborhood group also wants a height limit on new buildings to retain some sense of the current neighborhood feel, and they want residents to have access to both short-term construction jobs and long-term jobs from any economic development in the area.

Short of making Olson Memorial Highway less of a barrier, several of the neighborhood residents at the meetings asked that pedestrians at least be given more than 30 seconds to cross — a time limit that could require two light cycles to cross, clinging to the median in between. That change should happen now and not wait for completion of the light rail extension in 2021, residents say.

Hennepin County Commissioner Linda Higgins, whose district includes Harrison and the other neighborhoods along the line, said she thinks the organizations that testified Tuesday and last month have a good chance of getting the changes they seek.

“This is a much-more robust neighborhood organization that it was 10 years ago or even five years ago,” Higgins said. “It helps that they focus on what can get done. They’re thoughtful, they’re not asking for the moon.”

In fact, Higgins said that many of the requests are already “in the works, will be in the works or are being talked about.”

Council criticizes ‘suburban’ plan for Olson Memorial Highway

The council committee voted unanimously to recommend that the full Minneapolis City Council grant municipal consent to the alignment. Yet several council members expressed unhappiness: not with the rail alignment, but with the lack of changes on Olson Memorial Highway.

Minneapolis is on record supporting a less auto-oriented configuration for the highway, with fewer lanes, lower speeds and more space for bikes and pedestrians. But Dan Soler, the Metro Transit project director for the extension, said the Minnesota Department of Transportation will not agree to any reduction in lanes when Metro Transit designs and rebuilds Highway 55. MnDOT has agreed to a speed limit reduction to 35 miles per hour, but not to any changes that will reduce traffic volume. Soler said Olsen Memorial Highway sees a volume of about 30,000 vehicles per day.

Metropolitan Council

“But wouldn’t we assume that some of these drivers will take this new, very expensive train?” asked Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Bender.

“We hope people will,” Soler said. “But they won’t take it to Plymouth and they won’t take it to the far reaches of Golden Valley because it doesn’t go there. Will it help? Yes. It will provide another option for people to move around the region and take some people out of cars. But something tells me there’s gonna be someone right behind them.”

While voting in favor of municipal consent, Bender and Council Member Cam Gordon called the lack of changes to Olson a missed opportunity. City staff reported, for example, that the economic development opportunities along Olson are greater if the road is four lanes rather than six.

“I think this is such an important project and a great investment for our city,” Bender said. “But this project is not realizing its full potential for the city of Minneapolis.”

She said transportation planning doesn’t look out far enough in the future. “Our traffic models assume people will continue to drive at current rates. But if we plan our transportation systems to make it easy and cheaper to drive, they will. We’re building for the status quo, not for a future that prioritizes transit and biking and walking.”

Gordon called the alignment — three lanes on each side of median-based light rail tracks — a “suburban” concept. “It looks like something that doesn’t belong in a city,” he said. “It looks like something that’s never going to get us the commercial node that we wanted.”

Thomas Siburg, the director of urban planning and asset development for Redeemer Center for Life, Redeemer Lutheran Church’s non-profit satellite, said the church will file a federal complaint against MnDOT claiming it is in violation of rules that require transportation projects not discriminate against protected classes.

“The neighborhood just wants the same benefits that are afforded in other MnDOT roads and projects across the state,” Siburg said. He cited the amount of time it takes to cross what he termed a barrier, the lack of maintenance and safety improvement on Olson.

Council Member Blong Yang represents the area most-effected by the Blue Line extension. He voted in favor of municipal consent. “My only regret is that this line didn’t cut through more of North Minneapolis,” Yang said. “Such is life.”

But he added that believed most residents of North Minneapolis want the line to be built. “They want to see all of the pluses and all of the advantages that come with it.”

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 02/04/2016 - 11:43 am.

    Sensible Requests

    Thanks, Peter, for social details from the neighborhoods. All requests and observations seem sensible and realistic, particularly the construction jobs request.

    When we usually read only of neighborhood strife and opposition, we become jaded in our perceptions of the NIMBY reflex. Here we read a series of positive requests for the best possible type of “inclusion.”

    Let us help make it happen, let us help build it, let us help assure neighborhood ownership of this bureaucratic beast.

    Peter, you have in this rather mundane consideration given us all an unusually positive perception of North Minneapolis. Let’s all support good and positive leadership all around this major plan.

    Aren’t we all so very tired of placards, demonstrations and conflict? Often, those in the neighborhoods have very practical knowledge of what will benefit everyone, based on long histories of failed promises and feeble projects. Insight from one’s own rooftop is very often more revealing than the view from 10,000 feet.

    To those residents mentioned here, and to their organizations: Please proceed with positive contributions to this project extension. We certainly now have sufficient data and experience regarding the benign intransigence of previous urban/transportation planning. Please cooperatively assert your practicality.

    Make this work for everyone, especially well for the local population. Good work in process here.

  2. Submitted by William Lindeke on 02/04/2016 - 11:47 am.

    6-7 lanes and transit oriented development

    There is no way this large investment in transit will have any meaningful effect on Minneapolis’s urban fabric as long as we have this completely unnecessary 6-7 lane highway surrounding it. Traffic engineers have told me that the 25K cars/day that go along this road currently (and that number might decrease, mind you, with transit investments and current driving trends) can be handled quite nicely with 2-lanes, and the calmed traffic would create much more livable spaces in this overlooked part of North Minneapolis

    Given the pedestrian fatalities around light rail over the past few months, you’d think that planners (in this case MnDOT) would feel some sense of obligation to create safe spaces for people crossing the street. To think for even a second about actual human behavior around trains requires us to calm traffic and narrow crossing distances. MnDOT’s refusal to consider a safer street design is not only a huge waste of scarce transit funding dollars, but deeply irresponsible.

    I’ve heard that the decision to keep the highway this wide comes “from the top” of the agency, whatever that means. Governor Dayton’s office should intercede and make sure we design a safe light rail line in Minneapolis.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 02/04/2016 - 02:37 pm.

      LRT as Economic Development (not)

      Excellent notations, Bill. Perhaps if the various agencies simply design “transit,” we might get better transit outcomes.

      Too many mixed motives in all of this, with mostly token public input recognized. It seems that the overriding objective is to get suburban commuters quickly and safely through various “seedy sections.” That’s certainly not good for anyone’s neighborhood.

      Is there still talk of erecting a wall along the western Hiawatha right-of-way? When does a sound barrier become a blight barricade?

  3. Submitted by T Harty on 02/04/2016 - 02:47 pm.

    Why Golden Valley

    It’s not entirely clear to me why they wanted a station in Golden Valley. It’s literally on the far edge of the city on mostly park land. From a commute stand point by the time you’re to that station on Golden Valley road you’re almost down town. By the time you park you’d already be at a ramp close to your office. From that standpoint I think the alignment that favored North and Near North would be more helpful to actual commuters. In terms of Golden Valley and Plymouth, I think residents would be just fine if they shot a line down the center of Hwy 55. It’s likely more realistic than trying to put a line down near 394.

  4. Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/04/2016 - 03:24 pm.

    Deeply depressing

    Olson is a giant scar dividing these neighborhoods. Even worse, it’s bigger than it needs to be now, and way bigger than it will need to be in the future as more transit is put in place.

    Missed opportunity isn’t strong enough.

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 02/04/2016 - 05:05 pm.

    Balancing interests

    We need a more modern public transportation system that serves both commuters and local communities. That is how you get the paid ridership to pay for the project. Volumes for the whole system will grow as parts of it get built out, as it provides more mobility for all.

    The first issue to tackle is safety. If people cannot walk safely to the train, they will not use it and the investment in stations is wasted. Light rail and highway designers need to come together to fix this issue. Of course, pedestrians and motorists who cross against warning signals can only be protected from their poor choices to some degree – one only reduces the deaths and injuries..

    Of course, redevelopment of a city depends on developers who are willing to make the needed investments. If it hasn’t already been done, talk to property developers about what they see as the prospects for investment around the planned stations. What could happen and what is needed for it to occur? Build it and they (the developers) will come is something you don’t need to have blind faith about but can check out before finalizing your plans.

  6. Submitted by Dan Berg on 02/04/2016 - 05:44 pm.

    Impact

    Light rail has basically zero impact on reducing automotive traffic. As mentioned in the article there is always somebody behind one car that leaves to take its place. The reason Metro Transit won’t reduce lanes is that it becomes hard to justify spending one point whatever billion on transit if it reduces the overall capacity of the system. Especially if it does so in a way that favors the relatively few people that can use the line where placed to the determent of everybody else transit needs and can’t carry anything but people.

    The other issue is of course that Minneapolis isn’t the arbiter of regional, state or nationally funded projects. If they want to increase bike lanes and other transit methods they have the power to do so on innumerable city streets at their own expense. I agree with Jim above that another issue with these projects is that the various localities each want them to be economic development along the route which conversely reduces their value as actual transit. There needs to be a mix of long, medium and short distance options and not all can be focused on each block near where they pass. The same issue happens with the length of the walk signals. If we are building transportation systems there needs to be an acknowledgment that holding up 50 cars for an extra 30 seconds per cycle might not be worth 5 extra minutes of waiting for a couple pedestrians. The real answer for that would be in the numbers which hopefully have been reviewed in order to make the decision. Ideally we wouldn’t be building trains that share grade with auto traffic and raised pedestrian walk ways for access across roads. The problem of course is that it would raise the cost so much that light-rails already extravagant cost per passenger mile would become unsupportable politically. So instead we get half-baked designs which tend to reduce capacities of the areas through which they pass and are fairly dangerous relative to other options.

    I do agree that we should do a better job of designing major transportation routes so they have the least amount of negative impact on local neighborhoods. I love the idea of covering the freeways where they are below grade in the cities (if the cities want to pay for it) and using the surface as green space. I think in the end a project like that would have a much bigger bang for the buck on local neighborhoods than any light-rail project. Just think of the huge space that would become available for bike and pedestrian routes. Quit investing in light-rail that even if it did do what it promised is just another way of increasing sprawl and helping suburbanites get to and from work and try something interesting that has real impact.

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