We Need to Stop the Southwest Corridor

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.

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 with 1,000 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.


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62 Responses to We Need to Stop the Southwest Corridor

  1. Scott July 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    Great article. You totally forgot to mention Gail Dorfman SHOVING Kenilworth down everyone’s throats. Ironic that a politician that spends do much time on bullying has been bullying on this for 15 years.

  2. longwalkdownlyndale July 21, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    I’d agree with you that a greenway option would be better, but I think the idea that we should blow up the whole project in the hopes that the greenway option would be chosen instead is what’s really crazy. It’s far more likely that stopping it would result in nothing being built, or a delay that would be measured in decades, not the line being re-routed to go along Nicolette Ave. Rather than trying to build a perfect system we need to move forward and do what we can now. Basically the system is set up to make building these things really hard as there are a multitude of veto points that can block light rail at any point. So if we wait in the hopes of making it better there’s a very good chance that the political situation in Washington or St Paul could change and we’d be back to square one. That is say 30 years of “planing” and building nothing.

    • Nathanael July 22, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

      Bluntly, the SW Corridor isn’t that bad.

      Yes, there’s been a lot of bad compromises in the design. But it’s not bad enough to blow it up and start over.

      By way of contrast, Northstar *was* bad enough to blow it up and start over. Northstar to St. Cloud would have been a great success, but Northstar *halfway* to St. Cloud never made any sense.

      St. Paul Union Depot is mostly a historic preservation project, and a good one. Moving Amtrak there is a good idea. Ramsey County already had a bunch of well-thought-out commuter rail lines planned… Most of them have been on hold due to the bad design of Northstar, and the best of them (the “Dan Patch” line) was sabotaged by some really evil suburban legislators. But they have to go somewhere once they get built, and SPUD is at least as good as anywhere else.

      I would say that on the SWC, some effort should be made to pick the cheapest option in the “3A” section, because sooner or later you will probably be building a “Hennepin Subway” and connecting the SWC to it, and there’s no point sinking a lot of money into a section which you will eventually bypass.

  3. Matt July 21, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    Medium size Midwest city……try the 16th largest in the USA, and 3rd in Midwest. Get your facts.

    • Morgan July 21, 2013 at 10:44 pm #

      This is a good piece. No need to nit pick.

      We are a medium sized city in our peer group of major metropolitan areas, especially ones that would have rail transit. His use of words is fine.

    • Al July 21, 2013 at 11:44 pm #

      Minneapolis is a medium-sized city surrounded by a large ring of suburbs. A city of 390,000 people with a density of 7,000 ppsm isn’t that big of a city, especially when compared with Chicago’s 2.7 million with about 12,000 ppsm. Even though we are the Twin Cities, I’ve always seen us divided as Minneapolis as a mid-sized city of 2 million with the western suburbs and then St. Paul as a small city of 1.25 million with the eastern suburbs.

    • Gopherdude July 21, 2013 at 11:58 pm #

      Right. There’s only two large midwest cities.

      • KRH July 29, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

        Two?

  4. Eric Anonon July 21, 2013 at 9:36 pm #

    I believe “connected” people around Kenwood, Isles, Dean Parkway influenced the choice of route thinking they could steamroll the process with re routing freight out to Saint Louis Park. Having lived out in exactly the neighborhoods and being intimately familiar with the rail intersection that was being proposed the freight get re routed to, I was convinced people in the process had zero idea at the immense engineering problems with getting freight from the CP rail line back on to the main line. A lot of protest was over the traffic going by multiple elementary schools and the high school, over multiple grade crossings… Etc. but no one seemed to notice the pure cost terms for getting the freight traffic back to the main line. Then this study came out and with no surprise to me they ended up being nearly as expensive as the deep tunnel option through Kenilworth and involved destruction of property tax paying tax base.

    What is so wrong with elevating the trail over the LRT through Kenilworth? Or if we are going to be looking at purchasing properties and bulldozing them to make room, why not do the widening through the few tight spots in Kenilworth?

    • Marcus July 28, 2013 at 11:56 am #

      Seriously asked that question? I can’t think of a less pleasing bike on a a tacky looking flyover elevated structure worried for my life because I may fall onto a train

  5. Morgan July 21, 2013 at 9:57 pm #

    Great Article.

    Well, to complicate things, NOW is the time to build infrastructure. I’m not saying interest rates are going to go up super fast but in two years the cost of debt will be higher. Delaying projects is not of the moment.

    Some people are starting to say that we should just swap the Bottineau line with southwest, and get Bottineau in front of it in the cue. I agree with this.

    It is the Southwest suburbs that need this line. The regional real estate market is already shifting East and they will need this amenity in order to stay competitive. The City of Minneapolis will hold tight and require that the greater right of way needed go through St. Louis Park and Hopkins. Like you said, it is a suburban line and they are going to have to figure out how to build it. It is their problem.

    This, the Northstar, and the Red Line are embarrassments for the Metro Council, but I think that the Blue Line is coming good. Yes, Hiawatha has a lot of basic urban design issues that don’t promote TOD but we are starting to see investment there. Remember, there is a lot of land in this region. We are not NYC, WDC, or SF. It will take some time for urban investment, but we are seeing it coming. East Bloomington along the blue line is developing nicely.

    The Green line will never be the best way to travel from Mpls to St. Paul, but this investment will bring the cities closer together and better integrate our urban core. I am excited about it.

  6. Roland S July 21, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    Good article about the political compromises in transit projects. This is a common problem for most American transit projects. The really valuable projects that sync up with existing walkable areas often can’t be built because there isn’t enough political will to deal with impacts or funding to engineer around the impacts.

    Minor nitpick: which Texas cities are beating out MSP? Dallas’ network has the exact same issues as you identify in MSP; the planning isn’t any better, but the execution is quicker because, hey, it’s Texas, Just Do It, etc. Austin’s single line is a joke and makes the Southwest Corridor look like a model of planning. Houston’s lines are actually pretty well-planned and cost-effective, but they’re not intended to be regional commuter lines; the planned system has the scale and speed of a streetcar system, just with fewer and bigger stations.

  7. Andrew B July 21, 2013 at 11:24 pm #

    Breaks my little transit geek heart to say this, but the more I read about Southwest LRT the less I want to see it happen. Northstar not going to St Cloud was the first big transit misstep I’ve seen, and I’m enough of a conservative that even I can’t stand watching public funds thrown away on a plan like Southwest. Get Northstar to St Cloud and build Bottineau next. Those should be our priorities.

    • Nathanael July 22, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

      I don’t know how to get the political stars to align to get Northstar to St. Cloud. Given that half the line has already been built, finishing it *would* be a good use of money, as Northstar-to-St. Cloud would be highly successful.

      But right now, we have the idiotic experience of people saying “Well, the line isn’t doing well when it stops in a cornfield, so we don’t want to spend money extending it”. Asinine, but how do we overcome this?

  8. helsinki July 22, 2013 at 4:00 am #

    I think your analysis is generally correct. A few quibbles:

    1. Discussion of the Blue Line / Hiawatha misses the point if it neglects the airport; having a rail connection between the airport and city center is essential, and the Blue Line would therefore be a critical segment of the system even if it otherwise presented no TOD potential.

    2. Your skewering of Northstar is spot-on.

    3. The ciriticism that Central will take 40-some minutes from the Interchange to Union Depot to cover a mere 11 miles is rather specious. It echoes the tired Phil Krinkie choo-choo demagoguery of yore. Most riders will go part of the way: from midway to dwtn St. Paul, or from the U to dwtn Mpls, or from somewhere else in between. It has boundless TOD potential. To be sure, many intersection crossings remain mammoth, sidewalks are improved but still itsy-bitsy, and opportunities were misssed to bury loads of power lines clinging precipitously to wooden poles. But the “downtown to downtown trip time takes too long” argument is a red herring. Its only 8 miles from Harlem to Battery Park, but it’ll take over 40 minutes on the NYC subway.

    4. The Red Line will lose that grandioloquent title once we have a proper rapid-transit system. It can have it for now.

    For my part, if the four-spoke Hiawatha/Central/Southwest/Bottineau system gets built as currently envisaged, I would find a complementary streetcar system perfectly acceptable. Building a tunnel under a bike trail is batty and hopefully common sense will prevail (unlikely given the already large number of suburban bridges and tunnels SWLRT seems to have planned). But if we’re truly planning for 100 years, shoehorning the Uptown-Downtown connection into this flawed but necessary project doesn’t seem like the solution either.

  9. MplsJaromir July 22, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    I do not agree with this analysis.

    I have a hard time believing that the 3C (either option 1 or 2) is materially better than the 3A alignment.

    I do think that the “Uptown” stations are placed well. Although much of the area would not see any stations with in a half mile. Is this worth the extra $600 million and likely decades of delay? I say no. The stations on Nicollet seem to be poorly placed for what is there now. Skipping over the most popular nodes on Eat Street. NIMBYs will be out in full force over the destruction of the Greenway at the point it turns north. It will make the current fracas look tame. The alignment would be more popular than the Kenliworth alignment, but I believe if we wait something even better could be built.

    The way 3C proposed lines will interact with downtown is laughable.

    3C-1 would basically mean you have a train on a island. No way any sane transit operator would want a train that cannot link with its other operations. You might as well pull a BART and buy rolling stock with 1,676mm Indian gauge. It would hit the heart of the CBD, which is sort of the point of this line in the first place.

    3C-2 would cross over I-94 up Nicollet toward all the tall buildings and the rider’s destinations, then jog west eight blocks into low intensity industrial land and then through the Warehouse district back to the CBD. Not really a fast and efficient way to commute.

    My point is that the 3Cs are flawed, maybe even more flawed than 3A. Bringing high amenity rail transit to the residents of Uptown/Whitter/Stevens Square is a worthy goal. Undoubtedly they would be thrilled to have it and would enthusiastically patronize the system. Trying to muscle that into what is basically a commuter train for the Southwest metro is a compromise as well.

    In order for transit to flourish in this area we need powerful backers. New York, Boston, Chicago and the Bay Area have the benefit of geography and history to ensure transit and urbanism is on minds of the region’s elite. ‘Round here we have lost at least two generations of elites who have never had any compelling reason to ride transit. After the trolley lines were ripped up and the highway department put the pedal to the metal, few with influence had anything personal to do with transit. So it has languished. SW LRT will force some to become more personable with transit. Even the most ardent Tea-Partier in Wayzata will not be able to be avoid a regular transit user. I think it could be analogous to gay marriage. Once people know someone in their lives who rides a train/bus it becomes more difficult to be an opponent. I know its a crude comparison, I do not mean to offend. The southwest suburbs may be the largest concentration of benign and genial wealthy people on the planet. Making them champions of high quality transit would help the region tremendously, imo.

    • David July 22, 2013 at 10:16 am #

      Thank you for a voice of reason in the insanity. Anyone who thinks 3C would not run into EXACTLY the same problems as 3A is deluding themselves.

      3C would present major disruptions to the Midtown Greenway. Do folks really think people would just let that go? And it would still be more expensive and slower than 3A. Complain all you want, but FTA cares about ride time.

      Who would use a 3C alignment? Certainly not anyone south of about 34th – they’d just stay on their bus into downtown. Certainly not people from the SW suburbs – they’ll already just get off at West Lake and take a bus into Uptown. They don’t have any other option. Certainly not people from Uptown heading to Eden Prairie. Same West Lake argument. The *only* people who would use a 3C line are _maybe_ people living in Uptown who want to get downtown and choose rail over the coming enhanced bus service on Lyndale and Hennepin. That seems like a very small slice of people, those living within perhaps 1/4 mile of a station who want to go somewhere on Nicollet Mall or points east of there.

      The studies show definitively that the marginal ridership increase for 3C does not justify the cost. All these 3C proponents keep complaining about the study but no one has *ever* proven a flaw, certainly not one fatal enough to stop the project. Furthermore, no one has ever said exactly who would use a 3C alignment. Maybe my analysis is wrong. Tell me, then.

      • Morgan July 22, 2013 at 11:14 am #

        I am not a 3C backer but you have to recognize that one of the reasons that 3A was chosen was that it was suppose to be significantly cheaper. That is not turning out to be the case and that is a problem. The author is right when he states that SW Corridor planning has been mishandled.

        • David July 22, 2013 at 11:28 am #

          It still is significantly cheaper, unless you don’t consider ~$200 million to be significant.

          Imagine what would happen with 3C given the Greenway. The proposal was to build a huge bike bridge over the LRT where it turned north on Nicollet. Imagine how far back those approaches would have to start given that they have to clear the catenary. Do you really think that would fly? More likely something more expensive would have to be done.

          A Nicollet tunnel was projected to cost about $120 million, roughly the same as today’s shallow Kenilworth tunnel. Now Nicollet has a lot of utilities. Kenilworth has none. Kenilworth does have some water table issues but according to Jim Alexander, they’re not significant for a shallow tunnel. A deep bore tunnel would have to go deeper due to the water issues. Now, do you honestly think a Nicollet tunnel would still cost $120 million today, or is it more likely to cost more?

          And then there’s the additional operating cost of 3C given that it doesn’t interline. That is a significant ongoing cost.

      • Nick Magrino
        Nick Magrino July 22, 2013 at 12:44 pm #

        Are you really making the argument that people wouldn’t take a grade separated train from Uptown to Downtown because there’s already a bus? Including people from the suburbs, who you think will get off the train they’re already on to sit in traffic on Hennepin because it’s a slightly more direct route? Did you design the pathfinding in the new SimCity?

        http://www.thetransportpolitic.com/2009/08/11/southwest-minneapolis-transit-route-selection-process-may-rule-out-light-rail-to-uptown/

        • David July 22, 2013 at 4:33 pm #

          No, I’m arguing that people won’t transfer from a bus just to ride rail. They’ll stay on the bus.

          I live in Uptown and I wouldn’t take 3C if I was going to Target Field. I’d take the bus.

          People from the SW suburbs will stay on the train to get downtown. They’ll transfer at West Lake to go to Uptown because there is no other option. Some will drive. They’d drive anyway.

          • Nathanael July 22, 2013 at 7:10 pm #

            Stats say that in fact some people will transfer from the bus to rail, just to ride rail…

            …well, really because rail doesn’t get caught in traffic and the bus does. But close enough.

            • Kasia McMahon
              Kasia July 24, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

              How does traffic affect any of the proposed and current light rail routes? Traffic on University Ave? downtown Minneapolis? Hiawatha? I would say that buses experience negligible traffic in these areas. I sit in near stand still traffic on the 94 bus to go from St. Paul to Minneapolis every day and it is still faster than the 50 (express bus on University Ave) and the 94 bus will still be faster than light rail (as mentioned in the article). If there was a train that actually improved travel time over traffic–that would be very useful.

    • Nick Magrino
      Nick Magrino July 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm #

      Thanks for the response mplsjaromir–I’ll respond here instead of on UrbanMSP.

      First, I’ll note that I said in the article that I’m not necessarily endorsing 3C as what I think should happen. That sounds crappy/shifty, but if we’re starting over, we may as well consider more options. We’re rebuilding the Virginia Triangle (Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck) in a couple years, right? Maybe we could tunnel under Hennepin and avoid some of the chokepoints on the Greenway? Matt Steele had suggested a plan on the forum to route the Green Line out towards the West End in St. Louis Park and towards Hopkins, and then build a subway through central Minneapolis. That’s an option, too.

      I’m not opposed to providing transit to the suburbs, and I hope it didn’t come off that way in the article. The point is that functionally, the line as proposed is a commuter line. A $1.37-$1.7 billion dollar commuter line. There are definitely great opportunities for TOD in St. Louis Park and Hopkins, sure. But who is going to ride this train at 1:00 PM on a Tuesday? Who’s going to ride it on a Sunday, except for Vikings games? This is an enormous investment that benefits an incredibly narrow slice of people, and I don’t know that thinking of it as a transit PR tool for the suburbs is a good idea.

      • MplsJaromir July 22, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

        I love the idea of a Hennepin Ave subway. Build 3A, in the mean time figure out the best possible transit outcome for Uptown/ Eat Street / Whittier / Steven’s Square. Whether that’s a transit tunnel under Hennepin (my favorite idea), dedicated transit lanes, aBRT, streetcar or whatever would be best. I am glad you are not enamored over 3C, I do not know if your editor makes the graphic for your articles or not.

        There will be a constant drumbeat of more access to Downtown Minneapolis from the SW suburbs. If SW LRT does not happen, a grossly more expensive freeway expansion will be pushed. At least with SW LRT there will be a choice. It more than mere PR, its useful and builds empathy.

      • Froggie July 24, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

        Are we really rebuilding The Bottleneck? (BTW, grew up in Minneapolis and *NEVER* heard the term “Virginia Triangle” attached to Hennepin/Lyndale…must be a new term)

        I can think of 3 likely negatives if your proposal to scrap SWLRT and “start over” happens. First, you’ve just wasted the past several years worth of time and millions of dollars done on studies. Second, because you’re starting the clock over, you’re looking at a minimum of 5 years of further delay, with the resultant cost increase due to inflation, and, keep in mind, our transportation revenues are *NOT* increasing at the same level that construction-industry inflation is. Third, this will give the Republicans and anti-rail people another opportunity to shut down the project permanently….with a greater likelihood of it happening this time.

  10. Tim July 22, 2013 at 10:46 am #

    You can design a route that avoids existing infrastructure, but then you’ve created something that primarily serves two endpoints. I think part of what’s going on is that Eden Prairie has lobbied for a limousine connection to downtown without the ‘trouble’ of having to also go through Uptown – which is precisely where it would be most broadly useful and ultimately cost efficient – by virtue of increased ridership.

  11. David Levinson
    David Levinson July 22, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    Not to ask a stupid question, but why can’t LRT on a 10 minute headway and freight share some trackage for some of the day, with a little bit of coordination ? This is hardly the Northstar Corridor. The amount of time that both services will be competing for the same tracks is pretty minimal. At most you might need 3 tracks, N-S and a siding, should make delays relatively minimal.

    • Morgan July 22, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

      I am pretty sure that would be against FRA regulations and therefore be illegal.

      • Matt Steele July 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

        There is precedence for “temporal separation” agreements, but it’s not without problems: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RiverLINE#Ownership_and_time_sharing_agreement

        In this case, sharing tracks under catenary would significantly constrain loading gauge, making the railroad less able to handle oversized loads, autoracks, double stacks, etc.

        My guess is that TC&W would likely wish to extract concessions if such an agreement was to take place. But I guess we never know until we ask.

      • David Levinson
        David Levinson July 22, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

        But Amtrak and other commuter services run Passenger Trains on freight lines all the time. And I don’t know why if you reversed it, letting freight trains occasionally use a passenger line, is necessarily illegal if properly configured. The law can be changed (or exempted from) for far less than $200 M. (And of course, this is done in other countries, but I realize FRA doesn’t admit that knowledge).

        • Morgan July 22, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

          Amtrak has much heavier equipment. Passenger cars on freight tracks have to be able to withstand huge collisions. That is why commuter rail trains look so different than light rail trains.

          • Matt Steele July 22, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

            David makes a good point, FTA’s buff strength requirements for passenger rolling stock are very outdated. This is a huge barrier to good rail service all over the country, using technology like ligher DMUs.

            In this case, since we already have LRT-spec rolling stock that requires a smaller loading gauge, I’m not sure it’s feasible due to the catenary issue (as noted above).

          • Faith July 22, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

            The FRA does not seem to be inclined to change its regulations for Amtrak any time soon.
            http://streetsblog.net/2013/04/22/will-the-fra-force-amtrak-to-build-pricier-high-speed-trains/

            It seems even more unlikely that the FRA would entertain such an option for LRT service.

  12. Brad July 22, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

    To be a transit advocate in a medium sized Midwestern city you HAVE to accept these compromises or you would end up with zero fixed guideway (LRT/BRT) investment. Hiawatha, Central, and Southwest are the top three corridors for transit ridership that have enough room for guideways. If these fall short of your standards, there is nothing else. It’s the truth of living in a lower density (while also built up) urban area.

    As for Southwest, I share your concerns but as an uptown resident the only routing that would make sense would be right down Hennepin and there is simply not enough room for that. Otherwise, it is quicker to take the 6 downtown (about 17 minutes from Uptown Transit Center to 7th and Hennepin). Remember, the denser neighborhoods are north of where the LRT could go.

    • Gopherdude July 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm #

      The 3C alternative called for it to go under Nicollet. A Hennepin routing would also surely be a cut and cover tunnel.

      • David July 22, 2013 at 4:36 pm #

        And when you get to the Lowry tunnel?…

        • Matt Steele July 23, 2013 at 10:21 am #

          Nicollet doesn’t cross the Lowry tunnel. It crosses 94 in a trench. It wouldn’t be that tough to go under 94.

          • mister.shoes July 23, 2013 at 11:35 am #

            But then where would the deep-bore I-94 Lowry tunnel replacement go? *cough*

          • David July 23, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

            I was talking about a proposed Hennepin tunnel,.

  13. Evan Roberts
    Evan July 22, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    While I can agree with many of the individual points made in this post the overall argument could be read as “lets disrupt SWLRT at no political cost so we can improve bus service on Hennepin and Lyndale.” That argument doesn’t make sense to me.

    I think the political costs to future transit improvements from disrupting SWLRT at this stage would be very high. The political process that has brought us this specific route won’t magically change and bring us a better route. 5 levels of government and multiple municipalities with conflicting constituencies isn’t going away.

    Better transit service for Uptown-downtown and Uptown-Saint Paul is a question of political will to slap down the paint for bus lanes and enforce them. SWLRT is a separate question. The Midtown streetcar is a separate question as well.

  14. ben July 22, 2013 at 9:08 pm #

    If you want better travel time from uptown to downtown than improve the bus service, which is totally possible with very simple changes that most don’t want to make. Even a few light changes would increase travel time.

    I just have to say, however, that cities around the world encounter these problems, it is not limited to a midsized us cities (maybe unless its China and there’s a whole lot of other issues there). Nice piece to get the frustration out but in the scheme of things this project will still be successful in many ways — just move it forward and get the TOD right around the new stations.

  15. Ian Bicking July 23, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    Reading through the post and the critical comments, they both feel right. The planned route doesn’t serve the city, only downtown. It doesn’t have strong draws in both directions, unlike Central and Hiawatha. It’s hardly cheap, but doesn’t build on proven demand. And though not exactly permanent, changes are unlikely for many decades. But the route down Nicollet has some problems too, expensive with lots of opportunities to exceed expected cost, disruptive in many places.

    Of course, it’s also possible that *all* the options can be bad. If Northstar went to St. Cloud would it be a success? Very possibly not. We don’t have many routes where ridership won’t just trickle off as you get further out – there’s only two downtowns, only one airport (and the MOA which is a notable attraction). Arguably Uptown could be a fourth point. There’s still opportunities to increase the mobility between strong destinations in the Twin Cities… but not much opportunity, and when LRT only gets proposed on select existing right of ways (existing highways and rail lines) with explosive costs and considerably political opposition when it diverges from those right of ways, how can we expect to use it to build an intelligent transit system?

    This is the flaw I see with LRT: you can’t build a smart system using it. You only get to feed off the scraps of the urban fabric. There is no Right Path for SWLRT or Bottineau, there’s genuinely good (and Good Enough) arguments against all the paths. Then we invert the problem and solution (problem: people want to get someplace; solution: give them a transportation option for that trip) with TOD: build transit that doesn’t serve current demand, but architect the city to create demand for the transit we build. But even then SWLRT is challenged, as it goes alongside big highways that provide hard and permanent boundaries along one side.

    But I don’t think the SWLRT will bring us closer, or much further, from a quality transit system. If we keep on the path it represents, in 50 years maybe transit could have a 10% share? Do any of us really have any vision that is applicable 50 years and beyond of the future of this metropolitan area? But it doesn’t hurt that much either, it’s not a zero sum game – it’s not stealing money from good ideas, because there aren’t any good ideas that have any political support. And there’s hardly a wealth of creative thinking in transit that is being misdirected with SWLRT.

    Once we have ideas with real ambition, ideas that suggest maybe 25% share in 25 years, or 50% share in 50 years (or better!) then there will be something worth fighting for.

  16. Judy July 24, 2013 at 3:19 pm #

    I think Nick is right. The ridership doesn’t exist in Kenwood, the cost has skyrocketed since what-to-do-with-the-freight has become an adjunct problem. We need to protect the vitality of our urban areas. Moving freight from Kenilworth to St. Louis Park would bisect that city (plus take a bunch of homes). A deep tunnel at $330MM is too expensive and a shallow tunnel is laughable because it has to come out of the ground and hop over the Kenilworth channel, which means for that tight area it has to run parallel to the freight rail (and at-grade), not directly under it, as the Met Council PowerPt presentation of July 17 and 18 indicated. There has got to be a better LPA. This Kenilworth corridor just doesn’t promise to move a lot of people out of their cars.

  17. Erik Hare July 24, 2013 at 9:52 pm #

    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.

    • MplsJaromir July 25, 2013 at 3:57 pm #

      It is silly to have rails not running down the middle of the ROW. University Ave is much better now that it has been in a long time.

  18. Erik Hare July 24, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    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.

  19. Erik Hare July 24, 2013 at 10:34 pm #

    Also, there is an error above. The Green Line LRT will take 39 minutes between downtowns, but the current 94B bus takes 27 minutes. The statement that “It (the Green Line LRT) will continue to be much faster to take the Route 94 bus between the downtowns” is simply wrong.

    http://www.metrotransit.org/Schedules/WebSchedules.aspx?route=94

    Thank you.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 25, 2013 at 9:49 am #

      That was his point, Eric. He was agreeing with you, the 94 will always be faster (barring more bridges falling to more rivers)… (e.g. “It (INSERT NOTHING HERE) will continue to be be much faster to take the 94 bus.”)

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel July 25, 2013 at 10:34 am #

      The 94 Bus will be faster than the Green Line. Yet, that doesn’t mean everyone will chose the “fastest” route. I base my decision on what will get me there quickest(!). Meaning, I consider frequency. If you’re at a point where the 94 Bus is 15 minutes out – but the Green Line is right there; I will jump on the train 100% of the time.

      I’d be interesting to see the Green Line time tables and travel times without the two extra added stops (that were added 2009?). Anyone know? (FYI: I’m not saying that the stops shouldn’t have been added).

      • Erik Hare July 25, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

        The question remains a bit open as to how an LRT vs a streetcar influences those decisions. A streetcar in a dedicated guideway should appear much the same as an LRT to people, but one in the street may not appear as desirable. No one in the Twin Cities is exploring streetcars in such a system, or even with multiple cars per train, but they are an interesting option – and would have been a wonderful fit on University Ave.
        I am very happy that we have good planners like Kimley-Ross to work with because they do seem to understand the available options and how to make them fit with the built environment.
        If only we had built the Green Line on I94, the BNSF, or Short Line alignments we would now be talking about how to design appropriate streetcars to feed into the high-speed rail – and certainly would not have spent as much money!

  20. Cam Winton July 25, 2013 at 9:35 pm #

    Perhaps of interest: http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2013/07/25/mpls-mayoral-candidate-winton-wants-to-redirect-sw-light-rail-to-nicollet
    The only way forward I see is to revisit the LPA determination. Otherwise, one city or the other will withhold municipal consent and we’ll end up with nothing. Light rail down Midtown Greenway and up Nicollet, with freight staying in Kenilworth = best of not-so-great options.

  21. David Levinson
    David Levinson July 26, 2013 at 8:15 am #

    Not to ask another stupid question, but is the freight railway section (or all of the TC&W) even worth $400M (or $200M)? I.e. would it be cheaper to buy the railroad and shut it down. CSX, a much larger railway, only has a market cap of $25B.

  22. Nathaniel M Hood
    Nathaniel July 26, 2013 at 8:36 am #

    Re: David – Southwest Price jump article (via Star Tribune): http://www.startribune.com/local/west/217052201.html

    From article: “Dealing with freight traffic was expected to account for up to $420 million of the increased costs”. The $200 million Nicollet / Central streetcar proposal is looking really cheap (and good) right now …

    • David Levinson
      David Levinson July 26, 2013 at 8:58 am #

      Arterial BRT would look even better.

    • David July 26, 2013 at 10:15 am #

      That article is severely flawed to the point of dishonesty. We’re talking about budget numbers for a project not even 30% designed, carrying forward multiple options and doing proper engineering. We aren’t going to pick the most expensive option for everything.

      There are increases costs, yes, but nowhere near what the Strib article says and those increases have tangible benefits.

  23. mc July 26, 2013 at 9:03 am #

    WRONG: We don’t need to accelerate it ASAP! And build transit anywhere and everywhere!

    We need to end the typical reliance on the car infrastructure and cost to support it: streets/ramps/street signs/lights/HOV lanes, tunnels bridges, tires, air pollution/traffic accidents/car insurance/congestion/gas stations/oil changes/car repairs….so much more and so many others! What is the real cost of this craziness?

  24. mc July 29, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times’ bearded truth-teller, today weighed in on a recent study that says children in families living on low incomes have a very difficult time climbing the economic ladder in metro Atlanta.

    Krugman focused on how metro Atlanta’s sprawl and lack of public transit makes it harder for people to travel to work:

    When the researchers looked for factors that correlate with low or high social mobility, they found, perhaps surprisingly, little direct role for race, one obvious candidate. They did find a significant correlation with the existing level of inequality: “areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility.” This matches what we find in international comparisons, where relatively equal societies like Sweden have much higher mobility than highly unequal America. But they also found a significant negative correlation between residential segregation – different social classes living far apart – and the ability of the poor to rise.

    And in Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.

  25. Lyssa July 30, 2013 at 9:57 am #

    Here is my question to everyone who has commented who thinks they know the solution…do any of you actually work for the counties/Met Council during the planning stages of these projects? Do you actually know the insanity of dealing with the political and funding realities of CTIB/Counties/State/FTA?? Not to mention the complexities of balancing the desires of local elected officials and community members. This isn’t Sim City. We can’t plan in a perfect technical/urban planning box where political/funding realities don’t exist.

    While I don’t think that the current alignment is the best choice to foster a better urban environment, it was chosen because something had to be based on the realities at that time. Just like every other corridor in this region, compromises have to be made in order to build projects. Yes, there are missteps along the way but it is not because there has been bad planning work done, it is because the politics and funding structures in this region force difficult compromises.

    Everyone can be a critic until they actual do the work. No, I have never worked on SWLRT but I do work for a County on other transitway projects and have to work through difficult compromises on a daily basis.