The Riverview Corridor and Transit in the Twin Cities

Since I started serving on the Technical Advisory Committee for the Riverview Corridor transit project, I’ve had a front row seat from which to view the planning process here in St Paul. This isn’t the first time I’ve served on a group like this, but it is the most intensive and serious effort so far.

As a built urban environment, this is not an easy place to plan transit. Traversing the West Seventh neighborhood is only one problem – it has to cross the Mississippi eventually, which will be expensive.

I would like to tell you what I think is the ideal place for transit from Downtown St Paul to the airport and beyond, but it would be inappropriate. The process that we are moving through seems so deeply flawed that jumping to a “solution” is simply not what is needed. Whatever comes out of this is likely to be inadequate and jumbled.

The Riverview Logo. Yes, it's a train.

The Riverview Logo. Yes, it’s a train.

Like many government processes that seem strange or inadequate transit planning in the Twin Cities evolved gradually for important historical reasons that are not entirely valid today. The Hiawatha Line, now the Blue Line, was more or less crammed through in the mid 1990s by Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin because the agency best suited to do it, the Metropolitan Council, constantly dragged their feet. By setting up the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority the line was finally built.

That process was duplicated at the County level through the Twin Cities. The Central Corridor, now known as the Green Line, was a joint project of Hennepin and Ramsey County.

A pleasant urban street.

A pleasant urban street.

The inadequacies of the latter project have been discussed here at length. A substandard sidewalk only ten feet wide with no on-street parking to shield pedestrians has created an environment that cannot possibly be called “pedestrian friendly”.

How did that happen? The process selected a mode (LRT) and then an alignment (University Avenue) and then proceeded to find a way to make it fit. Nevermind that a streetcar system could have served the street for less money and left more room for a real pedestrian realm that is safe and attractive. This was an LRT project that had to be justified.

Justifying such a project is done on two major criteria – ridership and redevelopment potential. Given the need to evaluate each line as an individual “object project” there is no room to evaluate it against the needs of an entire system. In the case of University Avenue both key criteria pushed the line off of an alignment that would permit high speeds, either on I-94 or in the Burlington Northern tracks, and into the built urban environment of University Avenue.

green-line

The Green Line, both local and through train – and ultimately neither.

Nevermind that people already lived there and were redeveloping University Avenue to suit their needs. Grand plans were being made. Besides, the residents along University Avenue were primarily Black and Asian, which is to say people whose needs and efforts were far too easily dismissed.

The Riverview Corridor does not have the same situation, but the process is similar. An alignment and an appropriate mode will be selected by the committees as the data is brought to bear. But the process is going down the same paths because it is driven by the same impetus.

There is little doubt that LRT down West Seventh is the preferred alignment in the minds of Ramsey County Regional Rail staff. And that’s just plain silly. There are two key differences in this corridor:

  1. The redevelopment potential is not on West Seventh, but rather in underutilized industrial land located along railroad tracks closer to the Mississippi.
  2. Ridership now versus ridership once an interconnected system is built are two very different things.
The CP line and railyard are dominant features in St Paul.

The CP line and railyard are dominant features in St Paul.

The inability to consider the railroad alignments comes in part from a necessity. Existing railroad right-of-way is not usable for transit because the freight lines, owned by the Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific, require a separation of at least 50 feet for safety reasons. There does not appear to be enough room without buying up all of the railroad lines and consolidating them elsewhere in the city, likely on the BNSF right of way.

But that is indeed the problem. The project has to be immediate, not truly long term and visionary. An interconnected system of buses or streetcars on Seventh that meets a fast train in the rail corridors in a few appropriate places with a seamless transition would obviously serve the needs of riders and developers the most over the next fifty years and beyond. Yet those considerations cannot be part of the process.

Cramming LRT down Seventh is essentially impossible. A fixed guideway of any kind would not leave room for the 23k plus cars per day that travel this street, Minnesota Highway 5, and handle the very large crowd that already spill out beyond the fourteen foot wide sidewalks between the Xcel Center and the night life of Seventh Street. At only 80 feet wide, the street is far too narrow – and at 120 wide the crunch on University seems positively spacious.

On Seventh there are more cars, more pedestrians, and fewer feet to put it all in.

RV-Map-9-25-14-21-REVISED

Riverview corridor map.

The Technical Advisory Committee will consider putting LRT in the middle of traffic without a fixed lane, among other considerations. Where I’m supposed to keep an open mind I cannot possibly see this working. The long trains will be inherently less safe operating in traffic than they are on University, which saw three deaths just last year.

There is in place right now a “Safe Streets Initiative” directed by the Fort Road Federation to make West Seventh safer. Crossing Seventh as a pedestrian is difficult enough and the horrific accidents at Victoria and Lexington are not acceptable. The street needs far more attention than this particular project can possibly give it.

The need for these “innovations” that put a heavy load on Seventh are all driven by a process that cannot look at the long term by design. And that is what needs to change.

The group has spent about $2 million so far simply gathering public input and data for this project. It is, essentially, re-inventing the wheel one more time for a new object project that doesn’t really get us to a coherent system that actually meets the stated criteria for serving riders and encouraging appropriate redevelopment.

What all transit needs is someone obviously in charge.

What all transit needs is someone obviously in charge.

What process would? The Twin Cities are poorly served by transit because there is not one agency that has complete control over the process. One agency that has authority over design, build, maintenance, and operation would be able to make the appropriate trade-offs between bus and rail transit in various corridors. Combining it with an established urban design center that is charged with implementing best practices of aesthetics, safety, and convenience would give us the ability to develop transit more coherently.

For example, the rail lines that exist may not go away tomorrow. The CP spur to the old Ford Plant is an easy buy, but what about the UP line to the great redevelopment site by the ADM elevators – now small and obsolete by any modern standard? Why does the CP need the Short Line when they can’t run double-stack containers through it with the short bridge clearance?

Only an agency that’s in it for the long haul could possible make those decisions that benefit an entire system. And it would be best for riders, too.

Such an agency would require a visible public face – a director who is charged with increasing ridership anyway they can. I imagine someone wearing a conductor’s hat, like the late Corbin Kidder sometimes did, and showing up on buses to ask people what they need to make their journey better.

Ultimately, the problem is accountability. Right now, we have almost none at all. That is what has to change.

The Ford Site is the big redevelopment prize, but serving it will be hard. So how will it be done well?

The Ford Site is the big redevelopment prize, but serving it will be hard.

Where do I see the Riverview Corridor running? What mode would work best? I honestly don’t care that much because anything we come up with will be a compromise – yet another “object project” that is inadequate in one or more ways. The worst mistake we can make would be to duplicate the Blue Line, where an attempt to be all things for all considerations ultimately served none of them particularly well.

The problems we face are not a matter of will to make transit happen. They are a matter of accountability and vision. We aren’t going to get that with the system we have now, necessary as it was to get the Hiawatha Line built in the first place.

We need to rethink what we are doing. It’s not about rethinking transit, it’s about rethinking the need to get something done that serves the next generations.

[This post first appeared on Barataria, Erik Hare’s blog on politics.]


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44 Responses to The Riverview Corridor and Transit in the Twin Cities

  1. Matty Lang
    Matty Lang January 26, 2016 at 10:50 am #

    As someone who lives along the Green Line in Hamline Midway I have to say that’s is been a great success and a wonderful addition to the neighborhoods along University. Do I wish we had wider sidewalks on University? Absolutely! The reason we don’t have that is because of the assumption that we needed to keep room for the same amount of cars that we had on University before the Green Line.

    That was a flawed premise from which to make space allocation decisions just like assuming you want to have 23,000 cars/day passing through the neighborhood on West 7th after the Riverview line is up and running is a misguided way to evaluate space allocation needs.

    • Erik Hare January 26, 2016 at 12:56 pm #

      If the trains ran along the sidewalk, creating a distinct pedestrian realm, it would be easy to implement a road diet in the center with a 3-lane road confined to the car realm. But with the tracks in the center that’s not possible.

      A dedicated streetcar guideway along the sidewalk would have been safer and opened up a lot of space for many more features – trees in medians, bike lanes, on street parking, etc. But placing the tracks in the center made all of that impossible.

      Why are the tracks in the center? Because it was felt that there was a need to have increased speed. Again, the demands that the one line on University be all things for all considerations created the pressure for an inadequate urban design.

      A dedicated streetcar guideway next to a proper 12-foot or more sidewalk was what was called for, as it could accommodate multiple car consists that would expand and contract as capacity is needed. That would have served University Avenue and the pedestrian realm there. And with trees in a median just beyond we could have built the Champs Elysees in 120 feet of width.

      But we didn’t. Why? Why isn’t the LRT where LRT is appropriate, in a fast corridor? Why don’t we have an attractive streetcar for local that interfaces at key intersections like Dale, Lexington, Snelling, Raymond, etc?

      Because one line had to do all things. That was the mistake. We had to consider the needs of that one line far, far ahead of the needs of University Avenue. A road diet? Sure, would have been great and very do-able. It’s much more difficult now. You and I agree that University needs it, but the needs of that street never came first.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini January 27, 2016 at 9:37 am #

        A center-running LRT avoids right-turning vehicles, vehicles that will simply stop to drop people or things off at stores, presents less of a safety hazard to pedestrians (trains are heavy and dangerous!) by not running inches from them. It minimizes wasted space by alternating platforms and left turn lanes on either side of intersections (and planters/small trees can be used mid-block). A side-running streetcar requires platforms at stops, which either cut into sidewalk space drastically or require bulbing out into the street space.

        Stop making it sound like there’s a tradeoff between sidewalk space, bike lanes, and a good tree canopy and center-running LRT. http://streetmix.net/alexcecchini/109/university-ave-lrt-center

        As you can see, 120′ fits a center-running LRT as built with a left turn lane at intersections and one lane in each direction, plus 15′ of sidewalk/tree space and a 6′ raised cycle track with 2′ of buffer to the street. I can see where a right turn lane may have been desirable at Snelling, and many here have advocated that grade separation was appropriate at this intersection (and select few others, which would have provided the space to maintain sidewalk, bike, and tree ROW in addition to the desired turn lane(s). The decision to have too-narrow sidewalks on University had everything to do with requiring two- thru-lanes for cars.

        We shouldn’t be advocating for rail in freeway trenches a quarter mile from where people and businesses are, and want to be.

  2. Matt Steele
    Matt Steele January 26, 2016 at 11:05 am #

    Regarding the Green Line: It’s actually rather streetcarish, but with dedicated ROW. There’s no reason for shared ROW in 120 feet. The Green Line is also not responsible for the space crunch, since it was our desire to maintain at least four traffic lanes for a street that had been deteriorated as a traffic sewer for far too long. As others have noted, it’s still not too late to do some adjustments to provide for a more appropriate use of the street right of way: One traffic lane in each direction, bike lanes, parking in the meat of the blocks, and large bulb-outs on the corners at intersections. It’s a shame we didn’t pursue that common-sense design when the Green Line project paid for complete reconstruction of the streetscape.

    Riverview is definitely more complex since 7th Street is a tighter corridor. But it’s also an opportunity to return the street to people in its places rather than moving cars through its places. I think the biggest flaw is assuming that 23,000 vehicles need to move along this street. That does a huge disservice to the neighborhoods along West 7th, and it’s absolutely not necessary – especially with Shepard and 35E paralleling the corridor.

    It seems like the best option would be to use the CP Ford Spur ROW between the Davern area and Randolph Ave, then street-running operations (possibly with shared ROW) from Randolph to Kellogg. Dedicated ROW would be needed downtown once again.

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele January 26, 2016 at 11:14 am #

      Regarding the other two rail lines you mention:

      The UP industrial lead to the ADM elevator and automobile transloading facility runs down the side of the bluff to the river bottoms (where UP has a yard just west of downtown). While there’s a small amount of walkable development along the Upper Landing area, it pales in comparison to the trip generators which could be served atop the bluff – where 7th Street is. The walkable destinations are already along 7th St – especially between Randolph and Downtown – which is why we need transit improvements serving those nodes.

      The CP Merriam Park Subdivision is indeed a major opportunity for transit in our region. I’d like to see the Met Council buy it. We could see an extension of the Midtown Greenway through St. Paul, alongside a railroad that could eventually be the primary regional/intercity heavy rail link for passenger trains between the two downtowns.

      • Erik Hare January 26, 2016 at 12:59 pm #

        We’re talking about the receeding industrial glaciers of the Mississippi, as Ben Thompson called them. St Paul has a lot of thinking to do before we start making proper use of the railbeds we already have in place.

        This project is not in a position to make those kinds of big decisions. But those are what should come first. The Short Line? It’s much more useful to us as a transit line than it is to CP without the ability to double-stack containers.

        Many cities have taken the industrial rail lines out of their waterfront to make appropriate use of the space they took up. We should, too. But that is far beyond the scope of this project.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman January 26, 2016 at 1:45 pm #

      Because there’s never people inside cars, cars are driving themselves with no-one inside and the only people on the street are the ones that are pedestrians or on bicycles?

      But seriously, we’ve talked about this before, but St Paul seems to be botching their chance to make 7th more local in character by the lame connection proposed between the Fort Road Bridge and Shepard Road. Ideally they’d make it harder to get to 7th and Easy to get to Shepard, not just as easy to get to 7th and almost as hard to get to Shepard like my understanding of the current plan.

  3. John Charles Wilson January 26, 2016 at 11:25 am #

    Transit on W. 7th can be improved right now with just buses. Bring back the 69 (or the Saint Paul 9, if you will) with local stops all along. One branch to Highland Village via Saint Paul Avenue and Cleveland, the other to the Fort Snelling Blue Line station. Then make the 54 limited stop closer to an express: stop only at Smith, Saint Clair, Randolph, and West Maynard along W. 7th. All downtown Saint Paul, Airport, and Bloomington stops would remain as is.

  4. Erik Hare January 26, 2016 at 11:54 am #

    I want to let the comments run primarily without me – I said my bit. But I want to clarify my criticism of the Green Line:

    It cost a Billion Dollars.

    We should have gotten a LOT more for that – in fact, in nearly any other city it should have been possible to build a fast LRT on I-94 AND a streetcar on University for that much money. $100M per mile is excessive.

    Without the pressures caused by the great expense of the system we have, what decisions might we have made differently? If we considered a complex system of local lines and express lines rather than one project at a time, how would we view University?

    That’s my point. The system we have is expensive and forces too much from any one line as a stand-alone “object project”.

    • Mike Hicks January 26, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

      There is a pretty big issue of cost inflation with American transit projects, often costing two to ten times as much as comparable projects around the world. It isn’t entirely clear why this happens.

      I think you made some good suggestions about building a strong regional entity that could alleviate the problem, though. One notable distinction is that MnDOT is able to use their own staff to design and validate many highway projects, but the Met Council and metro-area counties don’t have that institutional capability to rely on. When there’s a heavy dependency on consultants, it seems that costs go up.

      Rail transit projects also tend to have all-inclusive budgets that pay for things that aren’t involved in highway projects. The light rail vehicles alone cost a couple hundred million. We never think of the cost of owning automobiles when we design highways, and we rarely see much thought put into the cost of streets or stations when bus fleets are upgraded.

      The Green Line’s budget included an expensive maintenance facility, equivalent to a combination of an automotive repair garage and a parking structure. It included catenary wires and other power infrastructure, similar to the gas stations and background petroleum fueling network necessary for cars to actually run. Even the stations on the line are somewhat equivalent of parking for cars. Those costs are external to highway projects because they’re provided by separate, private entities, but they get included in transit lines because they’re more obviously connected in that context.

      The Blue and Green lines were very expensive to build, but they now carry more than 1/4 of all transit rides in our region. Should we find ways to keep costs down whenever we can reasonably do it? Absolutely. But there are times when things simply cost a lot, and plenty of others where we can learn from past mistakes and find ways to do it better the next time around.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte Castleman January 26, 2016 at 6:13 pm #

      I agree that University should have been a streetcar, especially since it’s functionally one with all the stops that it has. But in addition to a University Streetcar, what about all day heavy rail service over existing freight lines between the downtowns rather than a new LRT track by the freeway?

  5. Molly January 26, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    Please forgive my non-liner thinking on this:

    I agree with your points about have a more coordinated and thoughtful process and overall I am pretty agnostic as to mode. However, I think that it is important to put our transit investments where the people who use transit can access them. As someone who lives in W7th and depends on public transit, moving the major investments off of 7th and down to the riverfront would be fairly tragic. My pocket of the neighborhood has no access to the riverfront area and so major transit investment that could be a short walk away would instead be a mile and a half walk away unless we finally get connections down to the river integrated into the new design which I suspect wold be the first thing to go in any cost cutting measures if it was even a serious part of the conversation to begin with.

    And i suppose one could argue that there is always the bus, but then we end up with a weird stratification – the people who can afford to live in the fancy condos down by the river get the fancy train service that – looking at the ridership from existing lines – is a major amenity and the more modest income folks get the bus. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that we have bus service where so many places do not, but it is not frequent enough currently and with the downtown to airport/mall folks diverted onto the (insert your mode here) fixed guide-way service along the river, I suspect that the buses down W7th will become less frequent.

    There are a ton of cars who use W7th. It is terrifying crossing the street to catch my bus. I don’t know that we solve this by planning around the current capacity of cars, but instead by creating a design that slows the traffic down, creates better signage and visibility for pedestrians, and incorporates transit investment, pedestrian, and bike infrastructure.

    Maybe streetcars would be the best fit. Maybe it is aBRT. Maybe there is a feasible way to do LRT. I don’t know.

    I was slightly annoyed when the aBRT plan for the B line was rejected for the “maybe someday you will get something else, something better” plan. If that something else ends up being out of reach for me and my neighbors (lots of low income folks, seniors, and people with disabilities) it would be pretty crushing.

    I think the overarching issue is that we don’t really have a shared understanding of what transit infrastructure investment is meant to accomplish. Is it meant for mobility for people within the community? Commuter transit for downtown workers? Economic development? I think that folks who say all of the above, but which of these wins out when we are balancing priorities? Knowing this upfront would lead to more coherent decision making and, even if it does not satisfy everyone, at least we would be more predictable and honest.

  6. Mike Hicks January 26, 2016 at 1:40 pm #

    There are parts where I prefer the Ford Spur alignment, and others where I don’t like it. I think it’s a pretty good option between roughly St. Paul Avenue and Lexington Parkway, since West 7th runs past a (probably) undevelopable slope separating the street from the neighborhood to the northwest. However, using the rail corridor would nicely run through the remaining developable land, making it a very short walk to any station built in the area.

    The bluffs cause a problem for the rail line farther north, though. The Ford Spur itself runs from roughly Randolph southward. North of Randolph, the rail corridor descends the bluff face and ends up being separated from most housing and retail along the West 7th corridor. It’s best to stay on surface streets north of that point, unless this is only intended to be a high-speed, very limited-stop service.

    The good thing about staying on 7th is that you can see businesses and other familiar landmarks out the windows of the transit vehicle. Buildings tend to face away from rail corridors, making it hard to know where you are and for people to see the businesses they might be looking for.

    A lot of car traffic on West 7th can be redirected to Shepard Road, and I think that’s particularly true for the busy stretch between the Fort Road bridge over the Mississippi and the I-35E junction a couple miles northeast. If the traffic headed to/from I-35E could be taken off of 7th, then that could allow the number of lanes to be reduced and potentially fit the transit service in the surface street corridor, though it would be tight.

  7. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman January 26, 2016 at 1:52 pm #

    I pretty much agree that there’s too much ambivalence about what light rail should be. You try to put if someplace easy to build where it can make fast time, say Kennilworth or I-94, and people complain that it bypasses dense neighborhoods. You try to put it through dense neighborhoods, and people claim it’s too disruptive and slow. Ultimately light rail is by itself a split the difference mode; if you want fast times you build commuter rail and if you want something non-disruptive to serve a local neighborhood you build streetcar, so this ambivalence is not going to go away. With all the stops on University is seems like we have something functionally like a streetcar but with the expense disruption of light rail.

    • Erik Hare January 26, 2016 at 2:04 pm #

      Yes, you are far more succinct than I am! On University we got a streetcar for $100M a mile whereas every place else gets one for $25M a mile (including 1990s Portland, adjusted for inflation). And it’s very big and ugly by comparison. Not a great buy. That’s my main point.

      A truly big picture would not force us to make one line that is all things for all operations and allow us to do what the street needs. That is what good urban design is ultimately about – what the street needs.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller January 26, 2016 at 2:12 pm #

        But we didn’t get a street car. We got an urban portion of an LRT line that is meant to run all the way out to Eden Prairie.

        In an ideal world, we would not try to combine those two functions, but in the world we have, that was the choice that was made and likely will result in providing both of those function much sooner that they otherwise would have.

      • Alex Cecchini
        Alex Cecchini January 26, 2016 at 2:32 pm #

        A streetcar at $25m a mile would have had less than 1/3 the capacity of 3 LRVs, would have operated in mixed-traffic (thus slower travel time, likely between the 50 and 16’s time, but would have also stopped more frequently than the half-mile station spacing we got. Of course, $25m a mile is a pretty misleading number, the Nicollet-Central streetcar project was estimated at $393m in $2013 for a 9.2 mile corridor, or $43m per mile.

        At some point, every decision we make, even if it’s taken within in a bigger picture as you advocate, will have tradeoffs. Travel time, capacity, operating costs, capital costs, visual impact, market served, and right-of-way requirements. Every mode, corridor, and station placement decision will affect these.

        It’s interesting that anyone would continue to use the Green Line as a whipping boy considering the ridership success. As a person who follows transit projects across the country pretty closely, it’s hard to think of a better project in terms of time savings, capacity, equity, and development potential for the capital cost. As Matty points out, the decision to keep such narrow sidewalks abutting travel lanes had little to do with the LRT mode and more to do with insistence on keeping 2 travel lanes.

        And thus the challenge of even defining what any street “needs.” There are plenty of people out there who think University Ave doesn’t need buses, let alone a streetcar or LRT. Bike lanes? On-street parking? Turn lanes? I dare anyone to objectively define “need.”

        • Joey Senkyr
          Joey Senkyr January 26, 2016 at 6:03 pm #

          Seriously. This is what everyone who argues that the Green Line should have been a mixed-traffic streetcar always misses. A streetcar has maybe 20% more capacity than an articulated bus. If you build one on a corridor that regularly has crush-loaded buses, like University (Or Nicollet!) you’re going to find that you spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a service that’s already at capacity on the day it opens.

          It would be great if the Green Line was faster. Or if it was cheaper. But, short of grade-separating it (at least in some areas), I’ll maintain it was the best project we could have done for this corridor.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 26, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

      Yeah but the Green Line is great. I love riding it and I’m not alone because many other people do too, and I’d bet that it’ll be the #1 transit corridor in the TC for the next 50 years. Can it be improved? Sure, but it’s also the model of what we need to be doing to create great transit. And this isn’t my opinion, but the ridership numbers and development along it back me up. The Green Line should be changing people’s minds.

    • Walker Angell
      Walker Angell January 27, 2016 at 8:14 am #

      Well said — we have a poor compromise (in my fairly uneducated opinion).

      I agree with Bill that the LRT is popular, but that’s like saying that a dentist who gives you a shot of bad whisky before pulling your teeth is popular compared to one who does nothing. It ignores all of the dentists who use anesthetics or gas. Or who at least give you a good single-malt Scotch.

      University is a place for a tram. Yes, it’s slower than LRT and doesn’t handle as many people but it serves it’s purpose well of providing short distance transportation and serving numerous stops without huge expense and without a massively negative impact on the street life and neighborhood. A tram isn’t intended for long or even medium distance travel.

      94 or similar is the place for LRT or commuter rail — a system intended for medium distance transportation that is higher speed with fewer stops. One or two stops in Minneapolis, one at the U (or not), Snelling BRT, and then one or two in St Paul. Reliably 8-10 minutes from Minneapolis to St Paul?

      In thinking long-term instead of short-term we might have only gotten one of these now and may not get the other for 5 or 10 years but the end result for generations to come would be massively better.

      • Adam Miller
        Adam Miller January 27, 2016 at 10:10 am #

        How many people commute between downtowns? Why do we need a commuter rail for them?

        • Walker Angell
          Walker Angell January 27, 2016 at 10:36 am #

          We may not need one. Given the travel time on the central corridor I would likely choose to drive between them though. If a faster option with fewer stops were offered then I’d be more likely to take rail.

          I think the bigger argument for LRT or commuter rail would be extending it east past St Paul and west past Minneapolis so that folks farther out have a viable option to driving. If someone in Apple Valley were going to Minneapolis though I’d guess they’d make the same time calc as me and with all of the stops between St Paul and Minneapolis would choose to drive.

          Most European cities have a higher speed commuter rail system with very few metro stations for middle distance and long distance as well as a tram system for shorter distance and more frequent stops. This seems to work well as you can choose which to use for what (and this might often be both).

        • Mike Hicks January 28, 2016 at 3:55 pm #

          Well, the quietest stretch of I-94 between the two downtowns carries 135,000 vehicles daily. It’s usually pretty easy to get around the Twin Cities by car, but transit takes a very long time. Car commuters only take 25-30 minutes to get to work, but bus riders are often much worse off. I’ve moved to a place that’s relatively close to work, but when I go to other destinations I’m often stuck taking more than an hour to get anywhere of interest by bus/train — and that’s for places that are pretty close by.

          The Green Line does well for a service that’s constrained by having to stop for car traffic, but a commuter train could run pretty much unimpeded and make the run in about 25 minutes — perhaps 20 minutes faster than light rail. For some, that would be like cutting out 80% of a car commuter’s travel time.

          The two downtowns are our region’s biggest transit hubs — Minneapolis has around 100 bus routes, while St. Paul has dozens more.

          The biggest problem with the idea of fast downtown-to-downtown service is that the existing commuter/intercity stations are awkwardly placed. We’ve lost 3 out of 4 fairly fast rail corridors into Minneapolis, and lost a couple of stations. Target Field station is too far west and Union Depot is too far east. I’d practically advocate for putting faster train service right down the middle of I-94, since that’s one of the most direct ways to get between the downtowns.

          We’ll probably have to settle for improved bus service one of these days using semi-dedicated HOT lanes.

  8. Aaron Isaacs
    Aaron Isaacs January 26, 2016 at 5:14 pm #

    I don’t think there’s any chance that a Riverview rail line can ever be built because of the difficulty of crossing the Mississippi River, then hooking up with the Blue Line to get to the airport. I don’t see how that is politically possible.

    • Matt Brillhart January 27, 2016 at 8:50 am #

      I agree the river crossing is the biggest unanswered question, and the biggest barrier to rail service in this corridor. Some of the ideas to create a *new* river crossing bridge somewhere between MN-5 and Ford Parkway (“Montreal extension” or “Ford Spur extension”) are bordering on fantasy. There are just too many barriers to an entirely new river bridge in this area.

      What if the Fort Road Bridge (MN-5) needs to be replaced anyways? MNDOT just did some pretty major repairs on it last year, but it’s still an old, old bridge. I don’t know what the lifespan of those recent repairs is supposed to be (15 years?) but it certainly seems possible that it would need to be replaced fairly soon anyways. Replacing that bridge 10 years ahead of schedule with a new one which can accommodate LRT seems a lot more politically and financially feasible than anything else being considered.

      • Mike Seim January 27, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

        They only re-decked the bridge(s) for a total of 13 million – more of a extra-large band-aid then anything. Plus, I still believe it’s a fracture critical bridge – same design as the old Lafayette Bridge

        • Matt Brillhart January 28, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

          That’s true, it wasn’t an expensive project, but I’m guessing it still has an expected lifespan of at least 10-15 years. If a new MN-5 bridge needs to begin construction in 2025 anyways, but Riverview bumps that schedule up to 2020 or 2022 or whatever, I don’t think MNDOT would take too much issue with that.

          I sincerely hope that conversation is already taking place between MNDOT planners and the Riverview project office.

  9. Wanderer January 26, 2016 at 10:36 pm #

    I don’t know the corridor or the alternatives being considered for it. General comment: 70 feet is often considered the minimum right of way width for bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes. With an 80 foot right of way, BRT is a physical possibility.

  10. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell January 27, 2016 at 8:02 am #

    Erik, great article. My knowledge of transit and rail is quite limited but with my current knowledge I agree with you about Central Corridor. Not only was it four times as expensive as a tram or streetcar and takes up about twice as much space but it also kills the social feel of University. More here:

    http://streets.mn/2015/04/22/some-personal-observations-about-getting-around-the-twin-cities/

    I travel to Europe several times per year and the difference between the impact of trams and our LRT is huge. Our massive LRT stations isolate people on the platforms and isolate people on nearby sidewalks. They create shadowy areas where they shouldn’t be. Jane Jacobs would be appalled.

  11. Adam Froehlig
    Adam Froehlig January 27, 2016 at 8:09 am #

    I have to question some of the premise of this article, in no small part because of how that 23,000 vpd figure is thrown about as if it represents the entire corridor. It doesn’t. It’s essentially an average, but a more detailed breakdown will show that west of 35E has far higher traffic than the stretch between 35E and downtown, virtually all of which is under 20K vpd. And with an 80ft right-of-way, it *IS* technically possible to fit LRT into such a corridor. Politically, it probably wouldn’t happen…too many people would complain about the “loss of parking” or losing a lane, even though the lower traffic volumes along that segment of West 7th would make it a good candidate for a road diet.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 27, 2016 at 10:28 am #

      West 7th already has a road-diet (4-3 conversion) from 35E to Mancini’s Char House, thank god. It was horrible before, and now it’s only bad.

  12. Mike Seim January 27, 2016 at 8:23 am #

    In some ways, the neighborhood really shot itself in the foot long-term by getting the Truck Ban put on 35E. Because trucks can’t use the grade-separated freeway, they still use West 7th, putting them right in the heart of the neighborhood and increasing the need for “capacity” on 7th

    • Steve January 27, 2016 at 8:53 am #

      I live in the West 7th neighborhood, and I don’t see a larger number of trucks compared to other parts of the city. Most of those I do see seem to be making local deliveries and so I don’t think the truck ban makes much of a difference.

    • Stu January 27, 2016 at 9:07 am #

      My understanding is that the folks at the top of Summit Hill fought for the truck ban on 35E not the folks on West 7th. There is a distinct difference in income from from the top of the bluff to the bottom.

      I could be wrong, however as this battle occurred long before I lived in either MPLS or SP.

      • Walker Angell
        Walker Angell January 27, 2016 at 9:46 am #

        It was the folks at the top. Not sure how much income difference factored in though. There are natural noise barriers horizontally and it is also fairly easy to build noise walls. That’s not the case with areas on a hill or bluff above a highway where it is impractical or impossible to reduce noise levels. Elimination of trucks and lowering of speeds (tire noise increases exponentially with speed) were the only solution if the highway were to go through.

        That said, I was largely against the project to begin with and I would support elimination of all limited access or high speed highways within the 494/694 loop and many outside of the loop.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 27, 2016 at 10:29 am #

      Agreed, though the truck ban has more of an impact on Snelling Avenue, which is the State Highway and truck route.

      • Adam Froehlig
        Adam Froehlig January 27, 2016 at 10:42 am #

        Trucks were also using Lexington, which is why the neighborhoods along Lexington were supportive of opening Ayd Mill Rd to 35E and truck use.

  13. David Markle
    David Markle January 27, 2016 at 12:38 pm #

    Erik, I share your concerns, and also point to the example of the Green Line where a billion-dollar train line serves as inadequate (very few stops) streetcar line, and bus service that does have adequate stops is now relatively infrequent. And we have lost the opportunity for many years to have an adequate trunk line between (and in-between) the two major cities.

    The process lacks vision, and the Met Council as now constituted will not provide that vision.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke January 27, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

      If it’s so inadequate, why are so many people riding it all the time?

      • David Markle
        David Markle January 27, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

        Bill, without going into a long-winded discussion, the Green Line advantages over the #16 bus are ease of entry and exit, and frequency of service, which would (ease of entry) or could (frequency of service) be the case with a modern streetcar line. The other advantage is improved service between downtown Minneapolis and the Minneapolis U of MN campus area, where most of your vaunted ridership takes place and where the number of boarding stops is adequate. The earlier plan to site the train along the freeway anticipated significantly higher ridership (higher transit speed) than with siting on University Avenue. The present rate of use in St. Paul remains unimpressive, and the choices that were made remain a bad use of dollars. We’re stuck with a transit line that resembles Bostonj’s antiquated Green Line.

        Doing things this way is not a mere compromise, it’s simply bad planning.

        • Adam Froehlig
          Adam Froehlig January 28, 2016 at 9:18 am #

          Given that two major tenets of transit planning these days are to put the transit where the people are and where development can happen that supports the transit (and vice versa), how do you reconcile the fact that University is a better corridor for both tenets than 94?

  14. Tracy January 29, 2016 at 12:26 pm #

    Have any of the folks in charge looked at making West 7th and Smith a one-way pair between downtown and the High Bridge? The roads are kinda set up to accommodate that already – similar to the change made at Lake/Lagoon years ago.

    You could then split the LRT so eastbound travels on Seventh, and westbound travels on Smith. The same split could extend through downtown for that matter on 5th & 6th.

    That may be enough to accomodate a separate LRT ROW, yet still reasonably accommodate traffic needs too. Not perfect, but maybe better. It’s a built-up city. Go figure.