Do or do not, there is no plan

The local news sourceFinance and Commerce reports that

The Metropolitan Council will consider spending more than $740,000 to study building a transitway linking the Hiawatha light rail line and the proposed Southwest line. Possible routes include Lake Street and the Midtown Greenway.

This is the Midtown Greenway Streetcar.

We know how this story ends. We know this will be built. We know there will be a self-congratulatory ribbon cutting. We know politicians will declare it a success. We know it will lose money. We know it will be in the Greenway, not on Lake Street. We know it will be a streetcar or a bus that looks, smells, and operates like a streetcar. We know there will be rails or track over grass. The City will somehow find the money, it always does for supposed economic development projects like stadiums and convention centers.

It is already part of the Minneapolis Streetcar Plan completed five years ago. It will cost from $87 million to $115 million according to the more recent Funding Study, a number that sounds plausible for a mostly single tracked facility where there is no real land acquisition required.

There are no important environmental impacts, it is in a former railroad right-of-way.

The only thing we do not know is when, but I will guess June 22, 2024, 8:00 am for an opening date. I choose so far into the future, since for indiscernible reasons, construction cannot begin on one project until after the opening of the previous project. This comes after the opening of the SWLRT, and probably the Bottineau line as well, and probably the Streetcars in Phase 1 of the Minneapolis plan radiating from Downtown, so this is like number 5 or 6 in line for a set of 2-3 year construction projects.

This is kabuki.

Now far be it from me to suggest we shouldn’t do more transportation plans. Some of my favorite students are transportation planners. The market is tight, I know competent people searching for jobs (or better jobs). But how many times do we need to study the same thing?

Wouldn’t it be better to spend some resources and solve real problems. How much improvements to bus stops could you get for say $740,000?

Yes, yes, we need to do this to get federal funds, and so on. But if you really believe in the project, you can go through the morass of applying for federal dollars, drive up the cost of the project, and delay the benefits, or you can start construction now and get it done. That is what Tom Lowry did.

The answer is of course, in the lack of belief. We much prefer spinning wheels and waiting for Santa Claus than building things that are sufficiently locally valuable that they are worth locally paying for.

28 thoughts on “Do or do not, there is no plan

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    very snarkish, David! esp the "some of my best friends…" bit.

    I agree, though. the same might be said about the pre-cleanup, pre-developer st paul ford site planning, kind of unnecessary.

  2. ML

    Maybe the study will find that a mostly single track streetcar is a stupid idea that will be inefficient and lose loads of money, so it won't be built after all. One can hope. If you're going to build transit, take the time to do it right. They might as well do this with an "historic" streetcar and make it a tourist attraction. It won't be able to meaningfully replace the 21 or 53.

    1. Anders ImbodenAnders

      "It won't be able to meaningfully replace the 21 or 53."

      This is exactly the problem in my eyes. The 21 is woefully slow, sure, but it provides an essential service, stopping every block or two along the entire corridor. Look at the boardings and see how relatively evenly disbursed they are:

      The 53, being a limited-stop bus, serves a totally different function. The streetcar could mimic that for part of the route, I suppose, stopping at all the major transfer points and anchors west of Hiawatha. But the 53's connection into St. Paul is a key part of its utility. I suppose you could start it at Hiawatha instead of Uptown, but there's such a bias against transferring in the Twin Cities that I wonder if this would depress its ridership (which are substantially lower per trip than the 21, it's worth noting).

  3. Prescott MorrillPrescott Morrill

    Some details that I pulled out as an urban landscape designer: do we know that it will be over grass? Sure, we know that Soren Jensen at the Midtown Greenway Coalition will accept no substitutes (, but I don't know if I buy it. It's maintenance would be unnecessarily intensive, it would not provide any better stormwater infiltration rates (turf grass has almost the same infiltration rate as concrete), and I don't think there is ample sunlight or landcare budget for it.

    But, this is a simple detail.

    I would like to hear more about the Santa Claus reference in the last paragraph. It sounds like you would agree that this is all posturing to lock-down federal funding (like TIGER grants, or the New Starts program)? So, if this money puts people to work, and can solidify projects to receive more federal dollars, what is the harm in it? I agree that to simply start is the most logical course of action, but we are locked in an illogical system, so why not play along and circulate some money in the local economy while we do-so? (I recognize that posing this sort of question might illicit a barrage of responses)

    So, in the end, I see the inefficiencies with how the Met Council is doing business, but I would ask, what are the real harms, beyond a longer time horizon for these projects?

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

      @Prescott. Obviously, it is better to get Uncle to pay for my half my dinner than paying for it myself. The problem is if Uncle will only do so 10 years from now. Then I lose 10 years of benefits.

      If the project were truly beneficial (I have my doubts about all fixed-route infrastructure in low-demand cities, due to its added infrastructure maintenance costs (buses can offload those) and inflexibility), but this is one of the lower hanging fruits of Minneapolis transit investments, since the right-of-way is already there and grade separated, there is relatively high density stuff on the corridor and, assuming SWLRT, there would be LRT transit stations at both ends), then the 50 percent cost reduction from getting Uncle to pay for dinner has to be discounted by the 10 year loss in benefits.

      Further, if we paid for our own dinner we would seek economies, while if Uncle pays, we would get Lobster.

      No one really knows how this nets out, ridership forecasts are not terribly accurate, development forecasts much less so. But delay has a real, nontrivial cost.

  4. Matt SteeleMatt

    Why does it cost so much to study new transit? I doubt research and study consumes as much of the average non-transit project. I realize transit is intertwined with land use, service levels, farebox recovery, etc. but at some point we just need to bite the bullet. I don't mean to discredit the work done by you industry types — I read those plans and they are very detail and thorough. But, as David said, they often confirm what we expected to hear.

    I think part of the problem is that we don't have standards the way we have standards for road design. Not that I always agree with road standards (and I feel like we've forced a lot of stroads into neighborhoods in the interest of following standards) but I'm sure it makes things more efficient. We know the engineering standards for the Interstate Highway System… they have been refined since the 1950s but not by much. Why not have similar standards for high speed rail, streetcars, etc?

    The main advantage here isn't in engineering a specific project, but for planning for a future project. Putting a grade-separated rail corridor to new use? Here's a standard for future transit operations that may share the corridor. That type of thing.

  5. Christian

    I did not feel, from reading this post, that I got an accurate impression as to why you feel the single-track streetcar line will be a failure. In Cincinnati, much debate has occurred regarding the 1.5 mile loop to Downtown and the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. However, immediate plans call for an extension to connect Downtown to one of the largest employers in the region–the University of Cincinnati. Many have fought to keep the project on track, despite considerable push back from ultra-manipulative, conservative folks. But we know the benefits are already here, concerning the streetcar. Land values have already risen along the proposed route, and street activity has grown considerably.

    1. Anders ImbodenAnders

      I think there's a real question of whether the value added justifies the expense in this corridor. A streetcar in the Greenway itself likely can't replace the 21 bus on Lake Street, and only fills in for the 53 for a limited stretch of its overall service route. Development has already occurred along the west end of the corridor without a streetcar as well.

      Major transit planning in the Twin Cities often seems like a pseudoscience. The Midtown Greenway streetcar has long been a presumed foregone conclusion, based on the fact that it's "easy" (it's not) and connects LRT lines (LRT lines are not destinations). I would love to see a strong case for how the project will improve mobility or accessibility. Will any spurred development genuinely help the generally low-income neighborhoods east of Lyndale? If development is what we want, are there cheaper ways to accomplish the same goal?

      Importantly, asking these types of questions does not make one "opposed" to the project. Just opposed to drinking the Kool-Aid before making multi-million dollar decisions with decades-long impacts on our city, especially as some of the most clogged corridors wait in purgatory for transit improvements because we hope the Streetcar Fairy might visit in the next decade or two.

  6. Prescott MorrillPrescott Morrill

    Anders, letting it fly. By definition, connecting two corridors will increase access by virtue of network effects. @Levinson: well-put, in considering the accrued appreciation of the lack of service over a decade. Also, you're absolutely right in that if the city takes on this project itself, it will likely achieve the same ends will less means (whether you eat a lobster or a BLT, you're still feeding a hunger that will be satisfied).

    About the lack of demand, I kind of buy the argument, but because I'm biased towards public transit, I kind of don't. In speaking with developers (execs at Ryan Companies), they'd rather invest on permanent infrastructure corridors. That is, rails are more attractive for investment than tires are.

    1. Anders ImbodenAnders

      But the corridors are pretty much connected already. The only truly "new" direct connection would be the Lake Street corridor to SW LRT, which currently requires a transfer to a 12 or 17 bus. And if you did cut service on the 53 to just Hiawatha into St. Paul (eliminating the streetcar/53 duplication between Hennepin and Hiawatha), you're trading a transfer for a transfer. Plugging into the jobs in the southwestern metro is a good thing, but it could be accomplished with a variety of other technologies and alignments (e.g. arterial BRT on Lake Street).

      As Hennepin/W Lake (to SW LRT) is also a candidate for arterial BRT, opting for a streetcar in the Greenway also risks duplicating those investments and service, or precluding it entirely, affecting one of the most heavily-used transit corridors in one of the denser parts of the city.

      Hopefully the alternatives analysis is a serious look at these and other issues, and not a means to a well-established end as David suggests.

  7. Ian Bicking

    Arterial BRT on Lake seems a bit peculiar – in a comment above you note that the 21 gets more ridership than the 53, and ridership is spread out fairly evenly along the length of Lake. The conclusion I'd make is that the 21 could operate better, but not that it should operate very differently than it does currently. Or, if you are just trying to move people east-west then is Lake Street the best path for that? Once you have limited stops, is it so much worse to move the stops one block north to the Greenway?

    1. Anders ImbodenAnders

      Fair point, Ian. Mostly I'm thinking of improvements that would improve the average speed of the routes on Lake, with some limited-stop service (a la the 53) on top of that core service the 21 provides. But improvements that we associate with arterial BRT, like signal priority, proof-of-payment, front and back door loading, etc. could do a lot to improve service in the corridor for the many riders who already use it. With a shared ROW and limited space this could be a big challenge, but it's just as worthy of exploration as a far more expensive and potentially less-useful streetcar on the Greenway.

      1. Nathanael

        Shared-roadway operations are inherently crappy. Wasting money on them is not really worth exploration.

    1. Nathanael

      Why do people like you refuse to admit that rail is actually superior to busways? Superior in ride quality, uses less right-of-way, cheaper to maintain, *consistently* more popular, more environmentally sustainable and resistant to increases in oil prices….

      What the hell is to like about busways? Only the fact that the buses can go get caught in traffic once they leave the busway, and that must only occasionally be a worthwhile thing.

      1. Nathanael

        I don't think the "reducing transfers" argument outweighs *everything else*. People have been proven to be fairly comfortable with transfers *on rail*, even if they don't like *bus* transfers.

  8. David LevinsonDavid Levinson

    @ Prescott. I agree that developers want a signal of permanence (which they can pass on as higher prices to renters and especially condo-owners). Two points

    (1) All evidence is that transit in the Twin Cities follows permanent corridors. Today's buses follow the streetcar lines of the 1933 map fairly well, i.e. very few 1933 links don't exist today as service. In fact the streetcar tracks were pulled out, but the service remained, so tracks are no evidence of permanence of a technology. The technology shifts, the service remains.

    (2) Given the exclusive Right-of-Way of the Greenway, tracks of steel vs. tracks of concrete should make little difference.

    1. David Greene

      It makes a BIG difference! Remember that the Greenway is currently a non-motorized transportation corridor. A bus is going to be loud and produce particulates right next to people biking, rollerblading, jogging and walking. I think the last thing we should do is emit particulates in an area used heavily for aerobic activity.

      Ideally we'd build a streetcar on Lake to leverage economic activity but I doubt that many city officials have that kind of broad vision.

      David, transportation is NOT primarily about moving from point A to B. It's about creating and connecting people and communities. It is NOT just a utilitarian activity. Failing to understand and internalize this, I think, is the big failure of most transportation experts.

    2. Nathanael

      Steel is cheaper to maintain than concrete. And electric vs. diesel makes a BIG difference. I don't think Minneapolis wants a unique fleet of trolleybuses, so….

  9. David Greene

    Part of this is due to the federal process. Transit projects goes through MUCH more scrutiny at the federal level than federally-sponsored road projects. The amount of paperwork is enormous.

    This is, of course, by design. The red tape for transit was greatly increased under the anti-transit G.W. Bush regime and the Obama administration has not done much to lessen it.

    I keep reminding myself of a quote from an Mn/DOT official: "We don't do transit."

    This applies at all levels of government.

    1. Nathanael

      Yes. Basically, deliberate obstructionism by the federal government, and to a lesser extent, deliberate obstructionism by the state government.

      If you fund it all locally, you could start construction a month from now.

  10. Jon Commers

    The critical need to finance multiple major projects at once is one noteworthy point here. Take a look at the findings of the CTIB/Met Council Program of Projects work currently underway: Presentation at

  11. Nathanael

    Minneapolis isn't a low-demand city, so your unfounded skepticism about fixed-route infrastructure is… unfounded.

    I agree that delay has a real cost. That's why LA is trying to accelerate all its projects in the "30/10" plan. I wonder if Minneapolis could do something similar. Municipal bonds are cheap right now.

    I also wonder why the Greenway train plan wasn't studied BACK WHEN THE PATH WAS PUT IN — then the US could have been paying for it *now*.

  12. Nathanael

    The value added definitely justifies the expense. I would have used this regularly back when I was in Minnesota. I never, ever considered using the Lake Street buses, late, poorly signed, slow, etc.

    1. Nathanael

      What I'm saying is that a Greenway streetcar will attract choice riders. There's a lot of "destinations" along Lake Street which are a long way from each other. Right now, people with a car just drive between them. With the Greenway streetcar, they'll choose to take it instead.

  13. Nathanael

    Put it this way: think of some stores you go to along the Lake St. corridor. (Well, there were a lot I went to.) Do you think connecting those to rail is valuable? Well, I sure do.

    Does this haven anything to do with "low-income neighborhoods" or "development"? No. If they get helped, that's a bonus.

    Why the Midtown Greenway rather than Lake Street? Grade-separated == faster and more reliable.

    Why rail? Because rail is nicer than buses and cheaper to maintain.

  14. Nathanael

    Why not?

    The Greenway Streetcar could, if you wished, be designed to stop every other block. Yeah, that's a lot of elevators.

    But then the bikeway was derided for having too few access points, and it seems to be popular. Perhaps this claim that local every-block service is necessary is just wrong. Perhaps people will just walk the extra two blocks.

Comments are closed.