I’ll start this off by mentioning that Metro Transit is accepting comments on their Central Corridor Transit Service Study until this Monday, July 9th. When I attended a meeting last week, many concerns circled around the reduction of route 94 bus service. I’ve slowly been convinced that this is a reasonable idea, since the projected travel times for the Green Line make it only 9–12 minutes slower than the direct 94D for downtown-to-downtown trips, a difference that shrinks rapidly when compared to the 94B which circles around the state capitol.
Whatever comments you may have, they’re due in by 5 PM on Monday. Metro Transit expects to modify their existing plans before they get implemented in 2014 with the start of light-rail service.
A groundbreaking for the Interchange, the expansion of Target Field station in Minneapolis’s North Loop, is also scheduled for Monday. Plans by Hennepin County to first add new light-rail platforms and then expand the heavy-rail platforms below (in hopes of one day hosting intercity trains to Chicago, Duluth, and elsewhere) have come under many of the typical criticisms for rail projects these days. There are always questions about cost and whether such a project is needed or not, but the Interchange project—often known as “MTI” for “Minneapolis Transportation Interchange”—also gets barbs thrown at it for having a less-than-optimal location for people trying to get into downtown Minneapolis. I thought it would be a good idea to put this into a bit of a historical context.
The Interchange site is not all that from the downtown core—only half a mile or so, depending on where you’re measuring from. But half a mile easily becomes 10 minutes on foot, probably farther than many people—especially commuters—would like to hoof it once they’ve arrived in town.
Transit planners know this, of course. That’s partly why the station is where it is. When the Hiawatha Line opened in 2004, the northernmost station was at 5th Street between Hennepin Avenue and 1st Avenue. By simply extending the light-rail line a few blocks further, it intersected the only remaining heavy-rail line through the city center. Putting the station anywhere else probably would have required tearing down buildings, digging trenches or tunnels. Thinking through those ideas is a good mental exercise, to be sure, but extending LRT tracks to Target Field already inflated the costs of the Northstar commuter rail project by a big margin, and attempting anything more complicated than that would have made it vastly more expensive.
Timed right, a light-rail ride can shave several minutes off the last leg of travel to work, even if a rider is only going 2 or 3 stops into downtown. There are also numerous bus routes originating in the “B” ramp a block away, including route 20, specifically created for Northstar commuters headed toward the southern end of downtown and timed to meet each train. Oh, and of course, the “B” ramp gives fairly easy access to the city’s skyway network, so you can get across town in climate-controlled comfort without having to worry if those “Don’t Walk” signs are going to slow you down.
Okay, but Minneapolis is an old railroad town. Surely some of the city’s old train stations did a better job of connecting riders to the city center, right?
View Minneapolis railroad stations in a larger map
Well, maybe. There were basically four significant rail stations serving the city center back in the heyday of rail transportation. Residents of and visitors to Minneapolis should be familiar with the old Milwaukee Road Depot at Washington Avenue and 3rd Avenue, now converted to a hotel. The big station in town was the Great Northern Depot, located along the riverfront at Hennepin Avenue, using land now occupied by the Minneapolis Federal Reserve and the central post office. The remaining two were smaller, respectively operated by the Luce Line (also serving two other regional railroads) and the Minneapolis and St. Louis Railway.
Back when the city’s commercial center was up near the river, the Great Northern and Milwaukee Road depots likely would have been the closest to the action. However, the central business district drifted southward along Nicollet Avenue over time, and nearly all of the Gateway District near the river was obliterated as the city took a heavy-handed approach to urban renewal. Today, the sites of the former rail stations and the Interchange’s site are pretty much equidistant to the core of downtown. Certainly a traveler arriving at Target Field would now face a slightly shorter walk to the IDS Center than if they’d arrived at at the old Great Northern Depot, but only slightly.
Rail stations are often touted over airports because they allow people to arrive in the center of town. Perhaps that refrain has gotten a bit overplayed—certainly there are examples across the country and around the world where rail stations don’t quite land you in the middle of the action, even if they get you pretty close. Still, I’ll pretty happily take the 3,000-foot hike in downtown Minneapolis if the need arises: Even MSP airport’s heavily-used Hiawatha Line station is a good 1,600 feet away from the baggage claim and ticketing areas, let alone the actual concourses.
The Interchange might not be in the best location ever devised, but it was among the best of a limited number of options. It will feel more connected once the Central Corridor is up and running, doubling frequency on the light-rail tracks through downtown. Now we should work to ensure that it becomes a great facility.
Hopefully long term LRT will be so successful that we'll need a transit tunnel under 5th, 6th, or 7th. Then we could have a two-level tunnel with one of the levels connecting heavy rail from The Interchange to the NP #9 bridge.
I only wish that the new Interchange included access to the Cedar Lake Trail which runs right next to it.
Of course, we missed on the one train route that would have arrived in the heart of downtown – the 3C alignment of southwest lrt. But then of course, we might not have been able to have a fancy "interchange".
"The Interchange" is a very fancy-sounding way of doing three things:
(1) Making it possible for more trains sharing freight-rail tracks to get into Minneapolis. Northstar is the limit of what can be accomodated right now. Obviously Minneapolis would like to be able to accomodate more. The short-sightedness of destroying most of the previous rail terminals and destroying rail access to the remaining one can't really be fixed now; St. Paul is happily restoring Union Depot, but Minneapolis has no similar alternative.
(2) Creating more pedestrian capacity for Stadium events at the light-rail station; it gets overcrowded.
(3) Getting light rail extended northwards to the location where the Southwest and Bottineauu Light Rail Lines will branch off — sort of an "early action item" for those projects.