2012 Best Current Multi-Million Dollar Public Works Project: Central Corridor LRT


img_0722 by mulad via flickr

Of all the categories included in the Streets.mn “Best of” series, this category was the biggest blowout. With 92.2% of the votes, the winner of the award for the 2012 Best Current Multi-Million Dollar Public Works Project (by a landslide):

Central Corridor LRT

The eleven mile light rail project linking downtown Minneapolis with downtown St. Paul is estimated to cost $957 million. Heavy construction expected to wrap up soon, and the line will officially open for business sometime in 2014.

The competition in this category didn’t even come close. Here are the runners up:

Asking a bunch of urbanists to pick out their favorite multi-million dollar public works project is a curious thing. For a lot of urbanist and planner types I know, the cost of a project isn’t nearly as important as the perceived benefits. Regardless of what types of projects we tend to prefer, we all like to think that the benefits of our favorite projects outweigh the costs, though we rarely go through the effort to justify it (and when we do, it is easy enough for someone on any side of the project to question the methods and assumptions). I think this becomes increasingly true as the costs of a project increase.

We all have a good idea of what is a fair price for a jar of peanut butter, or even something as large as several hundred thousand dollars for a home. But most of us have very little ability to know if $957 million is a good price for a transit line, or if $597 million is a good price for a bridge.

In this case, the “best” project will simply be the one we like the most – the one that seems to promote our personal preferences – rather than the project that is able to somehow demonstrate the greatest benefit per cost. Thus, it’s not surprising that streets.mn readers overwhelmingly support the Central Corridor LRT project over a football stadium and several bridge & interchange projects. I think this says more about streets.mn readers than it does about the projects themselves (if this poll had been conducted in, say, the comments section of any Star Tribune article, I expect the results would have been a bit different). I have often had the impression when discussing the Central Corridor with fellow urbanists that the cost of this project could double and it wouldn’t dissuade many of the proponents (I could be wrong about this).

Still, like so many others in the Twin Cities, I am eagerly awaiting 2014 when the first trains will be open to the public. I imagine blocking out a Saturday and spending a day with my family riding the train back and forth, stopping at a few places along the way just to see what there is to see. I’m looking forward to seeing the completed pedestrian mall through Campus. I’m looking forward to seeing how the stations fit into the surrounding neighborhoods and the Capitol area. I’m looking forward to seeing the newly-opened St. Paul Union Depot (which I am aware is already open, but I’m sure I won’t get around to seeing it until I can take LRT there).

However, I’m mostly looking forward to seeing what the new transit line will bring to the corridor over the next ten years following 2014 when it opens. Will the envisioned redevelopment happen? If so, will it be transit-oriented or auto-oriented? Will chaos ensue? Will operational issues plague the line? How about safety issues? Will rents along the corridor rise? Fall? How about parking? Will Porky’s ever come back?

The answers to these questions (and more) will be right here on Streets.mn in 2024.

By the way, my favorite photos and updates about the Central Corridor are on the blog Let There Be Light Rail.

Happy Holidays!

3 thoughts on “2012 Best Current Multi-Million Dollar Public Works Project: Central Corridor LRT

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Cost-benefit analyses are problematic beasts indeed. Because cities are so complex with so many inter-linked variables, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to really identify a scientific way of measuring the benefits of a transportation project. For example, how much development along University Avenue should we count as being because of the LRT investment? What about developments that have already been built (perhaps in expectation of the line)? What about a development 15 years from now?

    How much "value" should we assign to things like "congestion" (either for transit riders or for people in cars)? Traditionally (as Chuck Marohn has often pointed out), DOTs have assigned that a great deal of economic value, but in ways that he rightly critiques (in my opinion).

    My point here is that focusing in on the cost-benefit ratio may not always be the best way to think about these kinds of projects. Maybe a better way of looking at how to value a project is to think about who it benefits, what kinds of investments it will promote, and how it will shape future land use and transportation patterns in our city. You can compare two projects of similar magnitude in that way, without necessarily focusing on cost. You'll never drill down to a true accounting of the "benefits", as I think those are almost impossible to measure.

    I'm not saying that projects should be given blank checks. Boston's Big Dig is in a good location, has a lot of benefits for many people in the near Downtown area, and promotes investment in places that already have a lot of infrastructure. But surely there should have been ways to make it more affordable, less corrupt. (Maybe it was simply too expensive. How could we start to decide a question like that?)

    This project isn't nearly as expensive. It's a large long-term investment in the #1 transit corridor in the Twin Cities, and along a stretch of the city with land uses that have a great amount of potential for future density. Every abandoned car dealership on University Avenue is an opportunity. Even at double the price, I'd say this is an investment that would "pay off" (so to speak). That said, I'm all for efficiency and economizing. The BRT v. LRT debate is an example of an interesting way of thinking about cost-benefit analyses… Comparing a freeway and a transit project is far more difficult, if not impossible.

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