A simple/complicated solution to the Southwest Corridor situation

“There are folks who are extraordinarily invested in validating the process that has brought us to this point.”

– Peter Wagenius, Minneapolis City Council Ways & Means Committee, October 1st, 2013

To date, this is easily the best way anyone has found to describe, in one sentence, the situation that Hennepin County, the City of Minneapolis, the Metropolitan Council, the Kenwood neighborhood, their high-priced lawyers, the Safety in the Park people, the City of St. Louis Park, a bunch of railroads, and everyone else has managed to find themselves in at this point, in mid-October 2013, after millions of dollars, years of time, and much goodwill has been spent to build a train, any train, because if we don’t build a train, everyone will feel silly for having spent this much time talking about a train, but, hey, maybe if we just keep going, everyone will go back to refreshing their Facebooks.

This has been a mess to watch. I think everyone realizes that planning a $1.? billion dollar project is an extraordinarily complicated endeavor, and the resulting tit for tat for tit that has been playing out here and in the StarTribune and various other places with conference tables reflects the healthy impulse that most of us have to benefit as many people as possible.  Historically-minded observers know that processes like this are complicated due to how simple they used to be, and the bad decisions that came out of zero community involvement.

In lieu of pointing any more fingers (don’t hold me to it) I’d just like to throw out a quick, back-of-a-cocktail-napkin thought. I acknowledge this is really simplistic, but at the same time I’ll point out that over-thinking things to the extent they’ve been over-thought on this project is a lot like saying your name 20 times quickly until it doesn’t sound familiar.

So, right now in Minneapolis and pointing southwesterly, we have:

  • A planned ~$1.? billion dollar light rail line that will connect Downtown Minneapolis (+St. Paul) with the suburbs of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, and Eden Prairie. There are lots of jobs in Downtown Minneapolis, and some people live there. More people are moving there than just about any other place in the metropolitan area, aside from maybe Uptown Minneapolis. There are also lots of jobs and lots of people living near the suburban parts of the line as well. At the moment, though, it’s mostly jobs near the line throughout the length of it. People in the suburbs will generally need, as people in the suburbs do, to drive to large, not-cheap Park and Rides to store their cars for free and get on the train. As you may have heard, there’s also this whole problem with the routing we picked for the line, and its viability is legitimately in jeopardy.
  • A planned ~$220 million dollar starter streetcar line that will run from the part of Northeast Minneapolis immediately across the Mississippi River from Downtown, cross the river somewhere TBD, down Nicollet Mall, down Nicollet Avenue, and end in the vicinity of the K-Mart at Lake Street, which allegedly will probably be torn down as part of the overall scheme. The whole streetcar situation, maybe, is a misapplication of something someone heard about that happened in Portland, and so we have to do it here. The amount of money ($60 million dollars of real, actual City of Minneapolis money) we would spend is pretty large considering it wouldn’t reeeeally improve the quality of transit service along the route, and maybe the whole thing is just decorative. Ostensibly we’re clamoring to build it to spur economic development, but the funding mechanism the City is using to pay for their portion of the line maybe contradicts that whole argument, as we’re skimming off the increased property tax revenues from different development projects already underway in the corridor, so maybe we don’t need to build the project for that reason either. Maybe there’s a South Park joke in there somewhere.
  • A planned ~$40 million dollar Nicollet Mall rebuild to deal with the overabundance of teal on the existing iteration of Minnesota’s Main Street. There was a whole stretch (for weeks) this Spring where you could literally pry out tens of pavers on Nicollet Mall after they were pressure-washed but before they were fixed back up. So this probably isn’t a terrible idea. Not sure why we have to completely rebuild Nicollet Mall every generation, and why we’re looking at about $8 million dollars per block to rebuild a two-lane street, but I didn’t go to grad school.
  • A planned ~$11.5 million dollar Hennepin/Lyndale bottleneck reconstruction slated to begin in 2015 and last until 2017. For those who aren’t familiar with the bottleneck, it’s where Hennepin Avenue enters and Lyndale Avenue skirts the edge of Downtown Minneapolis, and those two arteries jumble together with each other on top of I-94, cutting off Loring Park from the Walker Art Center. It’s a mess for traffic and a nightmare for pedestrians/cyclists, and there aren’t any easy fixes–unless the freeway goes away, there’s not really any way to do it better.

So right there, we have four separate projects being planned in the same (sort of) general location. My thought was why don’t we…combine some/all of these? Again: This is obviously way more complicated than a mail merge in Microsoft Office, and I don’t actually know how to do those. But right now, these are the two main outcomes that are being bandied about:

1.) Full speed ahead. We build the Kenilworth alignment of the Green Line extension, and a Nicollet streetcar, spending somewhere near $2 billion dollars. But we don’t meaningfully improve the transit access of the fastest-growing part of Minneapolis, and this enormous cost on paper precludes any further large investment in that part of the city for quite a while. In theory, the Midtown Corridor streetcar is a thing that may happen before the 2028 Summer Olympics, but it’s probably going to be a long way off, as there have been all sorts of verbal commitments that a West Broadway streetcar would come after the Nicollet streetcar due to the silly/similar mis-routing (a pattern??) of the Bottineau Corridor Blue Line extension. Given that busses are already running at crush loads during rush hour on Nicollet and the streetcar will only minimally increase capacity, we may very well find little appetite to shave further tens of millions of dollars off the City’s property tax base to continue to stand jammed up against someone’s briefcase for twenty minutes to travel two miles.

2.) Nothing. All of us whiners ruin everything, and the Southwest Corridor project as it stands today fails. The blame, somehow, manages to fall in all the wrong places. The bad taste in everyone’s mouth dissuades anyone from even touching a transit project in Minneapolis for years.

Note: Has anyone else noticed the move in the past couple months to cast the whole “tunnels under Kenilworth” situation as some sort of 99% vs. 1% battle, where we should want to do something because rich people in Kenwood don’t like it? Which isn’t to say that the co-location with freight in Kenilworth is anywhere near the level of impact that relocation in St. Louis Park would have–a two story wall through working class neighborhoods there would basically be an inadvertent monument, built by the Metropolitan Council, to why the Metropolitan Council shouldn’t exist. Which I don’t even agree with, but try telling that to anyone in Anoka County. But anyway, just wanted to point out that blaming this situation on rich people in Minneapolis misses the point entirely.

So maybe this could be an option #3. Put all the money in a pot, and build in a cut-and-cover tunnel under Nicollet Mall, and then in a tunnel (probably not cut-and-cover) under one of the main arteries in South Minneapolis (probably Hennepin or Lyndale) and link up with the existing rail corridor west of Uptown. There are many options. All are better than what is proposed. There are obvious issues with funding–the approval we got from the legislature for the streetcar funding plan is specific to streetcars, and the federal portion of the funding is similarly complex. But clearly we need to think about this more–and considering the feds changed the funding formulas to favor legitimate urban transportation projects shortly after we decided to build an immensely expensive iteration of the Northstar Line, we may even do better.

This is just something I’m tossing out there, into the ether, part 6,297 in a 19,391 part series in unsolicited opinions about the Southwest Corridor from people who don’t fancy themselves as “insiders.” Much has been written about the state of transit planning in the Twin Cities in the past year. Getting back to the quote I led with, at this point it really seems like there’s a group of otherwise smart and well-intentioned people who are clinging to their past decisions in this process for the sake of saving face. Let’s not do that. Let’s not spend $2 billion dollars just to spend it.

Parks and Rec

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.