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.

21 thoughts on “A simple/complicated solution to the Southwest Corridor situation

  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Does a 3C routing make a Midtown Greenway streetcar that much cheaper and a no-brainer?

    What do you propose be done for a 3C routing north of 5th downtown? Continue along the proposed Nicollet/Central streetcar route to just on the other side of the river? How much extra does this add vs original 3C estimates, particularly with cut & cover? Where would it go from there (in the future)? 9 mile corridor Nicollet/Central Enhanced Bus in the meantime? These are the details that would need to be worked out.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author


      I think if you got serious about not just pushing transit through the path of least resistance, you’d find the will (eventually) to do things like extend a 3C-ish routing up Central, especially if it doesn’t end up interlining with Central on the north end. In the meantime, it doesn’t cross the river. But I’d stress this is not 3A vs. 3C.


      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        I’m with you on abandoning 3A vs 3C arguments in vacuum. We’ve got too many projects going on separately that aren’t paying attention to each other. We need creative responses that tie everything together. I’m curious why you favor Hennepin and Lyndale over Nicollet for a tunneled line south of 94, other than it takes advantage of the bottleneck re-do. Seems like the K-Mart site gives the easiest opportunity to portal in to the trench compared to Henn/Lyn, while still serving a very dense residential and commercial strip.

        Just exasperating that there are so many legitimately good ideas out there to build a quality line/system with all the cross-project opportunities and no one is looking at them.

  2. Adam MillerAdam

    So you’re saying it would be in a tunnel until west of Uptown? That sounds really expensive. And like there are lakes in the way.

    1. Mike Hicks

      I believe tunnel plans for anything going through Uptown have typically run underground between downtown Minneapolis and the 29th street trench (Midtown Greenway), and followed that westward. Depending on the route, there could be 2 to 3 miles of tunnel. The Kenilworth tunnels are planned to be somewhere around 1.8 miles, according to reports. Tunneling between downtown and the Midtown Greenway would be between 0.2 and 1.2 miles longer.

  3. Mike Hicks

    One of the great things about building a tunnel along one of the main arterials through Uptown is that it could carry more than one line. How many directions could transit go from the intersection of Lake & Hennepin, for instance (or how many directions does it already go)? Directly west along Minnetonka Boulevard, southwest along the freight corridor or Excelsior Boulevard, going a bit further south along the old Como-Harriet streetcar route through Linden Hills, and then perhaps south along France to Edina and Southdale.

    It’s amazed me that we’re looking at such a sparse network of LRT lines, though that has come about because the paths of least resistance (freight rail corridors and wide arterial streets) aren’t all that common within Minneapolis and Saint Paul themselves, the places that really generate the bulk of ridership. When it crosses I-494, the Green Line would be 6 miles away from the Orange Line BRT along I-35W (and I could digress into how that corridor is better for LRT than the Southwest line is). Going north from the SWLRT route, we don’t have any named corridors until you go up to the planned Bottineau line — drawing a line north from Hopkins, you’d need to go 12 miles before meeting it.

    Something I’d really like to see is a map of the Twin Cities with rings showing the distance from downtown Minneapolis or the UMN campus you’d have to go to reach populations of 1 million, 2 million, 3 million, etc. Can we try to find a system that would serve the densest 1 million people first, or at least prioritize that somehow? That’s not necessarily the network to build, but it would be a useful exercise to see how big/small and how costly of a system would be needed for that versus how far-flung we’re going with Southwest and Bottineau.

    For everyone who’s familiar with the Twin Cities highway map and has a car, it seems silly to have a “short” line that doesn’t even reach the beltway, but flip that on its head and look at the pedestrian, cyclist, or transit user’s perspective, and the beltway is a quite a long way away much of the time. Well, I do think that this is one of the better corridors for shooting farther out than normal, but should it really be built with downtown Minneapolis as the focal point? Once you’re out that far, suburb-to-suburb travel dominates, and the choices for destinations become completely different.

    This has been a big beef of mine across all sorts of rail planning — nationally, we see politicians expound that the Northeast is the only place where trains work, but clearly that’s not true if you cover up that part of the map and look at the nation’s freight rail hub — Chicago. And if we were to ignore Chicago and look at the Twin Cities, you can spin around 360 degrees and see varying potential for markets like Duluth, Eau Claire, Rochester, the Quad Cities, Des Moines, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Willmar, Fargo, and Winnipeg, for instance. Ignore the Twin Cities, and you could conceive of service from Fargo to Duluth, or Mankato–Rochester–Winona–La Crosse, among others.

    So I don’t think the existing planning process is resulting in anything that serves either end of the corridor all that well. It’s not very easy or fast to get to many points along the planned route with buses today, though a lot of that is due to poor demand in the first place. SouthWest Transit carried 1 million riders in 2012, compared to 10.5 million on the Blue Line. I often like to point out that the University of Minnesota’s transit system carries 3-4 million riders per year, mostly on a single route, more than any suburban opt-out provider (MVTA is the biggest, with about 2.5 million annual passengers).

    Adding light rail causes transit operators to re-think their bus route structures, but that’s a pretty silly way to go about things — there’s a lot of restructuring that could be done as it is. Heck, I’m baffled why Metro Transit keeps running the #16 bus when the Central Corridor portion of the Green Line is almost complete — why aren’t they mimicking the LRT schedule by upping the frequency of the #50 limited-stop bus? As far as I can tell, a lot of this is tied to the way the federal planning rules are laid out — they seem to be forced to ignore some obvious operational changes that could be made right here and now.

    We’ve got a rather sadistic funding system if it prevents us from making incremental improvements and forces big leaps instead. With the Southwest line, the big leap seems to be reaching out to a heavily automobile-oriented area in the hopes that it will drive change, but you could ask some of the same questions — Why isn’t SW Transit running buses every 10 minutes along something close to the LRT route already? We got an upside-down outcome out of an upside-down process.

    1. Andrew

      Excellent remark about the funding mechanism driving these sorts of projects. There is no money to make small, incremental improvements to the system. But you can get a boatload of money from the feds for huge new projects whether they’re useful or not.

  4. Alex

    Why aren’t we looking into a more useful but seemingly complicated solution even though a less useful but seemingly simple solution is proving complicated? Because a guy who never took a class in college that wasn’t about highways and then spent the next 40 years designing suburban roads until the people above him either died or retired assumes the tunneling costs through gneiss and schist in one of the densest places on earth for tunneling through sandstone in a city that’s mostly grass and parking lots.

    I disagree, though, that the Nicollet-Central streetcar won’t be a transit improvement. It’ll double the frequency for most riders and provide twice the capacity in about half the vehicles. It will also probably speed up boarding, which is the biggest problem with the 18. It’s probably not enough of an improvement for the money, but it will be a big improvement.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino Post author

      That first sentence is beautiful.

      One of the biggest issues with the streetcar is that, like you alluded to, it’s very expensive. Expensive enough that it’s probably all you’re going to get for the forseeable future–we’re not going to spend a few hundred million dollars building a streetcar up and down the Nicollet-Central Corridor in 2020 and then in 2040 tear it all up and do something else, or build a subway under it. It’s extremely limiting in that you’re pretty much setting a cap on that corridor’s transit capacity indefinitely. If either the Kenilworth route or any other fantasy/better (Hennepin or Lyndale) route for Southwest get built, and then we blow a ton of cash on the streetcar, in all likelihood that’s *it* for north/south transit in the southern half of the city for decades.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Am I missing something, or do the streetcar/enhanced bus options provide roughly the same frequencies per hour at Nicollet/Lake for peak/midday as the current situation (8/8 today, 10/8 EB, 10/6 starter SC, 11/9 full SC). Comparison for Central/1st are: 13/6 today, 12/10 EB, 14/10 starter SC, 14/8 full SC.

      These options show a slight improvement in frequencies for the EB/SC options, but certainly not doubled compared to today. Absolutely agree on capacity, much improved. Absolutely agree on the off-board stuff speeding up travel time a bit.

      It is a transit improvement, but as you note, not for the money. And as Nick also notes, a streetcar more or less seals in amber N-S connections to South Minneapolis for the next 30-40 years.

      1. Alex

        I don’t know man, it looks to me like the main Evaluation Report, the Detailed Definition of Alternatives report, and Appendix B of the Evaluation Report all show different service plans. The last of these describes on page 3 an effective trips per hour at Lake & Franklin of 14/12, composed of 8/6 for streetcar and 6/6 for limited stop buses, but on the very next page shows effective trips per hour of 11/9 for the segment between 13th & Lake, more or less the operating plan described on pages 15 & 16 of the Detailed Definition of Alternatives report. Page 8 of the Evaluation Report lists yet another service plan, with the frequency of the limited-stop bus from appendix B but the frequency of the local bus from the Detailed Definition of Alternatives. I read a lot of this stuff, and this is by far the most confusing, vague, and self-contradictory study I’ve ever read. I’m going to go drink some scotch now, it doesn’t matter because they’re going to build the damn thing anyway.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          Holy sh!t, you’re right. I had been going off only one of them the whole time, assuming that the disparate plans shown in multiple appendices were all showing the same thing. Massive cluster. But, as you say, they’re going to build it anyway so I might as well stop worrying about it.

          So, with that in mind, I fully support a Hennepin or Lyndale tunnel to eventually hit a tunnel under Nicollet Mall! Enhanced bus on the street level for both! Miniature American flags for others!

    1. Alex

      Maybe this is not what you wanted to provide the point of reference for, but a double-decker highway tunnel 1000′ from a deep body of salt water has very little to with a LRT tunnel that probably wouldn’t even be near any lakes. Plus Seattle’s subsurficial geology is nothing like ours and they have to deal with earthquakes.

      1. Isaac

        Yes, not the best example. I’ve found a few U.S. LRT tunnel comparisons:

        San Francisco – Central Subway (LRT spec) – $1.578 billion, 1.7 miles, 4 underground stations, Under Construction. (Source: http://centralsubwaysf.com/content/faqs)

        Baltimore – Red Line – $2.6 billion, 14.1 miles (4.7 tunnel miles), 5 underground stations, Engineering. (Source: http://www.baltimoreredline.com/project-information/key-facts)

        Seattle – University Link Extension – $1.9 billion, 3.15 miles, 2 underground stations, Under Construction. (Source: http://www.soundtransit.org/x7104.xml)

        Los Angeles – Regional Connector Transit Project – $1.366 billion, 1.9 miles, 3 underground stations, Final Design. (Source: http://www.metro.net/projects/connector/)

  5. Matt

    A subway line could be run from underneath the Warehouse District Station to the corner of Lagoon and Hennepin in the heart of Uptown down Hennepin Avenue for a billion dollars including stations. This would also make sense in terms of limiting disruptions to traffic in the long-term. Also ridership would be increased by connecting Downtown and Uptown directly. It would make it far easier for people to travel between Uptown and Downtown bars, theaters and sports stadiums. Subsequently, they could run a line down Lagoon/Lake St. and meet the planned route near Chowen Ave. The antipathy toward subways is understandable since they cost roughly three times as much per mile as above-ground light rail, but they are superior in nearly every way. In Minnesota especially, waiting for a train in a heated underground station is preferable to waiting outside in the cold. They are also safer for motorists and pedestrians since the trains do not run over roadways or walking paths. This will probably never happen but here’s hoping.

  6. Nathanael

    Hmm. I really think to get good results on the Lyndale/Hennepin mess, it’s necessary to demolish I-94 at least from Lyndale/Hennepin north to I-694. The lurking gremlin here is the hideous section of I-94 over the railroad tracks, which completely messes up Lyndale Ave., and the I-394/I-94 junction, which is nearly as bad. The jump over the railroad tracks appears to be the reason this section of I-94 isn’t buried in a trench like the sections to the north and south of it. It could probably be buried if it were closed temporarily, but I suspect if it were closed you would quickly find out that it was unneeded…

  7. Becca Vargo Daggett

    Nick totally misses a key reason for SW Corridor – people who live in Minneapolis (not just downtown, but the established neighborhoods, where they are raising families in houses with yards at least as comfortably as is possible in any suburb) and work in Eden Prairie (where businesses can make things in industrial-scale buildings). This is vital to accommodate all kinds of people who want to live in Minneapolis, especially families.

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