Southwest Light Rail: What Are We Trying to Accomplish?


Part of the proposed SWLRT route

The Southwest Light Rail debate puts transit advocates in a difficult spot. Do we champion any transit expansion even if its benefits are questionable and opportunity costs very high? Why support a major project that benefits a relatively small group of people while doing nothing for anyone else?

If the reason for rejecting the Nicollet Avenue alignment was the cost of tunnelling under the street, and now we learn that the current option also requires a tunnel of equal length in a corridor that must remain undeveloped, we must ask, what are we doing here? The analysis doesn’t seem to be very thorough: it considered a very narrow set of alternatives and nobody even considered elevating the bike path (way cheaper than building a tunnel).  We also have plenty of space available on every arterial street in the city — those places where people actually live, work, visit and travel through — so there’s no reason to build transit somewhere else.

This tired fixation on cost is purely arbitrary — whoever decided what the SW LRT budget should be? — and short-sighted because cheaper does not mean better.

Moreover, what are we trying to accomplish here? That’s the first question a transit planner or advocate should be asking of any proposal. I’m afraid we’re doing it all backwards. At some point in our recent history, people became obsessed with trains — not with improving the usefulness of our transportation network, but with building rail lines. From the very start we have asked not “How can we improve our transit network?” but “Where should we put our next rail line?”  That makes no sense.

Many well-intentioned transit advocates make the mistake of assuming that rail always equals better transit, as if simply having steel wheels on steel rails is somehow automatically faster and more frequent than rubber tires on asphalt.

The characteristics people value when moving from A to B are directly related to the quality of their travel options, or how it is designed and operated, not the vehicle type. Does the service run frequently and reliably, when I need it? Does it move quickly? It is safe, comfortable and easy to use? If you look around any North American city you’ll see why we associate these things with trains: only because we have arbitrarily (politically) decided to prioritize trains and not buses.

This is also not to say that rail is never a good investment. But rail is expensive and generally only necessary to upgrade the capacity of an overcrowded route previously served by buses. Trains can carry many more people with fewer vehicles, thus requiring fewer operators and lower costs (making a one-time capital investment to reduce annual operating costs). Yet building a rail line in a corridor where no busy bus route exists is a complete waste of money.

If train stations are build along the Cedar Lake & Kenilworth Trails, they will have predictably low ridership due to the low density, limited street connectivity and being out of easy walking distance from higher density uses on Hennepin and Lyndale Avenues. Nothing will change the character of the Kenwood and Isles neighborhoods enough to produce transit demand that the existing route 25 bus can’t handle.

Now is a perfect time to step back and ask ourselves why we’re building light rail in the first place. I love trains more than most people (call me a railfan if you like), but it seems to me that we got caught up in the idea of building a rail network for the sake of building a rail network.

Instead, we can make it easier to get around by thinking critically and following these basic steps:

  1. Review the current system to ensure it is running as smoothly as possible.
  2. Identify deficiencies in the transit network (general and specific routes/locations).
  3. Develop short- and long-term plans to address these deficiencies (improve service).

A good plan strikes a balance between large expensive projects and much smaller improvements spread over a large area. Los Angeles Metro is using a hybrid strategy of building new rapid transit lines at the same time as it makes incremental improvements to speed up its high-frequency Metro Rapid bus routes.

When you undertake a comprehensive service analysis you can understand the trade-offs involved in various potential projects. The opportunity cost of building Southwest Light Rail is whatever other improvements could have been made but cannot happen if all the money is spent on one megaproject. For example, the $1.5 billion dollar SW LRT budget could buy us 3,000 hybrid buses (more than we can dream of), 25,000 heated shelters (enough for three per stop), free fares for 2 years (!!), or 15 million hours of service (about 6.5 times what Metro Transit currently operates). Right now the entire annual budget for all Metro Transit service is only $310 million.

To be fair, this is not an honest question in our current situation because funding decisions are not made this way and non-rail options were never part of the studies. But if you were in charge, which plan would you choose?

Good long-range transit planning is about identifying significant mobility problems and setting priorities for improvements, so that when money becomes available you are ready to move forward.  The current plan for Southwest Light Rail does not even attempt to solve any actual mobility challenges and therefore is a solution in search of a problem.

Jeremy Mendelson

About Jeremy Mendelson

Jeremy is a traveling geographer, transit planner, street designer, bike user and sustainable transportation advocate, originally from New York City and Boston. He has designed bus and rail networks for a wide range of transit agencies; toured dozens of cities and towns; and written extensively about transportation planning, social and environmental justice and equity. | Jeremy hosts the Critical Transit podcast focusing on sustainable transportation policy and practice. You can find him on the bus or driving a bicycle, inline skates, a pedicab or a truck filled with bikes. Or just follow him on Twitter @CriticalTransit.

13 thoughts on “Southwest Light Rail: What Are We Trying to Accomplish?

  1. Sarah Hagstrom

    Actually it’s not always true that when people decide on a mode that they decide purely logically based on frequency, reliability, etc. Some studies have shown that passengers have a psychological preference for rail despite all other things being equal:

    That said, I like what Jarrett Walker has to say in this article on the subject:

    He encourages us, despite the psychological rail preference, to always consider the trade-offs before blindly building rail.

    Also, I’ll repeat what lots of people have said before: With rail it’s not just passenger preference, but business preference that’s being taken into account. When people put together a business plan, they’ll put much more weight on a future or current rail line than they will on a bus line, no matter how long that bus line has been in place. Rail is tangibly more permanent, and development occurs along the lines as a result, increasing density over the long term and therefore also the usefulness of the rail line. All you have to do is look at the development already happening in anticipation of the Green Line to see that.

    However, nobody is going to develop on top of a lake. Or on land zoned as a park. Nor would we want them to. I totally agree with you that it’s a pointless waste of money and other resources to align the light rail the way it is currently aligned. It serves the suburbs OK, but it doesn’t serve the city much at all. It would serve *both much better* if it were aligned to go through the actual city where actual people live, work, and play. Nothing could be more obvious to me. I currently live in the Lyn/Lake neighborhood too and it’s very frustrating to watch this expensive light rail project get planned in such a way as to make it completely useless to me as a resident of one of the densest neighborhoods in the city.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      On the development point, one need only look at home prices near the Metro in DC, or subway in NYC, and see how they differ from areas farther from the trains, even if well served by buses (with Georgetown is DC being an obvious exception).

      Or just fly in to National Airport and look at the ribbons of density that follow the subway lines.

      1. Sheldon

        Don’t know about prices but I do know that for the duplex we own next to our house–exactly 1 mile from a Hiawatha LRT station–since the LRT has been running, every tenant except one has said one reason they liked the duplex was how close it was to the LRT.

    2. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      The point I’m making here is that service quality is what matters. When you say that development doesn’t follow buses, or that rich white people from the suburbs don’t take buses, that’s just because for the most part our buses suck. We have only a handful of really high quality bus lines in North America.

      If we built bus lines with the things we put on the Hiawatha LRT — grade separation to bypass traffic congestion, level platforms, long distances between stops, pay before boarding, etc. — they would be very popular. But you can’t compare the 6 bus and 55 train and say people just hate buses. I hope you can understand the difference in how they operate.

      While it’s true that stereotypes die hard, I’m not interested in begging suburbanites to take transit twice a day at times and locations that put a high strain on the system. Southwest suburbs already have express bus service for that need, and if the demand is not exceeding the supply (scheduled service) we don’t need any more. However, there are many places in the city where demand often exceeds supply (routes 5, 6, 16, 18, 21 and others). We need to improve transit for everyone by addressing these actual issues.

  2. Andrew

    “building a rail line in a corridor where no busy bus route exists is a complete waste of money.”

    I think that completely sums up SWLRT in a sentence.

  3. Ian Bicking

    Do we know what trips people are currently making using transit? Both what trips they are making in terms of where they get on and off, but also do we know where those trips actually start and end (including walking)? Do we know what trips people make regardless of mode?

    It would seem that this information would be a good start for doing serious planning. Of course availability of transportation (any mode) will over time create demand, but we shouldn’t rely too heavily on that.

    I saw an article about someone in Seattle who designed the bus system to cost the same operationally, but to offer something like 15 minute service on all lines during the day. For the life of me I can’t find it now, even though this wasn’t long ago. But it’s the kind of thinking that I don’t know if anyone is even trying to do. How well could we serve people’s transit needs if we designed directly to those needs? There are vast swathes of the city (not even counting the metro area) that are not currently connected reasonably by transit, the kinds of routes that take an hour or more by transit but are a 10-15 minute drive or bike ride. Is this the best we can do? I feel confident that we haven’t yet found out.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      I think you’re getting at one of the great trade-offs in transit planning, which is that coverage is inversely proportional to frequency. If you can focus your service on a few key corridors (instead of a bus on every major street) you can afford to make it more frequent, which draws more people and helps justify improvements like shelters, signal priority, stop consolidation and even supplemental limited-stop service.

      If you try to serve everywhere, you won’t be able to serve anywhere well: like trying to please everyone. You might provide some “coverage” services for reasons of basic mobility and equity but not too much.

  4. Froggie

    If we’re going to reopen the tunnel issue, why not look at tunnels under Hennepin or Lyndale? Would A) allow service to Uptown, and B) allow for a seamless tie-in to the Hiawatha/Central lines. A strong argument could be made for (B), which is something the Nicollet alignment just didn’t have. Given the proposals for the Nicollet-Central streetcar, I think a Nicollet alignment for SW LRT should be off-the-table. If you’re hell-bent on having SW LRT, let’s reopen the Lyndale and Hennepin alignments.

    As for what we’re trying to accomplish, let’s start with giving southwest metro commuters an alternative, then tie in 5 major employment or population centers (6 if an Uptown alignment can successfully be found). The connections to Bren Rd and Golden Triangle open up reverse-commute opportunities for Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, and Hopkins residents.

    Have more thoughts on this subject but also typing this up quick while at lunch.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson

      I think the streetcar is more ridiculous because it’s not even capable of solving a mobility problem if it tried to. No streetcar will be faster than the 18 bus.

      Why is “giving southwest metro commuters an alternative” a valid need? They already have fast express bus service to downtown. Just linking up employment centers isn’t necessarily a worthwhile endeavor, because even if it generates a lot of trips it’s still only one-way trips for a few hours each weekday (about 12 percent of the time): not a great justification of an expensive investment.

      Moreover, I would prioritize convenient full-time mobility in urban environments over the commute to work for a relative handful of people.

      My point about the tunnel is that nobody should arbitrarily decide something is “too expensive”. It is an investment for the future, and if we’re going to build something useful it will be expensive. That’s just a reality about which our local and national political discourse is in denial.

  5. Sheldon

    1. Building a shallow tunnel in the Kennilworth area is a lot cheeper than building a tunnel down Nicollet (or any street) because: UTILITIES–there may be one or two fiber optic lines along Kennilworth–compared to water sanitary sewer, storm sewer, natural gas electrical and telecommunications lines under Nicollet. Besides, on Nicollet you have t tear up a street that still has useful life and then rebuild it.

    2. LRT down the Greenway? That is a lot different than a streetcar down the Midtown Greenway. I really don’t want to see a full LRT line down the Greenway.

    3. LRT is best used for medium and longer trips. Yes I use the Hiawatha line to go from Franklin to downtown–but most of the ridership is longer distance.

    4. We want people coming from the suburbs to work downtown. Do you know the percent of property tax in Minneapolis those downtown businesses pay? Also, without the workers, the retail would dry-up–take a look at downtown Denver.

    5. The SWLRT is about commuters. You want it reasonably fast or they will continue to take their cars (or find jobs in the ‘burbs.

    6. It isn’t great access but the current route provides access to the boat load of jobs around 169/62/484 in the ‘burbs to people in North Minneapolis. It isn’t great access but more that the alternative would provide.

    7. Funding reality. If we re-open the routing, it delays the project and we loose the federal funding that is currently committed to this project. A major delay and the commitment goes away and the money goes to a different city.

    8. There is an even lower cost alternative to the Kennilworth problem. Just buy some of the homes in the narrow sections. Those people have said they are unhappy with the freight rail traffic and don’t want LRT–they should be happy to sell.

    9. The federal funding for LRT requires that projects meet a cost-benefit standard. That standard has been relaxed in this administration but it still needs to meet the standard to get funding–that is how the maximum cost was determined.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      Okay, I got a little carried away here, but all of these points require discussion:

      1. If we want to do this right, forget about cost. Just totally ignore it. That’s how we got into this mess, because we went for the cheapest and politically easiest option. And now it turns out it wasn’t so cheap or easy. Contrary to popular myth, the public sector is not a business. Yes, digging under an existing street is more expensive but it provides a much greater public benefit. It is our responsibility as citizens to decide the merits of each case. Tearing up a major bike path and freight corridor won’t be disruptive?

      2. LRT and streetcars are exactly the same except that a streetcar runs on the street in mixed traffic. Any difference in the vehicle appearance is aesthetic only. So when I hear people say they want a streetcar but not light rail on the greenway, what does that mean? Are you interested in helping people get around in useful ways, or is there another motive?

      3. LRT has nothing to do with distance. It could stop every two blocks (downtown) or every two miles (near the airport). It is a tool for carrying large numbers of people along relatively straight corridors. The fewer stops you have, the faster your service.

      4, 5. I think we need to be very careful when we talk about attracting commuters. One-way rush-hour trips are very expensive and put a strain on the transit system, and you’re essentially wasting resources if you run it during off-peak periods. Remember, LRT a tool for carrying large numbers of people frequently and repeatedly.

      6. When we talk about the reverse commute, let’s be real. How are all these people going to get from the few stations to the many office parks? We need to stop trying to bring transit to places where it can’t work. If companies want to attract car-free people they can either move or hire someone to run a shuttle van from a centrally located transit center. Suburban businesses often form partnerships for that purpose.

      7. Better to get it right than build something that will be expensive to operate and maintain for 100+ years (or until we destroy the planet) and will regularly be flooded. So if the money goes to a better project somewhere else, great, let’s not be selfish here.

      8. Okay, and should we use eminent domain for houses whose owners don’t want to sell? Normally I’d say sure, but this is a lousy project.

      9. See #1. The costs and benefits would change with a different plan. It’s not an absolute cost ceiling. But again, we’re looking for a place to put LRT instead of looking for ways to improve transit.

  6. Adam MillerAdam

    From a historical perspective, I have a very hard time wrapping my head around when we “arbitrarily (politically) decided to prioritize trains and not buses.”

    I have a very good idea when we arbitrarily decided to prioritize buses and not trains, especially in Minneapolis (1954 anyone?), but I have a very hard time seeing the alleged reversal of that policy.

    There are lots of ways in which trains often are better than buses. Always? No, of course not always, but trains do really offer things that buses can’t provide, most important is riders who will take trains but will not take buses. People who live in the southwest metro seem particularly likely to fit that bill.

    1. Jeremy MendelsonJeremy Mendelson Post author

      We have never run high quality bus service. As I said we give trains many features that result in a fast, reliable and comfortable trips, but we give buses no priority over cars. That’s why people like trains, because they’re associating the good service with the rails but the two things are not inherently connected.

      What are these things you say buses cannot do? I can think of three: reversing direction without a turnaround loop (rarely important), carrying several hundred people with a single operator, and even running without an operator if you have complete grade separation (thus high frequency service is inexpensive). What else??

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