Southwest LRT: Triage Now, Rehabilitation Later

It’s clear that nothing is clear when it comes to figuring out how freight rail, bike trails, neighborhoods, and our Chain of Lakes can exist in harmony with the planned Southwest Light Rail line. This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has remotely followed the development of this line over the past decade.

As the planning process has gone on, it appears we have two sides retreating further to opposite positions:

The public consensus seems to be that nodes like Uptown, Lyn Lake, and Eat Street deserve connectivity to our regional transit network, especially with such a high public investment at stake. It does, after all, seem ridiculous to consider hundreds of millions of dollars for features like a risky shallow tunnel through Kenilworth and viaducts/tunnels to suburban parking lots / unwalkable offices in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, but not reconsider connecting regional destinations and dense housing nodes to high quality transit.

Planners and officials, on the other hand, have doubled down on a route that was chosen under changed cost-effectiveness guidelines to move suburban commuters and congestion-causers faster and farther at the expense of urban transit users. As Peter Wagenius astutely noted, “There are folks who are extraordinarily invested in validating the process that has brought us to this point.” The reality is this is a regressive plan, but it appears we’re stuck with it.

The political reality remains that Southwest LRT’s path is hung up by two intractable positions. Without canceling the project and starting over, where do we go from here? Here’s a comprehensive look at how we can make decisions now that set ourselves up for quality transit in the long term.


If we’re going to build light rail in the Kenilworth Corridor, there are a few steps we can take to triage the plan and make it healthier from the start with a better chance for improvements in the long run.

  1. Build a single track in the tight Kenilworth Corridor between West Lake and Penn stations.
    At an average speed of 45 MPH (55 MPH max speed plus accel/decel at each end) it would take roughly 2 minutes for a train to get from West Lake to Penn. As long as headways are over 5 minutes (they’ll probably be somewhere between 7.5 and 12 minutes) there would not be an issue. Single tracking segments is quite common on many LRT systems around the country, so there’s precedent for the type of signaling and coordination necessary to pull it off. The result would be that we can have co-location of freight, LRT, and the recreational trail without risking as much tree canopy or our wonderful Chain of Lakes.
  2. Eliminate the planned station at 21st Street.
    The shallow tunnel option would also remove this station, so clearly it’s politically palatable in the context of mitigated co-location. Even if we could build it, the reality is that the existing and potential land use around the station node is not conducive to such an expensive investment. This station was planned using questionable numbers and assumptions. If you think the bustling Uptown Transit Station would have only 100 more riders than the isolated 21st St Station in 2030 (as claimed by the LPA decision process), I have a bridge on the St. Croix to sell you.
  3. Build the Midtown Greenway streetcar to LRT spec between West Lake and Nicollet.
    The planned “streetcar” is grade separated and will use light rail vehicles. So this isn’t much of a stretch from what is planned today, except for stations. Stations west of Nicollet should be built to handle 3 LRV trains rather than single LRVs running in streetcar mode. You’ll see why in a minute.
  4. Integrate the West Lake station to accommodate Southwest LRT and Midtown Greenway streetcar.
    This has operational benefits in the short term, and network benefits in the long term. In the short term, it means a cross-platform or single-platform transfer between the two services. It also allows Greenway LRT to share an operations and maintenance facility with our light rail system. Turnaround for Greenway LRT/streetcar service can be accommodated by a pocket track just west of the West Lake station (this is the same technique used on the Blue Line when the starter segment opened to Ft. Snelling station, turning around at the pocket track just south of the platform).
  5. Build Arterial BRT on Nicollet rather than a streetcar. For $200 million, it doesn’t make sense to install rails that share right of way. It will make it that much harder to build the transit we deserve when we finally realize our densest neighborhoods should have high-speed high-capacity connectivity to Downtown and other neighborhoods.


By triaging Southwest LRT and allowing it to be built now, we will have greater flexibility for transit network improvements in the future. This part of the plan is how we take a flawed Southwest LRT concept and build upon it for decades of transit excellence.

Those who decided on the Kenilworth alignment over the Uptown alignment think buses are good enough. They’re not. Someday, when we invest in transit to connect neighborhoods rather than park and rides, we will benefit from taking small steps now to use forwards-compatible.

The planned Green Line to Penn can be repurposed in the future to connect to St. Louis Park’s West End via BNSF right of way, and potentially other job centers further west along 394. This would connect a corridor with nearly as many jobs as the proposed Southwest corridor. Not to mention that the 394 corridor actually has higher job density and more walkability than many of the job nodes along the Southwest portion.

What would be done with the Southwest line we’re planning to build now? At some point the primary east-west spine along 5th Street downtown will be at capacity with four lines operating as two services (Blue and Green). But I sure hope we see a future with more than four LRT lines connecting the region.

At that point, we’ll have to get serious about a second spine for LRT service. Nicollet Ave is an obvious choice, especially the segment currently under consideration for our starter streetcar. If business impacts on Nicollet south of Franklin are a concern, a cut-and-cover tunnel under Blaisdell may be more appropriate. Because of #3 and #4 above, we’ll be ready to tie in from the Greenway to the Nicollet corridor to head downtown. And this grade transition would conveniently happen at the site of the infamous Kmart which is on borrowed time. Think of it as 3C by retrofit.

When this is done, we can still accommodate rail service running the entire length of the Midtown corridor from West Lake on the Green Line to Midtown on the Blue Line. Furthermore, we’d have even greater flexibility to extend Midtown service on the west due to #4. Finally, the 3C retrofit would share urban right of way with other services we may want in the future, such as a line up Central Ave to Fridley, or a diagonal to Rosedale, or a line south to Richfield or Southdale.

In this scenario, what would happen to the planned single track Kenilworth alignment between West Lake and Penn (#1 and #2)? It would actually still provide quite a bit of value. It would connect multiple future rail lines that would cross downtown at 5th and Nicollet, allowing them to share vehicles and facilities. This was actually one of the primary marks against 3C in the LPA process, besides trouble interlining with the Green Line. The Kenilworth single-track segment would solve this gap, outside of downtown. Secondly, it would offer flexibility to provide peak-hour express services from Eden Prairie, which was also another knock against 3C back in 2009.

What would Minneapolis get out of this? Options. When we come to our senses, we can build quality transit to Uptown, without risking FTA New Starts funds or the planning process thus far. We’d also have mitigation. As noted, a single track would likely require less destruction of the tree canopy in Kenilworth. It would be easier to keep the bicycle path in the same corridor. And, down the road when we do decide to put transit where it makes sense, Kenilworth neighbors would only have to deal with a dozen or two passenger trains a day rather than hundreds.

To paraphrase Voltaire, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Yet, at the same time, we can’t let the immediate be the enemy of the future. Southwest LRT is being pushed forward through Kenilworth, and there aren’t easy answers. But, with a few simple changes, we can make sure our choices now provide the best outcomes decades from now when we have an even more progressive vision for mobility in our region.


30 thoughts on “Southwest LRT: Triage Now, Rehabilitation Later

  1. Wayne

    This is brilliant. Serious kudos for coming up with a workable plan to turn swlrt into what it should be in stages. I really hope someone listens to you.

  2. Matt Brillhart

    It should also be noted (or emphasized) that single track LRT in Kenilworth:

    1. Would result in the same number of above ground train tracks as a freight relocation / LRT at-grade scenario.

    2. Would not prevent future relocation of freight out of the corridor, whether to SLP or further west of the metro, should either scenario present itself in the future

    I really, really like the single-track option to break up the current stalemate and get this thing built, regardless of future fantasy scenarios (and what you’ve proposed is actually within the realm of possibly, even if decades away). Putting LRT in tunnels through Kenilworth pours concrete over the future of transit in this part of the metro.

    Well done! Lets help make it happen.

  3. Nicole

    This is the best argument I’ve seen/heard to get past the current stalemate and have a reasonable buildout plan that will actually serve where there are riders. Nicely done. I hope the folks who can affect this are listening.

  4. Matty LangMatty Lang

    It should also be noted that a significant portion of the support for the Kenilworth alignment was due to the negative impacts the 3C alignment would have on the Midtown Greenway as a bikeway and urban green space:

    1. The walking and bicycle trails would need to ramp up (and back down) to street level in order to allow for LRT trains to make the turn north on Nicollet. This would require a significant amount of heavy infrastructure to accomplish.

    2. The Midtown Greenway trench significantly narrows east of 12th Avenue. This makes comfortably accommodating a streetcar line using single track segments where possible along with the walking and biking trails a big challenge. Building to full LRT specifications in the Greenway would probably make comfortable (for biking and walking) colocation even more challenging if not impossible.

    Matt, do you envision the Midtown Greenway as a multimodal corridor including rail transit, biking, and walking as part of your proposal? I know there would be opposition from Midtown Greenway folks based on the impact to the corridor as a bikeway and urban green space.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I’ll give a take:

      1. The tracks could exit the greenway to the south just east of the current K-Mart site into a tunnel. This can be built as part of the K-Mart re-do (whenever that happens). The tunnel loops out as necessary and heads up under Nicollet or 1st (despite Matt’s option of Blaisdell if Nicollet isn’t palatable). This obviously presents challenges to how developable the site is (how far down can you dig), but could be workable without causing massive bike/ped issues in the trail.

      2. Full LRT spec wouldn’t be necessary east of Nicollet (at least for a long while) for the SWLRT triage. The Midtown line would operate as planned using single LRV on streetcar-grade tracks (which, unless I’m mistaken, share the same width+height requirements as full LRT-spec would anyway). The Midtown proposals already have plans on new retaining walls, etc to accommodate rail in addition to biking and walking. Personally, I think we should question the value of simple greenery (non-functional park space) just because it adds color. The Midtown Greenway adds valuable segregated space that at times feels park-like, but the grade separation’s ability to provide high-quality/frequency/speed cross-town transit is extremely valuable. Just my take.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt

        Yep, this is exactly what I have in mind… double track west of Nicollet, single/gauntlet track east of Nicollet. And it is also completely possible with the Kmart redo to swing the LRT around the south and underneath the trench – this would likely be a necessity if we ever wanted to interline a second line south along Nicollet or 35W from 29th.

        There’s plenty of space in the Greenway trench to have biking, walking, greenery, and transit. The Met Council is already planning on it anyways. And if anything gets in the way, we can hopefully strategically repeal the historic designation of the grade separation (specific bridges and embankments)… Minneapolis loves its greenway, and it’s here to stay.

        1. Matty LangMatty Lang

          Thanks guys. I have a better understanding now of what you’re thinking.

          And, oh boy. I forgot about the historic designation of the grade separation. It’s been a few years since I’ve been intimate with all of the intricacies surrounding the Midtown Greenway.

      2. Jeff Klein

        It would be a shame to see bikers fight light rail at every turn. The Greenway is great, don’t get me wrong, but I think if cyclists are honest about the bigger vision in terms of making the Twin Cities walkable, bikable, transit-able, dense and vibrant, they should not always put their interests first. Serious rail is such a huge factor that if it takes some changes to the Greenway to make it happen, so be it.

        I’m a little concerned about what overzealous self-interest can do, particularly as we build more specialized bike infrastructure. I was disappointed to see that the bike coalition supported a plan on Washington that resulted in a narrowing of the sidewalks.

        1. Matty LangMatty Lang

          I am also disappointed in the Washington Avenue outcome which has way too much car capacity and is much too wide for a downtown setting.

          I also am supportive of Matt’s “triage” plan for the SWLRT line–it’s great. I am in favor of Matt’s future plans for LRT extensions. Rail transit ought to be a part of the Midtown Greenway, but it has to be a part of a Midtown Greenway which is also a world class bikeway that makes up an important backbone in the MSP bicycle system.

          Much like the ideal outcome for Washington Avenue downtown would not have included an inadequate pedestrian environment in favor of biking or excessive auto infrastructure, rail transit in the Midtown Greenway should not result in the Greenway becoming any less useful or inviting as a major spine of our regional bikeway system.

          We need to have it both ways. The MG streetcar plan along with the Kenilworth SWLRT alignment allows for this to happen. I’d love to see a detailed design that shows a 3C (Uptown/Nicollet) alignment also allows us to have it both ways, but I haven’t to this point.

          Like Fox Mulder always said, “I want to believe.”

          1. Jeff Klein

            I agree with you in an idealized sense, but if it weren’t possible I wouldn’t hesitate to trade the Greenway for light rail in that trench and a remade Lake st. with protected bikeways (although Lake was just redone without), or even just well-padded bike lanes on 28th/26th.

        2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          I think it’s jumping the gun to think that the bicycle community doesn’t support a greenway transit option. Maybe some, but there are lots of diverse opinions out there.

          1. Jeff Klein

            Well, we’ve seen the opposition from bike groups about the SW alignment. Granted that it’s stupid for other reasons, but if it *were* the best alignment for the rail I would have no problem removing the bike trail to make progress on transit.

            1. Janne

              As a person who commutes by bike — often through the Kenilworth and/or the Greenway — I’m torn. High quality (i.e. non-terrifying and speedy) bike corridors are so few and far between, I resent the idea that it’s a choice between transit or high quality bike corridors. Especially when we have 94, 394, 494, 694, 55, 52, 169, 100, and… the list goes on and on. Why are WE the ones who have to give up our space?

              How is it we can tear out entire neighborhoods to make room for a highway, but when it comes to bikes/transit, we have to choose either/or?

              It needs to be both/and.

  5. Elliot AltbaumElliot Altbaum

    Thank you Matt for a brilliant long term solution to so many of the current problems of SWLRT. More people should read this to help build a political coalition to see this through.

    For those who haven’t closely followed the detailed conversations here and elsewhere, this post will likely be hard to digest. Simple visuals would help express the message the argument. Maybe it’s just my background as a geographer, but a series of maps would help make this plan much more digestible. All of the triage suggestions could fit on one map. This would make your references to the triage in Rehabilitation more understandable.

    I hope the plan comes to pass.

    1. Elliot AltbaumElliot Altbaum

      Thanks for the visual. It is all contained in the one map. Seeing it makes the argument even stronger.

  6. Thatcher

    Matty, the impacts outlined in the original planning process were predicated on what appeared to be the cheapest engineering approach. Some of us thought it was an intentional way to build resentment against 3C.

    Another option, potentially, would be to have a T-shaped tunnel in the greenway before the LRT turns north. It would start depressing in the trench west of Nicollet and would drop below the trail. Keep in mind that the trail is already pretty elevated there, so the tunnel doesn’t have to get that low. In addition, the tunnel could be T-shaped so that there would be a switch so that the streetcar could continue east (it would drop into and out of the tunnel).

  7. Andrew

    Excellent work. This is exactly the sort of compromise solution I expected the consultants to come up with, instead of the same old plans that already didn’t work.

  8. Cameron ConwayCameron

    Big fan of this plan! I actually hope that the Midtown Corridor Alternatives Analysis process takes long enough to where the engineering requirements for this kind of plan could be taken into account. I’d hate to have a Greenway streetcar line built that makes engineering of a Nicollet extension impossible.

    Having “LRT-grade spec” doubletrack west of Nicollet would definitely degrade the Greenway experience, as Metro’s most recent plans show the need for some form of retaining wall for the entire stretch between Hennepin and Nicollet. ( Double track would be nice for that whole segment, but it’s really not completely necessary for consistent headways. I think that engineering as much single track as would be possible for 6-7 minute headways would be a pretty good compromise between both ideals.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      True, but if we eventually consider moving some or all SWLRT service to the Greenway/Nicollet alignment, and we also want a streetcar/LRT-lite service down the entire Greenway corridor from West Lake to Hiawatha, it wouldn’t work… two services would be interlined from West Lake to Nicollet.

      1. Morgan Zehner

        Man alive, this is such a sensitive topic.

        How about a tunnel under the Greenway west of Nicolett if we want double track LRT? Double track LRT is a much bigger deal than a single track streetcar. Tunneling under the Greenway shouldn’t be that expensive either.

          1. Morgan Zehner

            I don’t know. Since the Greenway was a freight rail trench I don’t think that it has any infrastructure below it. No electrical conduits, gas lines, and I don’t even think that the Greenway has storm water drainage. Negotiating utilities is what can make tunneling so expensive.

            Also, there aren’t any businesses on the Greenway that would need to get paid off like University Avenue (a policy that I disagree with). I don’t think that cramming a lot of stuff in the Greenway right-of-way is the best answer. The Midtown Greenway Coalition’s current support of rail in the Greenway is predicated on significant single track, which I think is a good idea.

  9. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

    Not to mention that if we’re going to spend $5 million per block redoing Nicollet Mall downtown, we could sure as heck try to do a cut and cover tunnel at the same time. LRT spine below, streetcars (or just people and bikes) above?

  10. Monte Castleman

    This does seem to be a sensible plan- I like the idea of having peak hour service through Kennilworth. Although I liked the Greenway when I finally got a chance to bicycle it last summer I get the point that sometimes a park isn’t the best use for a piece of land.

    Thinking bigger, I recall there were similar concerns about the time it takes to meander through the Golden Triangle and that Hopkins wanted LRT down Main Street. What about another single “peak period express” track along the trail to Eden Prairie- park and rides bypassing the Golden Triangle- you could use Kennilworth and interline this with the Green line at least as far as the U, providing a sort of commuter rail service to lure surburbanites to leave their cars behind, and also interlining the streetcar to and through Hopkins?

  11. Sara Bergen

    OK, I sent the link to Mark Fuhrmann at the met council and to Peter McLaughlin. I am sure they will offer a bunch of reasons as to why it is unworkable, but I am willing to be suprised.

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