Can We Kill Two Birds with One Stone when it Comes to Light Rail Planning?

With all the controversy about the Southwest Corridor alignment (especially its rising construction costs), a question could be is why don’t we merge the Southwest Line project with the planned Bottineau Line project?

Matt Steele’s post from last month has some great ideas on improving our light rail system, but I have another idea similar to this. We could merge both the Blue Line (Bottineau) and Green Line (Southwest) light rail expansion projects into one megaproject, focusing on building better “starter” portions, similar in a way to how the planned Nicollet/Central streetcar project is being built. We could focus on connecting the southwestern and northwestern portions of the metro area via stepping stones, and worry about expanding towards the suburban corporate campuses of UnitedHealthGroup, and Target later. Getting funding for this might be complicated, but I feel that we could make a valid argument for this to get state and federal funding for a joint project that serves both lines.

Outer suburban areas would not probably like this option since initially it’s only benefiting first-ring suburbs and dense Minneapolis neighborhoods, but we could argue that this still allows better suburban-city transit, and could be an initial step towards easier city-to-suburban or suburb-to-suburb commuting in these regions. They can always park and commute downtown via stations in Robbinsdale or Saint Louis Park for the first few years. While I understand this means larger park-and-ride stations in these suburbs, I feel that we could plan them in a way where they can be redeveloped as TOD once distant suburban stations are  built in the future. Realistically, there will have to be trade-offs to try to gain support from suburban commuters.

I created a map to show how the starter rail project could be set up:


Southwest/Green Line Expansion option:

While we complain about the expensive tunnel plans in Kenilworth, and the streetcar planned for Nicollet, why not scrap the streetcar entirely (and replace it with enhanced bus), and build LRT underground from Midtown to Downtown (the 3C alignment) under Nicollet or a neighboring street. An enhanced bus on the surface would create fewer conflicts on the street compared to a streetcar, while  transit-oriented development is still at a high demand near light rail stations on Nicollet.

The 3C alignment would create a large part of the planned Midtown Greenway’s streetcar line, meaning less construction costs for that line’s expansion toward the Blue Line at the Lake Street-Midtown station. Once the Green Line gets on the Greenway, the light rail would continue heading head towards Uptown, and then ending up either at Uptown, West Lake, or Louisiana stations (depending on how far they can go with the initial funding). I’d say at least build to Louisiana so there is at least one station in Saint Louis Park.

Whenever the Midtown streetcar line is fully built, streetcars could still go down the greenway on the same track (just have them both run on standard gauge with electrified overhead lines at 750 V DC), meaning that travel from Uptown to Midtown (and all the way towards Lake St/Midtown Blue Line station) could still happen via a rail option even if the corridor has LRVs operating on it as well. I would recommend just focusing all of our rail vehicle purchases towards purely LRV’s so they can be used on other transit corridors if necessary (unless we want to use streetcars for backups or late-night transit on the Blue and Green Lines).

Bottineau/Blue Line Expansion option:

The Bottineau portion could take the more urban route, and then try for an underground line under Penn (Option D2 on Bottineau Draft EIS), and then have initial segment end at Robbinsdale instead of the planned initial endpoint at Target’s suburban business campus in Brooklyn Park. I feel that the Golden Valley portion does not make sense in ways similar to the Kenilworth/Uptown routing fiasco with Southwest. While an underground portion under Penn may be expensive, there isn’t enough ROW on the surface unlike the wider boulevard portions of Highway 55 and Bottineau. Future expansion can still go towards both Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park, but I would recommend single-track spurs to Maple Grove – Arbor Lakes/Hemlock Lane (Option A on Bottineau’s EIS draft), and Brooklyn Park’s Target Campus (Option B on the EIS), with 20-30 minute headways, which could coincide with the main line’s 10-15 minute headways (71st Ave Station in Brooklyn Park to Downtown Minneapolis).

Here is a map showing the Option A and B alignments:


Source: Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority

Downtown/Nicollet Mall Tunnel option:

Sam Rockwell’s post, along with Sam Newberg’s post from earlier this week bring some valid criticism when it comes to the future of Nicollet Mall. Like quite a few others on, I feel that Nicollet Mall could be more open to pedestrians and cyclists if we built the Southwest/Green Line expansion mostly or fully underground in the downtown core under the mall. While the initial cost of the tunneling would be quite expensive, planning for long-term transit benefits should be factored in especially when it comes to the population expansion of Central Minneapolis.  I’d rather see a better pedestrian, but bike-friendly mall instead of an at-grade streetcar line dividing the largest and densest commercial district in the entire state. I would say that the only vehicles allowed on the mall other than emergency vehicles could be street vendors (food trucks, farmer’s market, etc.) to line up along the corridor during warmer months (skyway vendors could always have food trucks if they are worried about a decrease in business during warmer months).

A main issue with having rail go underground downtown would be connecting it to the Blue Line somehow, such as connecting an underground single (or double) track turn to connect it at-grade near the current Nicollet Mall Station. A single-track turn could do in my opinion, but I have no experience when it comes to civil engineering, so I will admit that I don’t know how difficult and expensive this option may be to build. Also, being aware of the possibility of that this underground part of the line expanding towards Northeast Minneapolis at a later time can be used as a trade-off since the streetcar project would probably be cancelled if LRT ends up on Nicollet.

Closing statement:

Overall,  since we have limited transit funds, we should be focusing on starting a rail network that allows small starter lines (allowing more parts of the metro to have at least some rail transit options earlier than planned) that connect our densest residential neighborhoods and commercial districts initially, with the option for incremental expansions of 1-2 more suburban stations every few years, instead trying to build entire lines that focus solely on one portion of the metro area every 10-15 years. My ideas aren’t flawless, but I feel that this could bring more solutions into solving our transit planning crisis.

This was cross-posted from (sub)urban studies

Al Davison

About Al Davison

Al Davison resides in downtown St Paul. He grew up in Little Canada, and has also lived in Mankato, and Hibbing. He likes looking at spreadsheets and making maps, whether it is for work or for personal projects. He supports new development, especially if it involves sandwich-oriented retail.