The street pattern in and around Minneapolis is very grid-like, with a few exceptions, mostly due to natural barriers. Yet there remain four major routes that clearly disrupt the 90 degree grid by providing movement in the 45-degree direction for an extended distance.
These are now major highways, with generally limited access but with periodic traffic signals:
- Hiawatha Avenue – to the Southeast. Hiawatha was the first to get the LRT treatment, in 2004, a few years after the road was upgraded, but has seen only limited redevelopment to date. The Diagonal aspect of the route (along with its ancestral parallel, Minnehaha Avenue) continues on MN55 past Fort Snelling and the Airport, across the Beltway (I-494), to US52. The LRT however turns into the airport, on its way to the Mall of America.
- Bottineau Boulevard – to the Northwest. Bottineau Boulevard extends from Broadway in North Minneapolis, through Robbinsdale, past Crystal, across the Beltway (I-694), into Brooklyn CenterPark, by Maple Grove, to Osseo, to Highway 610 (the Outer Beltway), before connecting to I-94 at Rogers. The proposed LRT turns north to attend to Brooklyn CenterPark, rather than west to Maple Grove.
- New Brighton Boulevard – to the Northeast. New Brighton Boulevard wound up adjacent to light industrial land uses (at its southern-most point at Broadway), the Quarry strip shopping center, single family homes and a cemetery, a small strip shopping center in St. Anthony, a petroleum transfer park, and some more industrial before reaching I-35W. While this might be redevelopable, it is hard to see the driving pressures for it. It doesn’t serve the centers of demand in the communities it passes.
- Hennepin Avenue / MN7 to the Southwest. Hennepin Avenue runs from the Southwest out of Downtown to Uptown through a famous bottleneck. One must use Lake Street to traverse the Chain of Lakes, which then forks into three parallel routes:
- MN CSAH5 – Minnetonka Boulevard,
- MN7 (CSAH 25) – No Cool Name,
- MN CSAH 3 – Excelsior Boulevard. (In a move out of St. Paul’s playbook, the
StateHighways are not numbered sequentially from North to South).
The proposed LRT does not follow Hennepin for fear of costs, and instead is planned to tunnel under a bike path. Later it expects to turn south to serve a suburban office complex.
Three of these four corridor have been designated for LRT. Hiawatha (the Blue Line) and Bottineau (proposed Blue Line extension) most obviously, the SWLRT (proposed Green Line extension) follows railroad tracks parallel to MN7 for much of its route.
From a transportation perspective, pre-Interstate these were some of the most important routes into the city because they reduced the circuity of the grid, and thus the distances traveled. Strategically, these provide the best opportunity for transit to make up time against automobiles traveling on the grid.
In an idealized featureless plain with a CBD at the center, we would expect these radial routes to be equally important, and thus equivalently treated. But our world is asymmetric, with rivers and lakes, falls and dams, Chicago nearer than Seattle, and Des Moines more important than Winnipeg, all of which stretch and distort the city. Eden Prairie is more populous than Roseville (even if Roseville is a much larger retail agglomeration, home to Target #1, and more retail spending per capita than Bloomington), and so gets dibs on the large scale regional investments.
Roads can serve as the axis of development or the edge of the community. Hennepin and Broadway are axes, though the remainder of the roads described above are much more community barriers than focal points (or focal strips since they are links).
So the questions include:
- Should large scale transit investments serve
- (a) the communities through which they pass (which will inevitably mean either higher costs per mile or slower trips), or
- (b) as fast ways of moving longer distances (which has lower costs per mile, but fewer positive spillovers to land development)?
- Should stations serve as anchors for
- (a) existing places, or
- (b) new places (green fields), or
- (c) abandoned places (brown fields), or
- (d) park and ride lots (black top)?
To the first question, the non-Central Corridor parts of the Twin Cities regional system aim to move people from the suburbs to downtown, and thus lean toward being fast ways of moving longer distances to downtown Minneapolis (and Saint Paul), with stops along the way in a few obvious places (the Airport, Hopkins, Robbinsdale), rather than serving the communities through which (by which) they pass.
To the second question, stations are disproportionately greenfield suburban places rather than existing town centers. Major greenfield site include: Bloomington Central, Opus in the Golden Triangle, Target at Brooklyn CenterPark. Now granted, some of these municipalities lack an identifiable town center, so the LRT station node may serve as a nucleus for such a place.
This is of itself would not be inherently bad if there were a high probability these greenfields will develop soon after LRT, and if the greenfield developments which benefit directly from the accessibility contribute to the cost of the LRT in the first place. What is the evidence and the record on this? The additional property tax gained is small compared to the cost of the line. There is little to no evidence total sales or income will increase overall, instead it will be redistributed from other sites (that don’t see development) to these sites. The additional net tax revenue is insufficient to recover the capital costs of the line.
The Central Corridor, and to a lesser extent the other lines, also serve some brownfields (I use the term without implying toxic waste dumps, though obviously there is some of that too). The advantage in principle of a brownfield is that the accessibility is higher since the place has at least proven that once it was worth developing, and is located more centrally, and that the new development replaces an eyesore or functionally obsolete property which has negative effects on neighboring land. It also imposes fewer infrastructure costs since water, sewer, schools, etc. are already located to serve the site.
Obviously it is too late to change the alignments of Central and Hiawatha, and given the existence of the corridors, the stations are more or less where any transportation planner would put them (though arguably Hiawatha should have run on the east side of the roadway the whole time).
But the two other diagonal routes deviate from the natural street network that birthed (and was birthed by) the communities on their paths.
As well documented on these pages, Southwest LRT (Green Line Extended) misses Uptown along the Hennepin Diagonal of course (although the most popular alternative uses Nicollet). But by using RR RoW, it also misses a significant part of St. Louis Park along Excelsior Boulevard. Perhaps that could not be helped.
The Bottineau LRT (Blue Line Extended) misses the Broadway segment of the diagonal through the heart of North Minneapolis, choosing instead to serve a park (and save time for suburban commuters).
It is argued that proposed streetcars are a substitute for serving the local community. While the streetcars may come closer to the ride quality of LRT, they lack the exclusive Right-of-Way and thus speed. To those using this for transportation, as opposed to tourists along for the ride, daily speed is important. And the streetcars are not (yet) in the region’s official plans, or funded.
So if Minneapolis and the region approves these remaining two diagonal LRT lines, it should be well-aware of the trade-off of providing service for suburban commuters (and event-goers) to the CBD instead of lines that better serve Minneapolis residents in their daily lives for both commute and non-work trips. One is not morally superior to the other, though one is likely more efficient, and more equitable, and thus will generate more riders than another. That is a choice.