What Southwest Light Rail Conversations Get Wrong

Is there anything new to say about the Southwest Light Rail? Everything and nothing, sound and fury. Angst and ennui.

SWLRT tunnel

Ironically, even this illustration is wrong.

OK, but even though much has been said, I still think people get the conversation wrong most of the time. I’d like to see a different discussion taking place.

Here’s what Southwest is NOT about, and here’s what Southwest IS about…


The Southwest Light Rail Debate is NOT about Bikes

It’s been de rigeur to suggest that the SWLRT debate is about a fight between a light rail line and a bike path. For example, this is how TPT/MPR framed the issue in their recent semi-sorta-humorous video summing up the debate in a mere three minutes..

One problem with this narrative is that the Southwest Light Rail debate has almost nothing to do with bikes. Sure, there’s a very nice and pleasant bike path in the corridor right now. But the world of Minneapolis bicycling is far removed from the Southwest Light Rail project because the scales of money involved are vastly different, by at least a couple of orders of magnitude

A few years ago, Roger Geller, the bike planner for America’s #1 Bike City Portland Oregon, was in town to talk about how to build a bike plan. He mentioned that Portland’s entire network of bike infrastructure — the sum total of all of its bike boulevards, bike lanes, bike trails and bridges throughout the entire city — had been built for $60 Million. That’s the cost for everything!

Compare that to the cost of the SWLRT shallow tunnels, which are currently projected to cost between $150 Million and $200 Million, all ostensibly to “save the bike trail.” For that sum of money, not only could we construct a quality bike trail somewhere nearby, we could build a Seattle-esque system of cycletracks, bike boulevards, and trails all throughout Minneapolis. For that amount of money we could build bike infrastructure that might double or triple the amount of bicycle ridership in the city.

The bike trail is merely a convenient fig leaf for a bunch of other SWLRT issues. Most any bicycle advocate that I know would gladly trade the Kenilworth trail for a game-changing increase in bike funding. I wish that was on the table.


Southwest Light Rail IS About a Broken Federal Funding Mechanism

My friends over at Strong Towns have spent years making a convincing case that our system of transportation funding does more harm that good. For example, in a post about “the Federal Role”, Strong Towns head Chuck Marohn writes:

Let me point out one other thing about federal spending: it comes with some pretty bizarre strings, especially when it gets down to the local level. I’ve written extensively on how, due to federal money and all of the accompanying incentives/standards, my hometown just finished … a $9 million mile of STROAD. The STROAD design was a requirement of the State Aid standards, the mechanism whereby the federal funds are dispersed. The alternative project — a locally-funded and far more neighborhood-friendly street costing $1.2 million — was rejected because it actually cost the local taxpayer more (in terms of cash today, that is — nobody ever discussed future maintenance).

That’s just one example; Chuck has many more.

The more I think about the Southwest Light Rail, the more I gape upon the Kafka-esque situation we’ve created. If you look back at the planning process for the line, each individual decision seems justifiable. For example, even though I disagreed with it, the pivotal routing decision in 2010 made sense according to the rules in place at the time. The same holds with the tunnel decisions happening now, the noise mitigation decisions, any number of smaller details, or the Hobson’s choice facing Minneapolis politicians.

Most everyone admits that the project as a whole is borderline absurd. If given a blank slate, nobody would decide to spend hundreds of millions to build tunnels through a forest. And yet it’s probably going to happen anyway! And why? Because there’s so much Federal money on the table. Cities and politicians are extremely reluctant to turn away $700+ Million in Federal funding (and for good reason).

The Southwest process reveals why the Federal funding system forces people to make bad decisions. Imagine gathering all the Southwest Light Rail “stakeholders”* in a room tomorrow — all the Kenwood and Kenilworth folks, all the folks from North Minneapolis, all the Uptown urbanists, and all folks from Saint Louis Park and Eden Prairie. Imagine sitting them down and saying “Here’s $1.5 Billion, go plan a Light Rail line.” I’m sure they’d agree on a much better solution than our present pickle.

Chasing Federal dollars forces cities to make bad decisions, and it’d be great if we had another system that provided cities with more freedom to plan their own solutions to their own problems.

And there you have it. The Southwest Light Rail is not about bikes, it’s about a system of Federal funding that forces cities to make dumb decisions. It reminds me of my favorite scene from The Magnificent Seven, only nobody knows which character they are.

[From parking meter reform to funding, Steve McQueen has had a lot of good urban policy ideas.]


*Note: This is the first and last time I’ll use the word “stakeholders” without irony.


36 thoughts on “What Southwest Light Rail Conversations Get Wrong

  1. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    Yes and no. Getting federal money does require planners to analyze projects using specific performance indicators (most well known of these are probably travel time savings and cost effectiveness). However, these rules changed partway through the SW LRT planning process (January 2010). A local decision was made NOT to revisit the analysis done on the routes, and proceed with the old funding guidelines.

    In addition, the costs of a freight reroute, tunneling, or any other significant modifications to accommodate freight were not included in the alternatives evaluation process completed by local planners. This isn’t a federal funding issue, this is a local issue. If all the costs and issues we’re seeing now were presented during the selection of a locally preferred alternative by local governments, the County, and Metropolotian Council, would the outcome have been different? Maybe, maybe not.

    There may certainly be blame to lay at the federal level, but I don’t think we’ve actually tested the new funding guidelines adequately to make that judgement. Would we make better decisions if the prospect of “free” federal money was reduced/eliminated? Maybe. Would we get as much transit built without federal money, probably not.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I’m also dismayed how the City of Minneapolis’ official feedback for the LPA noted (many times) that they were NOT supportive of an alternative alignment. Way to close that door…

    2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      Some of this came out of a conversation I was having with a friend who works on public policy issues. He went on an excellent rant about how dumb the tunnels are, which is something I’ve heard over and over from many different people for many different reasons.

      At the same time, the #1 reason people give me why we should support the project is because of the Federal money. That’s it. That’s the big reason.

      The system makes us do stupid things. Maybe Hennepin County made some bad choices along the way, too. But we can blame a top-down structure for much of this situation. It’s fun to imagine how different this project might look if it was funded in a more decentralized manner.

      1. Alex

        Just to be clear, the #1 reason we should support SWLRT is that it’s the cheapest way to bring higher quality transit service to the largest number of jobs and households.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          The cheapest way? Really? I can imagine cheaper ways to achieve mediocre results. And I can imagine using the same dollars to provide high quality transit service to a much larger number of jobs and households.

          1. Alex

            Alright Matt, let’s hear what you imagine then. How would you serve the immense concentration of jobs and households in the southwest metro with transit of comparable quality for less money?

            Undoubtedly the SWLRT plan costs too much, and it can use more cost savings ideas like your gauntlet track plan for Kenilworth. But money-saving ideas won’t save more than a fraction of the project cost. The real cost driver behind projects like SWLRT is that it should have been built 30-40 years ago, and now not only has inflation driven up the cost but so has decades of sprawling growth that the line has to try to serve. But if SWLRT isn’t built, this sprawl won’t magically go away, it will just keep being auto-centric, making our region less competitive, less equitable, and more polluting.

              1. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

                Even in this less ideal low bang for buck alignment, SWLRT, does combat sprawl incrementally at least because it should encourage some more intensive land use patterns along the corridor. That should mean more people choosing to live near SWLRT rather than the newest exurban highway through farmland and countryside. The high reliance on park and rides isn’t ideal and I hope they design them to be convertible to other uses in case auto traffic drops in coming decades and they end up with empty car warehouses.

                Limiting sprawl long term can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to a Minneapolis/Saint Paul vs suburbs fight. As some SW backers are quick to point out, the 3 million plus Twin Cities metro residents can’t all fit within the borders of the two biggest cities. A strategy for combating sprawl has to include smart growth with infill development, better transit and more walkable and bikable communities in the suburbs too. Hopefully, SWLRT helps make that happen.

                As much as I’m tempted to say hit the reset button and go back to the drawing board, politically that would be very dangerous and we could end up not getting a light rail for a good long while. A Republican governor would almost certainly block light rail funding and stack the Met Council with like minded folks (it’s right there in most of their platforms and some go so far to call for dismantling the Met Council entirely) . I agree with Bill that rigid guidelines on the federal level paired with the stubbornness and bone headed planning on local level Brendon mentioned have muddled the process. But we still should get this thing built.

                1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

                  Yeah, note that in this piece I didn’t say whether I support for the current proposal. It might seem like I wouldn’t, but I’d have to think long about it. There are many benefits. It’s a difficult choice!

                  My problem with SWLRT is that this isn’t the choice I’d like to be given. There are much better ways to think about transportation planning than what we’re facing now.

            1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              The real problem with SWLRT is that it is transit that competes on sprawl’s terms. A century ago, places would invest in high-quality transit in small increments to connect immensely valuable (walkable, connected, pleasant) places. This is a glorified express bus towards downtown, and the land use in EFP gives the finger to these potential reverse commuters who apparently need it so much.

              1. Alex BaumanAlex

                “A century ago, places would invest in high-quality transit in small increments to connect immensely valuable (walkable, connected, pleasant) places.” Can you provide some examples? As far as I know, the only transit happening a hundred years ago in the USA was built by large companies in relatively large segments.

                The land use around SWLRT in Eden Prairie is moderate density retail and office. If you think that higher-quality transit should only serve ultra-dense downtowns, then only people who work downtown will use transit. Since that is just a small fraction of total workers (15% at most), that condemns the Twin Cities to auto dependence.

            2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              Auto-centric sprawl will not necessarily persist. It has only been around for a sliver of human history and it can go away just as fast when it becomes immensely unsustainable for individuals and companies as a serving land use pattern.

              Repair the sprawl in places that have value, salvage the rest. We already have precedent for it… dead malls.

              1. Alex BaumanAlex

                Certainly auto-centric sprawl will not persist. And this too shall pass. The question is rather will auto-centric sprawl persist through our lifetimes, and will it persist longer than the point of no return for the climate change it exacerbates? If left alone, the answer to the latter is certainly yes.

  2. ThatOneGuy

    The only quibble I would offer is that many people at the City of Minneapolis have made it explicitly clear they would not support the SWLRT in any condition it if changed the route of the bike path through the Kenilworth Corridor. That makes it at least a little about the bike path.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I think “most” of that “many” were really using the bike path as a proxy for other issues regarding that pinch point.

  3. Alex

    The federal funding mechanism didn’t drive the route choice; the driver was the fact that it is the metro’s largest cluster of jobs next to an easily usable right-of-way. Some would say that this is an undesirable cluster due to the fact that it has lots of parking lots and many sidewalk gaps, but they have not convinced me why that is not an easily and cheaply solvable problem.

    The tunnels in Kenilworth have nothing to do with Federal funding, and everything to do with lukewarm support for transit in the Twin Cities. The cheapest, least disruptive, and least absurd option here (assuming there is not a substantially equivalent reroute for the bike/ped path) is to take the few dozen townhomes constraining the corridor. But the Twin Cities are not at a place where the regional transit network is more important than the privileges of an individual homeowner.

    1. Jim

      Actually, the route was affected by federal rules because SW was approved under the Bush era Cost Effectiveness Index rules, which make a project look more effective when it replaces people driving cars with people sitting in transit.

      The weight of CEI had a huge impact on how much funding we could get based on how many cars could be projected to take off the road. In effect, we had a better chance at getting a big sum of money from the feds with the alignment we chose. That’s not to say we couldn’t have gotten the same amount with a different alignment. It just might have taken longer. Oh, wait, had we taken longer, FTA would have by then changed the rules (as Brendan outlined above) and that would have made alternatives through the city core neighborhoods score better than those on the fringe.

      So it didn’t make us do anything, but it certainly weighed in the decision. All of which is mute now because the time that went by in between nullified the advantages.

      I still haven’t written the final installment to my transit focused series on this topic, but you can read where I was headed here:

      The last part of this piece will address how our transit planning is heading off a cliff. I have good reason to believe the Midtown Corridor rail is dead for the forseeable future because of politics. Which is sad because it is the most viable project in our region from a service and performance perspective.

      1. Alex

        Sure, the CEI did have a lot to do with the decision to go with 3A as an LPA over 3C. I read the second half of the post as being about SWLRT in general, which on second reading it isn’t.

  4. Andy SingerAndy Singer

    Nice column. I like the part about bikes and I partly agree with you about Federal Funding but I also agree with Brendon. The same process Brendon describes happened with Central Corridor. When the project was planned we had the Bush Administration’s “Cost Effectiveness Index.” In looking at design alternatives, the highway engineers who were effectively running the project sold the 2-lane University option short, partly out of genuine fears that it would lead to more congestion but also because they are highway engineers and believe in LOS for cars and never want to give up lane space. Even when Obama repealed the CEI in 2009 and the project plans could have been revisited, they refused to revisit them. So the failings were solidly on a local level, at least on this issue. There’s also incredible abuse that happens with Federal funding– funds allocated for one thing get spent on something else, even with all the strings. A year or two back there was a federal lawsuit about this in Saint Paul having to do with money that had been allocated for housing. The Federal regulations themselves kind of fit the line in your column about how “each individual (regulation) looks justifiable” but you end up with a regulatory structure that is “Borderline absurd.” In the case of Central Corridor the federal funding meant there was this momentum to get it done as quickly as possible and steamroll over objections– the extra stations demanded by the African American community, the bike/ped/parking concerns and construction impacts to business. The NAACP lawsuit got the stations and some construction impact compensation …but other stuff got shunted to the side. Maybe if bike-ped activists and small businesses sued they would have revisited that issue as well?!? SWC seems like they steamrolled ahead, ignoring problems but, ultimately, the problems blew up on them and stopped the whole project.

  5. David

    i thought tunnels were to quiet Kennilworth NIMBYs who didn’t want 220 LRTs in their back yard daily and preserving the bike path and blaming the in-movable infrequent freight train route as acceptable status quo, weren’t these the same people who nixed the 21st St station, and called in their political chips w/ Gov. Dayton last fall to slow this down to push these pricey tunnels?

    1. Kasia McMahonKasia

      Is NIMBY the right term here? I mean, turning a neighborhood park that has been the historic backbone of one of the most highly regarded neighborhoods IN THE COUNTRY into a commuter rail line is a little different than opening a half-way house.

      Top neighborhood: http://blogs.citypages.com/blotter/2013/10/kenwood_neighborhood_in_minneapolis_on_list_of_10_great_places_in_america.php

      Historically park focused: “A newspaper ad of the late 1880’s announced the Kenwood Addition as ‘high, sightly and attractive” and as the “choicest place for elegant residences.’ ” (http://kenwoodminneapolis.org/blog1/neighborhood/#history)

  6. S Brenner

    You are wrong David! The people of Minneapolis were okay with this until colocation was thrown in the mix. Some would rather have 220 trains at grade, no threats to our lakes but not with colocation. Then we would lose the bike trail as it will get kicked to the street. Tell me what Minneapolis has gotten from this boondoggle. Nada!

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      It feels as though there’s been a flip from the Kenilworth folks. They were fine with 220 LRTs a day if freight moved, but then realized a few slow freights a day may actually be better for their properties than the fast and frequent LRTs.

      1. Kasia McMahonKasia

        Matt, the reason for that is telling. I work with LRT Done Right and most of the people in that group are from Kenwood. I would guess that Kenwood is like 90% liberal folks. The gut reaction to light rail by any liberal is like: Awesome! But the more the neighborhood learned about the project (the more anyone learns about the project), the more they were like, “so wait, you want me to sacrifice my quality of life to whisk people that won’t even live in Minneapolis to downtown, and you want to spend $1.5 billion? And our neighborhood doesn’t get a stop….”

        So what started as lukewarm support has turned very sour–and for a lot of good reasons.

          1. Judy

            1. take or move (someone or something) in a particular direction suddenly and quickly.
            “his jacket was whisked away for dry cleaning”
            synonyms: speed, hurry, rush, sweep, hurtle, shoot

  7. Les Wes

    The Federal Funding issue seems to be a hostile dependency problem. And that’s the way the Federal Government wants it. So how do you break that cycle? It seems like MN just has to start making it’s own best decisions and forgoing federal dollars. Even though MN workers send off a large percentage of their earnings each year, being able to cut the strings might be worth it.

  8. David

    The Kennilworth tunneling project should be viewed as a harbinger or neighborhood resistance from Hennepin County and other local gov’t who bought up abandoned rail corridors, converted them to an interim use as a recreation path, that when the times comes to convert to the intended purposes, rail transit, the NIMBYs (literally “in my back yard”) says i’m entitled to a park-like bike path http://www.hennepin.us/~/media/hennepinus/your-government/leadership/documents/hcrra-corridors-trails-map.pdf same repeats in Ramsey County (Bruce Vento, etc). Reading on blogs here, sounds like next one up would be Midtown Greenway into LRT is a popular wish.

  9. Jeff Klein

    A commenter on MinnPost pointed out that both the city and some bike groups were very much part of framing the issue as trains vs. bikes. I agree. It seems the decisions that get made are the sum of a bunch of petty, sort-sighted, single-issue activists with no sense of a bigger picture. Any biker — and I only bike, and never drive or take public transit — who is willing to put a $1.5 B train on hold over two miles of bike trail is looking out for nobody but themselves.

  10. Keith Morris

    I still can’t believe the red herring of suburban jobs is still being bandied about, Yeah, all dozen tops that are walkable from some of those EP stations and a good deal are cut off from transit users to the north of the stations by a wide highway with few points to cross it.

    This should be another downtown connector hitting up the core of SW Mpls’ “downtown” (Uptown), St Louis Park’s “downtown” would be ideal (the dense mixed-use area on Excelsior is too far though) though stations like Wooddale have some dense urban development with walkability to existing employers and room for more if some parking lots get filled in, and then of course, Hopkin’s walkable dense downtown which alone probably has more jobs that are actually within walking distance than all EP stations combined.

    The either-or proposition of, “either build this to stem sprawl or stop it at the cost of more sprawl” is proven false all over the country where LRT stuck in sprawling suburbs resulted in more sprawl anyway: they just added park and rides and more unwalkable, unbikeable sprawl multiplied. All, I’m sure, with advertisements mentioning LRT access :just a short drive away”. They didn’t have to change a thing and they get rewarded with a highly subsidized amenity for suburban commuters: that’s rewarding bad behavior and they did it in DC suburbs which I saw 1st hand defeats the purpose of putting mass transit out there.

    If sprawling suburbs want LRT it should be on the condition that they first adopt policies that end any further sprawling development immediately within their boundaries and only allow redevelopment of current sprawling development to fit complete streets standards: must be pedestrian and cyclist-friendly, no exceptions. Even then, it should not guarantee anything nor should they expect to rewarded when they’ve already built up an anti-mass transit environment that will take decades for the needed density to make LRT a sensible investment. Right now it’s absolute nonsense and I wish Mpls city council would focus on that instead of a trail.

    Oh, and cycle tracks and bike-boulevards don’t compare to a dedicated “no motorists allowed” path/trail. People ride in much higher numbers when they know they don’t have to interact with motorists and don’t have to stop every couple blocks and once you throw in encounters with motorists every block and stops you’ve effectively cut out the vast majority of people who would have ridden but now won’t.

    1. Adam MillerAdam

      I’m curious about what you saw in DC. Because what I saw there, at least along the Orange line, is that rail has directly led to significantly increased density.

      Court House, Clarendon and Ballston changed mightily in the 11 years I lived in DC, substantially for the better and denser.

      You can see it when you fly into National. There’s a string of taller buildings and greater density exactly where the Orange line runs.

      There is much that’s poor about the SWLRT, but the DC metro and the Orange line are what gives me a little bit of hope about it (not enough to make up for it’s lack of benefit to Minneapolis, but still).

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Orange Line stations surrounded by massive parking lots:
        -New Carrolton
        -Vienna (changing)
        -West Falls Church

        Yes, the Arlington corridor has seen density. But notice that it’s because the rail integrated within an existing urban environment. It’s the section that doesn’t run in a freeway median. It doesn’t have superblocks to develop; it has a classic grid of calm local streets (except the one way couplets are quite car seweresque). It’s also grade separated, existing in a cut and cover tunnel.

        More importantly, it connects to a broader system that is designed to serve urban neighborhoods across the region. On this very line, look at all the infill and classic urban neighborhoods at Eastern Market, Potomac Ave, etc.

        The similarities between the Washington Metro and SWLRT/Bottineau end at a) running on steel rails and b) costing a boatload of money. The characteristics, and the results we will get, are very different.

  11. David

    then the Kenwood liberals – i referred to them calling their donations chips in on Gov Dayton last week – set for the textbook example of NIMBY, or maybe there is a PIBBY route (put in a black’s backyard), and when in doubt BANANA (building absoluately nothing anywhere near anyone, the NO BUILD option) once they realized agreed to 220 LRTs did a switcharoo (don’t want that) keep the trains, keep the bike path we’re entitled too (we all know frankly they all physically fit in the ROW) since…Hennepin County bought the corridor for LRT and warehoused it as a bike path…therefore we’re entitled to a permanent parkway…NO LRT Gov Dayton! let me write you a fat check for reelection.

  12. Pingback: Sunday Summary | streets.mn

Comments are closed.