Strangulation on the Green Line

Public officials and planners made a huge mistake when they chose to place the Central Corridor “Green Line” Light Rail Transit (LRT) on University Avenue. Enchanted by federal money and obsessed with dreams of economic development, they forgot the obvious purpose for a light rail train: better mass transit. We must recognize this huge error as well as the lesser shortcomings of the successful Hiawatha “Blue Line.” We must reform our transit planning process. Otherwise we’ll continue to blunder and spoil our prospects for good transit.

What’s Wrong with the Green Line?

When federal money became available for LRT to connect St. Paul and Minneapolis, the train seemed destined for I-94, along highway and Soo Line railroad right of ways. A Draft Environmental Impact Statement released in 1993 compared three routes: Burlington Northern (along Pierce Butler), University Avenue, and Soo Line/I-94. The Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority apparently favored the route along the freeway for many reasons, including fastest travel time, least impact on local access, fewest environmental concerns, lowest energy consumption, lowest cost of relocating utilities, and fewest traffic diversions. University Avenue was clearly least desirable on those counts. Most significantly, the study stated that the Soo Line/I-94 alignment would have the highest ridership, 33% more than University Avenue. But, the study got waste-basketed by new commissioners who preferred a train in the middle of University Avenue.

Good or Poor Transit?

It’s pretty clear that higher transit speed using the freeway alignment would have attracted the additional 33% of riders, including many commuters. University Avenue had 25 stop lights plus many additional intersections on the 6.1 miles between Huron Avenue in Minneapolis and Rice Street in St. Paul. On such a busy commercial street, a surface train must stop for red lights at the many major intersections: a thwarted train. In contrast, the Blue Line’s Hiawatha Avenue is a spacious divided highway with only eight stop lights on the four miles between Lake Street and Highway 62, and the train has priority at those lights, permitting relatively high track speeds. Unfortunately, tunneling or elevating the Green Line tracks was considered too expensive.[1]

Consequently the train will have a transit speed only about the same as the present Route 16 bus, but with 46 fewer places to get on and off. It’s likely to run more slowly, on average, than the Route 50 limited stop bus, which had at least eight more passenger stops. The 50 was dropped when the new train started operating, the 16 service has been significantly reduced, and, importantly, the Route 94 express bus service was eliminated outside of rush hour–even though it gets from downtown to downtown far more quickly than the train. These service reductions seem calculated to force riders onto the train and cut costs, but will hardly help the mobility impaired who may have to wait longer for the bus or else roll a wheelchair an extra half-mile or more to or from a station. It appears that by most measures, addition of the new train will result in poorer service, and a step backwards for public transit.

Trains are not Streetcars

Light rail vehicles (LRVs) appropriately function as commuter lines and connectors for long urban distances. To fulfill that purpose efficiently they should either operate along limited access highways, or along existing rail right of ways, or in tunnels, or on elevated structures. In contrast, if the purpose were to provide surface rail service on University Avenue, a modern streetcar line would seem the obvious choice, not a train. Streetcars run with the automotive traffic and often stop at corners to pick up and discharge passengers. A modern streetcar closely resembles a single LRV. A University Avenue streetcar should travel at nearly the same speed as the 16 bus. At the time of Central Corridor planning, few cities pursued aid for streetcar development, but at a cost per mile of about 1/3 that of LRT, installing a streetcar line would have cost state and local government significantly less than the roughly 50% match needed to get the federal LRT dollars. But the decision makers didn’t understand the difference between streetcars and trains; consequently we’ve got a train that can’t run as a train should (to get commuters off the freeway and provide rapid point to point transportation) and yet can’t provide the good local service of a streetcar.

At this point, we should recognize the unequivocal advantages of the Green Line over local bus service: 1) easier, more frequent service between the University of Minnesota main campus and Downtown Minneapolis; 2) easier physical entrance to and exit from LRVs, compared to buses; 3) brighter and shinier than buses. But these would be advantages of a modern streetcar line as well!

And the Thwarted Train Brings Other Problems

One factor that kept St. Paul and Ramsey County from discarding the I-94 route even sooner was the prevailing LRV design that required passengers to climb up several steps within the cars in order to reach the passenger floor. But planners and officials thought the University Avenue route feasible when a new car design made boarding easy, with the passenger floor approximately at curb level. Unfortunately they did not realize, until too late, that the infrastructure for a train on the street meant elimination of most on-street parking along the route. That’s how the project cost University Avenue businesses 1,000 parking spaces. For many businesses access became more difficult because LRT barriers permanently severed secondary streets that used to cross University Avenue. And of course the long construction period also made life very difficult for many businesses with University Avenue storefronts.

The high costs of on-street installation eventually ruled out a planned LRT tunnel through the East Bank campus of the University of Minnesota under Washington Avenue Southeast. Consequently that part of Washington Avenue became permanently closed to private automotive traffic, which in turn eliminated automobile traffic from the Washington Avenue Bridge except for westbound from Pleasant Street or eastbound to East River Road, greatly diminishing automobile access to and from the West Bank.

Safety issues accompany a train on the street. Illuminated semaphores, including turn/don’t turn arrows, control the four-way crossings at the major intersections along the Green Line. We won’t see any gate bars that raise and lower, like those on the Blue Line. Given the number of intersections, all the pedestrian, bicycle and automotive traffic along the route, and the fact that the train makes several turns from or back to University Avenue, we can expect lots of Green Line accidents. By May 2014, three collisions had already taken place during several weeks of runs by test trains.

Interference on the Tracks

What will happen when Green Line trains begin using the same set of tracks as Blue Line trains in Downtown Minneapolis? To help answer this question, I performed a study on five weekdays in May and June 2008, by riding the train back and forth from 4:00 to 6:00 PM between the Metrodome and the Warehouse District/Hennepin Avenue Station (then the western terminus) equipped with a stop watch and note pad. At that time, two car trains were supposed to run at seven minute intervals in each direction, requiring a minimum average terminus relay speed of nearly 6.9 miles per hour (i.e., the speed necessary for a train to always arrive or wait at the terminus to maintain the schedule) over that .8 mile distance. The data suggested that during peak hours, trains barely kept the schedule of seven minute intervals traveling at an average speed of 7.3 MPH on the downtown rails.

At that time, the Metropolitan Council and Central Corridor Project office asserted that the additional (Green Line) train would run at the same frequency as the existing line, so that during peak hours a train from one line, then one from the other, would run every 3.5 minutes in each direction. But I had observed a variation of more than plus or minus 2.36 minutes (35%) in the time it took trains to travel that .8 mile stretch. In order to avoid congestion and overtaking on the joint track, trains would have to travel at a much higher average terminus relay speed: clearly not feasible in the downtown gauntlet of semaphores and traffic.

At first I thought that ample train docking facilities at the yet to be constructed Target Field Stadium station might help ease the problem, combined with extreme system coordination. But the data showed the problem occurred in both eastbound and westbound directions: how to keep a 3.5 minute interval, in view of the range of 4:23 to 9:12 measured travel time over that downtown stretch! And what about the vagaries of schedule to be encountered by the new line, with all its intersections, red lights and traffic along University Avenue and in Downtown St. Paul? And what would happen with three-car trains?

I predicted that in all likelihood during peak times the Blue Line would have to run less often than every 7 minutes, and the Green Line less frequently than unrealistically planned, otherwise there would be no capability for scheduling.[2] Planners and officials never discussed this very basic question in public, but when I raised the issue face to face (once with an official of the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority, once with a project engineer) the answer was, “It’s a problem, alright!”

In fact, the Blue Line now operates at 10 minute intervals with three car trains during afternoon rush hour. I have not measured the present transit times between Target Field Station and what’s still called Downtown East/Metrodome Station, but the previous data strongly suggests schedule problems and a possible slowing of the whole system when the Green Line joins the Blue Line on those downtown tracks. It appears that running trains at five minute intervals in each direction may work under perfect conditions, but we’ll see what happens in practice.

Severe Limitation of Capacity

Those figures suggest that the Blue Line currently runs at roughly maximum capability during peak hours, a limitation created by placing the tracks on a busy Downtown Minneapolis street grid where the train must stop at semaphores. That’s one of the shortcomings of the Blue Line project: nickled-and-dimed, rather than have the dollars needed to tunnel the system downtown. As a friend originally from the East Coast says, “They do everything half-assed around here.” The other shortcoming: traffic queues at the Hiawatha Avenue crossings where the train has priority, a problem that could be remedied by future over- or underpasses for cars and trucks. But practically the entire 11-mile Green Line track runs on the surface of streets where its trains must stop at many red lights.

In 2008 planners anticipated 42,170 Central Corridor LRT riders on weekdays by 2030.[3] Then Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell stated even higher figures.[4] While those expectations may be overly optimistic for such a slow transit connection with poor local service, they appear to represent maximum capacity or thereabouts, with three car trains. What then? Operating at grade level, four car trains would block intersections, and don’t expect a significantly more frequent schedule. In other words, a continuous conveyor choo-choo won’t work! It seems even the planners anticipate operation of only fifteen years or less until the Green Line is seriously overcrowded. And during that period we’ll still lack an adequately speedy trunk line between the two major cities to provide an attractive alternative to driving congested I-94. We’re looking at transportation strangulation!

How and Why did it Happen?

St. Paul contains most of the Green Line’s 11 miles, and St. Paul and Ramsey County officials and planners—having assured themselves that the legislature would support their bid for the state’s second LRT line—made the key choices and decisions. When I asked St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman in 2009 about any studies that showed LRT should go on University Avenue, he responded in a very clear manner:

“Ramsey County undertook at [sic] study in the mid-1980s…which concluded that I-94 represented the fastest option. A subsequent analysis by the Metropolitan Council and Saint Paul Planning Commission raised the concern that an I-94 alignment would not support the city’s economic development goals, leading to a renewed interest in University Avenue.”[5]

In other words, it’s LRT for possible economic development, not for rapid transit. In a January 2006 Minnesota Public Radio interview, the former City Council member and newly elected Mayor Coleman concedes that on the Hiawatha line, LRT is “really treated more like a train.”[6] He rightly states that to properly plan a transportation system, “We have to start doing those things from a metropolitan-wide perspective…because you can’t address the issues…from a St. Paul versus Minneapolis perspective,” although he later adds, “St. Paul can’t be the red-haired step child to Minneapolis when it comes to transportation. We have to be an equal partner on transportation issues if we’re going to be equal in this region.” St. Paul would not care to be a “red-haired step child” with a mere streetcar line, when Minneapolis has an LRT line. But “me-too” St. Paul thwarted “its” train, frustrating any chance for the region to have a vital trunk line between the two cities for many years to come.

Coleman sounds correct when he says, “we are not going to be able to accommodate the kind of growth that we’re going to face in the cities—in the Twin Cities and the Metropolitan Region–unless we have a truly multimodal transit system that includes light rail as the anchor.” But the thwarted Green Line train amounts to an anchor against progress. Coleman’s remarks highlight the contradictory thinking behind the Central Corridor plan, although the key decisions had been made before he became Mayor.

A Crucial Study

The 1999 Annual Report of the Saint Paul Planning commission stated,

“With Ramsey County’s reconsideration of Central Corridor LRT recommendations, the Planning Commission undertook a short and intensive study to see if LRT on University Avenue is viable with respect to physical, economic, and construction impacts. The results, which generally conclude that LRT would complement activities on University Avenue, were discussed with the community in a series of open houses and constituent group briefings. Simultaneously, the Midway Chamber of Commerce undertook the same line of inquiry. Recommendations of the Planning Commission and Midway Chamber of Commerce resulted in the City Council not only endorsing the Central Corridor for LRT, but concluding that University Avenue was the only reasonable alignment within the Corridor.”[7]

According to the “short and intensive study,” (“Light Rail Transit on University Avenue: A Review of the Potential,” 1999), previous issues about the University Avenue alignment—design and construction impacts on businesses and opposition of University Avenue businesses—no longer seemed so relevant because of “techniques” that had “substantially changed,” meaning the belief that a design for tracks in the center of the street would be fine. The study expects that “for most of University Avenue engineers anticipate there will be two lanes of traffic each way, and one lane for parking,” which ultimately ended up as a badly mistaken assertion.

Much later, when businesses learned of the loss of 1,000 parking spaces, I queried whether the Midway Chamber of Commerce would have still supported the plan, and the Chamber’s president thought it likely. She said there had been vacant buildings along University for many years, and the owners had been waiting for LRT to help solve their problem. Asked about all the Asian business owners who now felt endangered by the project, the Midway Chamber of Commerce President responded, “Oh, they’re newcomers!”[8]

The study sensibly states, “In order to attract riders, LRT must have an overall time faster than driving and parking a car,” but as we know, the Green Line falls far short of meeting this requirement (unless the parking gets removed). An argument for LRT as development stimulator gets substituted for the former notion that “speed of travel between downtowns was paramount.” Apparently for these planners, transit speed is not a transit need. They say that St. Paul government had long favored the University Avenue route “because it best promoted economic development/redevelopment and served the transit needs better than the other two alignments,” but:

“Why build Light Rail Transit (LRT) when the central corridor has the best bus service in the region. Transit systems evolve as ridership increases. A typical progression of transit service from lowest to highest is the following:

• Small circulator vans
• Buses
• Articulated buses (extended buses that bend in the middle)
• Light rail (street car)
• Heavy rail (subway)”

and there, in black in white, we see that the St. Paul planning department conflates light rail trains and street cars, a grievous error. On the above list, streetcars belong on the line with articulated buses because of similar passenger capacity and transit speed.

Then the planners state, “This progress occurs as it becomes impossible to use existing vehicles to serve the demand.” They point to “a limit to how many buses holding 60-80 people can depart in the course of rush hour,” lauding the capacity of an LRT car, but they fail to acknowledge the severe limits imposed on a surface-mounted University Avenue train by the traffic semaphores. They do not mention the restrictions imposed by the downtown surface routes, especially the capacity limits imposed on the joint Blue and Green Line track in Downtown Minneapolis.

Thwarted Train a Bulldozer?

As to development, the authors of the lightweight and faulty “short and intensive study” believe “a light rail line needs to penetrate the highest of existing activity centers. If investment follows investment, then locating LRT on busy and important commercial streets allows for the greatest positive impact,” but the planners admit that development is most likely within a quarter mile of stations.[9] They call for substantial public investment, expecting with LRT only, $1 of private investment for every $1 of public investment, for LRT plus public improvements $6 of private investment for every $1 of public investment, and “in some locations ratios of $20 to $1 have been achieved.”

In 2009 Ed Goetz, Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, observed, “University [Avenue] is already a well-developed corridor with a lot of activity centers and attractions.”[10] Obviously the LRT-beleaguered Asian businesses in particular lend a great deal of growth and vitality to the street. Tom Stransky, a critic of the Green Line, owns Midway Books, a respected business on University Avenue for 44 years; he also owns the property. At one of those “open houses” or “constituent group briefings” where planners displayed pictures of the University and Snelling intersection, Stransky saw an eight-story building on his corner. He asked,

“’Where’s my book store?’ The planner said, ‘Oh, this is low income housing, don’t worry, just something we’re thinking about. You can have your bookstore underneath.’ At another meeting a friend of mine with a property on University Avenue saw empty space instead of his building. He was told it was green space.”[11]

At a meeting between St. Paul city officials and some 40 business and property owners along University Avenue on December 10, 2009, the city was accused of “taxing out the small businesses” with a special assessment of $54.39 per frontage foot, plus an additional annual maintenance fee of $1.70 per foot to maintain new lighting. The levies would help pay for the Green Line “streetscape” improvements. The Pioneer Press quoted Long Hur, owner of New Fashion clothing:

“when he bought property in 1996, he paid $3,000 in property taxes. ‘Now, it’s $30,000,’ he said. ‘And now the assessment.’”[12]

An official also recommended that businesses install new sanitary sewer connections at $3,500 and up, in order to avoid a possible future charge of perhaps $25,000 after completion of Green Line construction.

In April 2011, St. Paul changed the zoning along University Avenue to permit taller and denser construction. But before considering development prospects and what has taken place, let’s continue the story of the decision-making.

Consequences of the “Short and Intensive Study”

Decisions took place in stages and at many points, but it seems that St. Paul Planning’s study played a key role on the process of siting LRT on University Avenue rather than along the freeway. At the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority (RCRRA) Board of Commissioners meeting of November 16, 1999, Commissioner Susan Haigh moved to

“eliminate the alternative of LRT along the I-94 corridor for the Central Corridor Transit Study contingent on the adoption of the report by the City Council. She said that we shouldn’t put our money into something that the City of St. Paul doesn’t agree with. She also remarked that we should target the resources on University Avenue.”[13]

Several RCRRA staffers then remarked that the previous 1993 study preferred the I-94 route, and that a “whole range of alternatives” needed study because of federal requirements. Commissioner Janice Rettman “felt that no alignment should be eliminated until it is explored to the fullest.” Apparently these were mere perfunctory quibbles. The main author of the “short and intensive study” argued for the supposed economic benefits of a University Avenue alignment, stating “that it does not appear that the economic benefits that rail would make on University would be the same on I-94.”

Then, by a vote of 7 – 0, the Commissioners approved Haigh’s motion “to authorize staff to negotiate a contract with BRW for the Central Corridor Transit Study and to amend it by eliminating the alignment of LRT along the I-94 corridor contingent upon the adoption of the [“short and intensive”] Planning Commission report by the St. Paul City Council.”[14]

Shortly after release of the report, St. Paul City Council Member Jerry Blakey sponsored a City Council resolution that acknowledged the report, affirmed the importance of LRT planning and “improved technology,” but resolved “to continue to review alternative alignments carefully and continue to clarify our intentions concerning potential light rail development in order to participate appropriately in regional decisions.”[15] [Italics added.] At the City Council meeting of December 8, 1999, Blakey expressed concern

“from talking to a number of businesses on University Avenue. The Midway Chamber of Commerce is supporting it [University Avenue route] but they do not have overwhelming support. The Asian business community is not aware of the issue. Blakey said he is concerned that the Council will decide what is best for the businesses, a study will be done, and it will be narrowed down to only one option.”[16]

But then Councilmember Chris Coleman amended Blakey’s resolution to focus entirely on University Avenue. Coleman argued strongly against alignments other than University Avenue, remarking that I-94 was “useless for light rail.”

“Councilmember Coleman said in a conversation with the head of the Metropolitan Council, he was told that it’s a waste of everyone’s time to be looking at any areas other than University Avenue because it would not be built anywhere else based on ridership projections.”[17]

Coleman’s assertion completely contradicts the official 1993 DEIS. The City Council then approved the amended resolution, but Blakey, who represented the eastern section of University Avenue (the location of many of the later worried Asian businesses) voted against it. Blakey had favored the I-94 alignment.[18]

Later decisions followed suit; for example, a memorandum of July 30, 2001, from RCRRA staff to Central Corridor Coordinating Committee Members, reported that a number of “public scoping meetings” had taken place as well as meetings of officials from various public entities, and “based on the testimony, written comments and supplemental meetings, the Project Management Team made the following recommendations at its meeting on July 25, 2001: 1. Light Rail Transit on I-94 should be eliminated from further study or environmental analysis…”[19]

Development along the Green Line – Prospects and Reality

Acting in her current role as Chair of the Metropolitan Council, Susan Haigh extolls the $2.5 billion in development that has or will take place, supposedly because of the Green Line. Others say that much of that development would have occurred without the new LRT line–such as housing near the University of Minnesota, the Downtown East development in Minneapolis, and renovation of Union Station–or simply resulted because of improvement in the economy. Scholarly studies abound concerning possible effects of LRT on development; the conclusions vary widely. One noted expert on transportation policy and planning, Professor Robert Cervero of the University of California at Berkeley, was quoted by Chris Havens in the Star Tribune:

“’Past experience suggests the economic developments of LRT in all but the most fast-growing, economically robust settings are oversold.’ While light rail might bring better mobility for poor people, he added the line by itself likely won’t invite new outside investments.”[20]

A few scholars have considered our one local example, the Blue Line. The Humphrey Institute’s Ed Goetz looked at results after more than four years of the Blue Line’s operation, in 2009. He found that locales within range of some stations saw increased creation of housing and a rise in property values.[21] That line’s speedy convenience apparently attracts commuters and residents but has not stimulated a great deal of commercial development. Goetz doubted whether the University Avenue line will have a major impact. He observed that in other cities, property values increased near LRT stations but decreased at locations on a line that were not near a station.

Advocates of a train on University Avenue cited examples in Dallas, Salt Lake City, and other cities as great economic development successes, including Portland, Oregon’s projects intended explicitly for economic stimulus.[22] The latter, however, were notably streetcar lines, not LRT, and the distinction between those modes of transit is fundamental. Most of the cited LRT projects bear little resemblance to the Green Line’s addition of such a painfully slow train to a street that was served by frequent buses, a train that merely increases capacity between relatively few points, accompanied by a significant reduction of local bus service. (See the appended table of comparisons with cities cited by project planners)

A Recent Study, and Current Results

Of course the Blue Line has not seen the kind of strenuous efforts carried on by a St. Paul determined from the beginning to make a thwarted train seem an economic cornucopia. Nor has the Blue Line enjoyed the sort of benevolence sprinkled along University Avenue by the likes of the charitable Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.

Very recently Xinyu “Jason” Cao, with Dean Porter of the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, studied anticipation-related development on the St. Paul portion of the Green Line by examining the timing of building permits and their value versus the timeline of planning and project financing. He saw a significant rise in building permits and a steep rise in their value around stations, coincident with the approval of funding for the LRT project. Those changes were clearest in Downtown St. Paul, however, and Cao says it’s not clear how much they relate directly to LRT. St. Paul also changed the zoning along University Avenue at that time, to permit taller structures, denser development and mixed use projects. And the City of St. Paul and the Metropolitan Council take their belief in the attraction of private money by public investment along transit routes very seriously; the Star Tribune recently cited a figure of $80 million or more in “seed money” planted along the Green Line, consisting of government grants. Additional funds have come from foundations and other charities. I would add that another factor must be the propaganda carried on tirelessly by St. Paul and the Metropolitan Council as well as boosters such as the Pioneer Press, a self-described “strong supporter and cheerleader” for the project. Cao concluded,

“in addition to LRT investment, proactive land use planning policies, public subsidies and public funded projects are important contributors to building activity,” and that his study “cannot tell whether the building activities represent a net growth in the region or just a redistribution of growth within the region.”[23]

A discordant note sounded in 2009, when development advocates and St. Paul Council Member Dave Thune actually denounced one project clearly related to the Green Line. Thune asked whether people would have invested in Lowertown if they had known an LRT maintenance facility would end up there. Mayor Coleman and then Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell had to lobby energetically in order to keep the facility on track and keep the overall LRT project out of jeopardy.[24]

At this point, housing projects—including a lot of units for low or moderate income renters—clearly dominate Green Line development: some subsidized by direct means such as the $80 million cited above, with almost all of the large projects subsidized by a far greater amount in tax increment financing, limited partnership tax shelters and tax breaks on loans. Contradictions abound; does economic development along an arterial street mean housing, especially if constructed on what would appear to be rather prime commercial space? Does economic development mean low income housing, and if so, does it mean increasing the concentration of low income households and minorities? As housing for families, does it make sense to put children on or near such a busy street? (And as to the agencies approving such financing, why does it rarely include apartments of four or more bedrooms, which has been the unsatisfied need in the Metropolitan area for decades?)

A Fundamental Contradiction

The preoccupation with trying to use the Green Line to achieve development contradicts the repeatedly stated concern for helping the people already there. As Mayor Coleman admits, “how do we enhance the people that have already invested in that corridor, not how do we replace them with somebody else.”[25] Indeed, how do you enhance the municipal tax base without indirect displacements or direct replacements? How do you keep Tom Stransky and Long Hur in place while presumably trying hard to raise their property values and taxes? But thus far, there’s been little commercial development planned or completed; investment in commercial development takes longer to materialize than in housing. Few examples come to mind: a new Culver’s near the Snelling Avenue intersection, a Walgreen’s moving several hundred yards closer to that same intersection.

It’s still too early to tell whether Green Line development will come to pass as St. Paul and the Metropolitan Council hope, and it may never be possible to tell why. Except for the likely concentration of activity around stations, as hinted by Culver’s and Walgreen’s, stimulation by the LRT itself appears questionable. In my opinion, even with all the development incentives showered along University, a fast rail link between the two downtowns and points between would have ultimately benefited St. Paul development more. Whatever the case, the key question remains: did planners and officials have sufficient justification to undermine a key element in a metropolitan rail transit system by thwarting the train?

A Demonstrably Bad Process

Granted, sensible transit planners should keep an eye on economic development, but surely they should never lose sight of the main purpose: better public transit, within the frame of regional transportation. Green Line planners failed this basic requirement. To make things worse, at every stage and level, government failed to exercise good oversight.

An early study for the Ramsey and Hennepin Rail Authorities reported in 1990, “Economic/Land Use Impacts of LRT in the Midway Corridor,” demonstrated the preoccupation with development that ultimately prevailed. The report expected positive effects from each of the three possible alignments, Burlington Northern/Pierce Butler, University Avenue and I-94/Soo Line, with greatest development benefit along University, but less transit value to the region. The higher transit speed along I-94 would provide greater benefit to downtown St. Paul and provide good residential service and transit connections. The report includes a transcribed forum on September 11, 1990, apparently one of the few occasions when the public could weigh in meaningfully concerning the merits of the three alignments.

In 1995 the Metropolitan Council published “Economic Development Potential Around Central Corridor LRT Stations,” a document interesting for its consideration of development within the context of the then favored I-94/Soo Line route. But with its relatively good anticipated downtown to downtown transit time of 28 minutes, even that route had been badly compromised by lack of tunneling around the University Transit Center and from there to I-94 near Highway 280, in addition to the lack of tunneling in both downtown areas. And then, as we have learned, the Ramsey Regional Rail Authority, St. Paul planners and St. Paul City Council chose to try use the new line primarily as a questionable development tool, moving the line to University. The Metropolitan Council fully supported those decisions. The Minneapolis City Council and Mayor Rybak enthusiastically deferred to St. Paul, and Hennepin County proved an all-out booster of the thwarted train plan with Commissioner Peter McLaughlin leading the charge. Where was the public?

I was stunned to learn of the University Avenue route by accident when I asked questions at a meeting of the Cedar Riverside Business Association where a University of Minnesota consultant described the route then planned through the University of Minnesota main campus and across the river. Later, in 2008, I mentioned the fact to Professor and former State Representative Myron Orfield, a noted expert on metropolitan governance; even he was quite surprised to hear of the change of route.

By the time the ill-informed public could testify at meetings and hearings from 2006 on, notably at locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul in May and June 2008, there could be no major change of plans without a mass uprising. In the voluminous and opaque Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that appeared in July of 2009, public comments got responses—often merely numbered and indexed—that tend to state courses of action or decisions rather than directly answer the questions raised. Most witnesses simply supported mass transit and LRT. The FEIS briefly notes that an earlier Draft EIS (the one that got waste-basketed) considered other alignments, but the FEIS offers no explanation for the choice of University Avenue.

Criteria Disabled, Fudged or Disregarded

Meanwhile the Central Corridor thwarted train proposal encountered problems at the Federal Transit Administration because of difficulty satisfying the Cost Effectiveness Index (CEI) requirement, as one might expect. Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar who then chaired the House Transportation Committee, repeatedly grumbled about the supposedly onerous restrictions placed on the Central Corridor LRT project by the CEI calculation. He pushed for changes in the CEI, not for changes in the cost effectiveness of the thwarted train. In May 2008, he applauded a newly passed bill’s weakening of the CEI to include more subjective factors (dare we say “political?”) such as presumed stimulation of development.[26] According to one of Oberstar’s former aides, he just wanted “to get something done.”[27]

On August 19, 2009, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) issued a Record of Decision approving the FEIS. With that approval in hand, the Metropolitan Council determined the project’s CEI to be $24.45, a number achieved by trimming features, by not including a number of associated costs, by not including the cost and effects of the stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western that had been added because of pressure from groups representing minorities and other residents, and by tinkering with details to project an even more optimistic total transit time of 39:13–reduced by 62 seconds from previous estimates.

The new CEI calculation barely passed beneath the federal bar of $24.49, and the Metropolitan Council then submitted its application to the federal agency prior to the deadline of September 5. “With a nod and a wink” aptly characterizes much of the application process on both local and federal levels. Major construction bids went out before the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) issued final approval.[28]

Who Dares Criticize?

So far, the magnitude of the Green Line transit fiasco—a nearly $1 billion expenditure for what’s probably the most expensive public works project yet completed in Minnesota—hasn’t dawned on the public. In the current blizzard of adulation, optimism and self-congratulatory publicity, it’s not yet clear for the public to see the Green Line’s failure to provide a vital regional transit trunk line between our two major cities. If anything, the Green Line presents a distorted model that encourages some to clamor for Southwest Corridor LRT service in Uptown without demanding tunneling or elevation of the line so as to preserve rapid transit train function in a dense area.

A local friend of mine waited for the southbound Blue Line train at Government Center. Next to him stood a well-dressed stranger who could see the headlight blocks away as the train slowly advanced between stop lights, on its surface tracks. The stranger said, “Why is the train so slow here? I’m from Mexico City, and it’s fast there.”

Meanwhile our metropolitan area continues to lag far behind many others in the U.S. at establishing good rapid transit. In January 2011, several organizations (Surface Transportation Policy Partnership, Transit for Livable Communities and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy) assessed our status, finding fault with the decision-making process and calling for reforms. Their “Planning to Succeed?” report notes that “the metro area has slipped into a role of underachiever among its peers.” They cited four key problems: lack of accountability; lack of vision and mission; lack of efficiency, sustainability and connectedness in transportation and land use; and outdated funding mechanisms. Much of their concern focused on the Metropolitan Council. The report could just as well serve as a critique of the Central Corridor LRT process, but significantly, it contains not one word of direct criticism.

Also in January 2011, the Office of the Legislative Auditor published a critical report, “Governance of Transit in the Twin Cities Region.” It contains no direct criticism of the Central Corridor LRT process, but like “Planning to Succeed?” it urges reforms, particularly by restructuring the Metro Council as a first step. (As of June, 2014, the legislature has not acted on this recommendation). It lists nine principles of effective governance:

(1) Accountability;
(2) Consensus building and participation;
(3) Credibility;
(4) Effectiveness;
(5) Equity;
(6) Flexibility;
(7) Stability;
(8) Strategic vision; and
(9) Transparency.

“For example, an effective transit governance structure should clearly identify who is responsible for what (accountability), encourage local involvement (consensus building and participation), have the necessary legitimacy and expertise to make decisions (credibility), and prioritize and focus resources on efforts of regional significance (strategic vision). To the extent possible, a governance structure should balance all nine of the effective governance principles.” [29]

Although it doesn’t discuss rail transit, the Legislative Auditor’s report provides an additional basis for criticizing the Central Corridor LRT process. The process that gave us the Green Line essentially fails on all nine points of governance.

A year later the Itasca Project issued “Regional Transit System: Return on Investment Assessment,” which outlines the beneficial direct and indirect impacts of good regional transit, from the standpoint of return on investment. The Itasca Project consists primarily of CEOs, public-sector leaders, and leaders of major local foundations. Like the two reports just cited, Itasca’s puts the Central Corridor LRT in a bad light but makes no direct comment. Nor has Itasca co-chair Charlie Zelle spoken out on the matter since his appointment as Minnesota Commissioner of Transportation.

To Solve this Mystery

The Legislative Auditor’s report appends letters responding with comments and objections from other agencies. One came from the Metropolitan Council, signed by the current chair, Susan Haigh, who—as we saw above—bore significant responsibility for choice of the University Avenue route in her previous role as Ramsey Regional Rail Authority commissioner. Another came from the Counties Transit Improvement Board, signed by its chair, Green Line enthusiast Peter McLaughlin. It agrees that the Metropolitan Council needs to be restructured, but expresses concern about the nine principles for effective transit governance:

“No discussion is given to whether these principles, which make sense from an administrative and policy standpoint, are achievable in the current political context.”[30]

Sadly, it’s quite clear that no public (and few private) officials will admit that a huge and very foolish mistake was made by choosing University Avenue for a surface LRT route. In the land of Minnesota Nice, no one’s guilty if no one will recognize the crime. But some of us who can only fret on the sidelines see that mistake very clearly.[31] As Sheldon Gitlis said in a letter of November 2009, to the Minnesota Daily,

“Connecting the two downtowns, the University of Minnesota, the State Capitol complex and the Midway area with rapid transit makes sense. An 11-mile 45-minute route, placing 265,000 pound trains designed to go 70 mph in the middle of the street is ludicrous.”[32]

The emperor has no clothes! How can we develop a fine transit system if officials don’t recognize such obvious errors? Long ago, Boston recognized the deficiencies of its compromised early urban rail lines and wisely built for the future by installing tunneled heavy rail.

And that raises a related issue, one that transit decision-makers here seem incapable of grasping and promoting, the need for tunnels in areas of dense development and street grids. Much of the ground beneath the Twin Cities consists of sand and sandstone, with underlying limestone. Soft material with a good foundation. Should be easy to tunnel, to achieve truly rapid transit. Why can’t we, when Atlanta tunneled through solid granite?

Heart of the Mystery: Not Who Dunnit, but Who Can Do It

Commissioner McLaughlin points to the current political context as a conundrum. The still unreformed Metropolitan Council doesn’t do the job. In order to create a good metropolitan transit network, do we need some kind of a larger than life public works czar, like New York’s Robert Moses (with all the associated problems)? Other regions seem to succeed fairly well without one. Must we have a governor of the stature of Floyd Olson or Harold Stassen to do the job? A pair of really strong, far-sighted mayors of Minneapolis and St. Paul might fill the bill, but Coleman has failed with the Central Corridor’s primary issue of transit, and Minneapolis’ recently-elected Betsy Hodges struggles with her depressing inheritance of the Southwest Corridor, a $1.68 billion project vexed by secondary issues and uncertain transit effectiveness.

Without strong leaders who perceive and understand issues, forthrightly admit errors, and wisely advocate better ways, the general public has a problem. Lesser leaders will go from office, vanish from the arena, unmissed. Unlike Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, their hearts will not burn to truthfully tell their “ghastly tale.” No, the public will bear the albatrosses.

And a big one is the Green Line’s thwarted LRT, the little train that can’t.

Notes & Sources

[1] A Good King of the Metro might have celebrated the millennium by decreeing that tunneled heavy rail go beneath University Avenue to provide good transit between Minneapolis and St. Paul for at least 100 years!

[2] David Markle, appendix of letter to David Warner, Federal Transit Authority Region V, Chicago, September 5, 2008.

[3] Metropolitan Council, “Project Facts,” May 23, 2008.

[4] “Midday,” Minnesota Public Radio, May 27, 2008.

[5] Mayor Christopher B. Coleman, letter to David Markle, September 15, 2009.

[6] “Midday,” Minnesota Public Radio, January 6, 2006.

[7] 1999 Annual Report of the Saint Paul Planning Commission, Department of Planning and Economic Development, St. Paul, p. 2.

[8] Laurie Fritz, President, Midway Chamber of Commerce, telephone conversation with David Markle, November 20, 2009.

[9] The study expects “infill along the length of the route” but “no where else will redevelopment be as intensive as near the stations.” In effect, the “short and intensive study” argues for dropping transit speed as a consideration in the $1-billion project, to try to promote development around intersections of University Avenue at Raymond, Fairview, Snelling, Lexington and Dale.   The remaining St. Paul stations include only those downtown, near the Capitol, and one near the Minneapolis city line. Soo Line/I-94 had been considered the most beneficial for downtown development. As noted previously, stations at Hamline, Victoria and Western were only added under pressure from groups advocating for residents, and were not included in the application.

[10] Edward Goetz, “Understanding the Impacts of Transitways – The Hiawatha Line: Impacts on Land Use and Residential Housing Value,” Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota, 2009. This is a research brief from an ongoing study begun in 2007, “The Economic Impacts of Transitways.”

[11] Tom Stransky, telephone conversation with David Markle, November 10, 2009.

[12] Dave Orrick, “University businesses balk at rail amenities,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, December 11, 1009, p. 1B.

[13] Minutes of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority Meeting, November 16, 1999.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Council File #99-1164, Green Sheet #104491.

[16] Summary Minutes of the Saint Paul City Council, Wednesday, December 8, 1999 – 3:30 – 5:00 P.M.

[17] Ibid. Councilmember Mike Harris also voted nay.

[18] Jerry Blakey, telephone conversation with David Markle, December 14, 2009.

[19] Central Corridor Memorandum, Kathryn DeSpiegelaere and Steve Morris (RCRRA staff members) to Central Corridor Coordinating Committee Members, July 30, 2001.

[20] Chris Havens, “Central Corridor isn’t just about moving people,” Star Tribune, March 14, 2010, p. B1.

[21] Goetz, op. cit.

[22] The value of new streetcar lines has also come into question, as in a study by Florida State University Professor Jeff Brown, who looked at examples in Portland, Seattle, Memphis, Little Rock and Tampa. See Marlys Harris, “Add streetcars? Demolish decrepit buildings? Not too fast …” in MinnPost, May 20, 2014,

[23] Xinyu (Jason) Cao and Dean Porter, “Real Estate Development in Anticipation of the Green Line Light Rail Transit in St. Paul,” Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, May 2014.

[24] Jane McClure, “All aboard: St. Paul allows controversial maintenance facility in Lowertown,” Villager, March 25, 2009, p. 4.

[25] “Midday,” Minnesota Public Radio, January 6, 2006.

[26] Laura Yuen, “Central Corridor finds an ally in Washington,” Minnesota Public Radio News Q, March 12, 2010.

[27] Deven M. Nelson, told to David Markle, March 2010.

[28] Chris Havens, “St. Paul gears up for rail work,” Star Tribune, March 11, 2010, p. B3.

[29] Office of the Legislative Auditor, State of Minnesota, “Evaluation Report: Governance of Transit in the Twin Cities Region,” January, 2011, p. 30.

[30] Counties Transit Improvement Board by its chair, Peter McLaughlin, letter to James Nobles, Office of the Legislative Auditor, January 13, 2011, p. 5.

[31] I personally leafleted everyone in the State Legislature during two sessions and spoke with many at the Capitol, to no avail; only those who simply opposed transit expressed any concern. The letters, written critiques and objections I sent to elected officials got no response at all, except for a pro-forma generic reply from Congressman Keith Ellison concerning federal transportation policy. Analyses sent by certified mail in September, 2008, and March, 2010, to the regional office of FTA and USDOT, respectively, went unanswered. A subsequent detailed complaint to the Inspector General of the FTA obviously achieved nothing.

[32] Sheldon Gitlis, “Central Corridor light rail a classic con,” Minnesota Daily, November 18, 2009, p. 7.

City of St. Paul’s Cited LRT Examples

Data as available from the various transit authorities; all recent, but for Twin Cities buses, the No. 50, 16 and I-94 bus line figures are pre-Green Line. The No. 50/16 bus route was 10.23 mi. eastbound, 10.67 westbound; No. 50 had 30 stops eastbound, 33 westbound. The smaller No 50 trips/week day figure is downtown to downtown, the larger is all trips including downtown to University environs. All the Metro Transit ridership figures date from April, 2014 for both rail and bus.

LRT Comparison TableLength (miles)StationsTransit Time one-way runStations Per Mile [1]Average Speed (mph)Trips (weekday, each dir.)Weekday Ridership
Dallas DART
Blue Line28.821660.6926.2128 - 3 [2]22,500 unlinked
Green Line28.724750.823114 - 28 [2]25,100
Orange Line36.228840.7525.949 - 92 [2]20,700
Red Line27.725650.8725.6122 - 11 [2]28,600
Portland MAX
Blue Line32.546991.3819.748861,630
Green Line14.322481.4717.928221.18
Red Line232462122.327621,450
Yellow Line [3]7.717352.0813.229216,250
Portland Streetcar
North-South Loop85070 (+ break)6.126.917,000
Central Loop9.347844.956.65,500
Salt Lake City TRAX
Green Line1518461.1319.6140Combined lines
Red Line2425112414059,835
Blue Line1924521.2121.9140
Buffalo Metro Rail [4]6.216222.4216.911622,500
Gold Line22.431591.3422.813521,225
Blue Line1625481.52013523,950
Green Line2.110114.2911.560335 [5]
San Diego Trolley (LRT)
Blue Line18.823751.171520947,400
Orange Line20.723531.0623.414831,171
Green Line19.318670.8817.315237.461
Twin Cities
Blue Line12.319401.4618.523030,585
Blue Line outside downtown11.315301.2422.6
Green Line112348213.8132
No. 16 Bus10.4569456.5113.921814,348
No. 50 Bus10.4531.5402.9215.778-1265,470


David Markle

About David Markle

David Markle, a native Minnesotan, has spent most of his life in Minneapolis, aside from a year in Boston, and several years in Europe courtesy of the US Army, where he enjoyed the subterranean Parisian and London heavy rail and the streetcars of Nuremberg and Copenhagen. He does acoustical design and writes.

103 thoughts on “Strangulation on the Green Line

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    I think actual real-world ridership will prove you wrong here. Once the U of MN starts up in the fall, ridership will likely double from its current levels.

    Within a few years, we might see 80K trips a day. That’s not even a wildly optimistic prediction.

    This kind of ridership will be proof that LRT MUST be built within currently existing dense transit corridors, not along freeways or in parks.

    1. Mike Hicks

      I’ll be interested to see the numbers for farebox recovery in the coming years. Metro Transit paid for 31% of the operating costs of their system with fares in 2012 (doesn’t sound great, but Metro Transit is better than most large operations in the country). The Blue Line had 37% farebox recovery that year, and the old route 16 bus was about the same. Once the kinks get worked out, the Green Line should have costs comparable to the Blue Line, but will probably have much higher ridership. It is a transfer-heavy line, which dilutes the income significantly, but it could still stand out in terms of financial performance.

    2. XanthusLane

      It would be nice if whoever does the project research (if any is actually done) to take into account all of the hot ‘points’ where people commute to and from regularly. It must be the same person on the Met Council who decided that the Green Line must have so many stops that was the same person who thought the Northstar line should stop at Target Field (where baseball is only played April thru Oct) rather than the financial district where MOST commuters actually work!

      My husband works downtown and even though the Northstar station is closer to our home (by 3 miles) than the 766 route from Champlin/Brooklyn Park, he still uses the bus instead. Why? Because of the need to transfer 2 more buses AFTER the Northstar has stopped at Target Field. This adds another 35 minutes to his commute. Not to mention an added cost because the fares are higher.

      If the planners of these projects got their heads out of their collective arses, stopped worrying about what fantasy ideals they have going on about what they think a city should be like, and look at actual reality on demographics of who commutes in from where and the timeframes that are most common.

      But nope. The LRT seems to only be the brainchild of someone not living the average daily life of someone who would actually use it

      1. Mike Sonnmikesonn

        Example, Caltrain in San Francisco stops south of the downtown core near AT&T Park because that is where the rail ROW ended. I wasn’t around for the planning of the Northstar line, but I’m going to go out on a ledge and say that heavy rail ROW wasn’t available directly in front of your husband’s office building.

        1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

          What sort of argument is that? The OP simply discusses the fact that his bus, the 766 provides a one seat ride whereas the Northstat does not. I use to ride the 766 and would choose to again despite the rail line due to speed and convenience.

          Why do many folks here get bent out of shape when a differing opinion arises. No.wonder this board has become a cherrleading squad.

          1. Peter

            It’s a valid argument in terms of whether that person should take the 766 or Northstar, it is however not a valid argument against Northstar as a whole.

            1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

              Northstar has not lived up to expectations. Shared track via a heavily used mainline freight track, a northern terminus literally nowhere, poor frequency and of course the lousy performance due to the idiocy of using the states highest trafficted freight line. I support quality rail transit. Northstar is simply a fancy package with no real value. I would never ride when delays plauge this line so much. My boss would fire me.

              1. Peter

                I don’t mean to defend Northstar, but of all the valid criticisms, “it doesn’t stop in the heart of the CBD” really isn’t one of them.

                1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

                  In the future, when the Interchange and area in general is built out, that minor point will be moot. CBD will expand to encompass ateast to the trench..

                2. Steven Prince

                  I disagree. It’s representative of the really crummy transit planning we have had in Minneapolis. Target Field takes up way too much space adjacent to what planners claim will be the new “Grand Central Station.” Just cause you build it does not mean it will work.

                  Building SWLRT so it came down the mall and ended at 5th and Nicollet, now that would have created a node that made real sense. Putting Northstar on leased track and ending it where they did really did not make much sense.

                  As I have said before on these threads, we have transit planning that brings more people downtown, but not transit planning that gives us a more livable City. It is pathetic.

      2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

        Out of curiosity, is it really the case that your husband would choose to transfer twice on buses rather than walk the 6 or so blocks to financial district from Target Field?

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      On a recent bike ride through campus, I saw a group of 4-5 young men ran to catch up to a train at the East Bank Station only to jump off again at Stadium Village. There are going to be a ton of short rides like that when fall classes start again.

        1. Joe T

          Would have taken the campus connector likely, the similar boarding style would have made a much faster trip. (Note to people, we should also include connector data when available in this, cause it really should account for many of these short doo-hickeys in the U area)

    4. Nathanael

      Yep. Huge ridership proves this essay wrong.

      It was critical to go to the U of M, and it was valuable to put the line’s stations in places, rather than next to traffic sewers.

      There’s still a plan for an express between the two downtowns on the BNSF route, although it’s on the back burner.

      Eventually it’s going to be necessary to run a tunnel under downtown Minneapolis, though.

      1. Steven Prince

        My guess would be that the express buses will deliver many more students to the U than the Green Line.

        Has anyone compared the ridership on combined 16/50/94 ridership pre-green-line construction to Green Line numbers? What about the ridership capacity of the 16/50/94 system if we had replaced the 16 buses with articulating buses? I understand this is ancient history, but it is a fair question in evaluating whether the Green Line really was a suitable regional priority.

        1. Alix D.

          The 16 and the 50 both had some articulating buses on their line. Regardless, something big that so many articles criticizing the green line seem to forget is how slow the 16 and 50 were. Always late, and always dealing with a congested Uni during the academic year/weekends. Yes, LRT is dealing with stop lights and some frankly shoddy station planning. But they are not dealing with traffic, and there are serving/very close to several upper ed locations- Hamline, The U, Mac, etc.

          It is just a fact that eventually our denser urban thoroughfares were going to need some kind of more advanced mass transit. Street cars, which is what the author seems to propose as the best alternative along the central corridor, don’t solve the overcrowding problem that they ALSO cite as a problem.

          Newsflash: the bus lines were overcrowded The Blue Line can be overcrowded. Cities have to grow and transit opportunities have to change as that growth happens. Just a fact of life.

  2. Jim

    I don’t want to belittle Mr. Markle’s extensive analysis of the Green Line. But this article seems like it’s trying to relive the entire planning process. Well it’s not 2007 anymore. Let’s focus on the future. The line is down University not I-94. It’s at grade level not underground. Coulda, woulda, shoulda. Let’s focus on making this route a real success with what we actually have. Not what could’ve been. No line is/was going to be perfect.

    It’s been open for less than a month. People seem too interested in giving it a final grade with less than 30 days of operation. Let’s see where development is in 5 years.

  3. Mike

    I agree that ridership will continue to increase. The Green Line is not perfect, but I can attest from personal experience that travel times have decreased by as much as 10-15 minutes one way in the first few weeks of operation. While this piece is quite thorough, a lot of it looks like it was written months, if not years, before the Green Line actually started moving. I think facts on the ground will prove these arguments wrong.

    1. XanthusLane

      At a cost of over $1 billion in taxpayer dollars, it had damned well better be perfect!

      1. Boss

        I wonder what would happen if people demanded that much perfection from trillion dollar wars?

  4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    It might take me the whole week to read through all 8,000 words, but here’s my first comment.

    “Light rail vehicles (LRVs) appropriately function as commuter lines and connectors for long urban distances. To fulfill that purpose efficiently they should either operate along limited access highways, or along existing rail right of ways, or in tunnels, or on elevated structures.”

    I wouldn’t argue with tunnels or elevated structures, if we can find a way to budget those. But putting transit along highways and rail trenches? Those are land uses incompatible with humans, and humans are the users of transit. Highways are not compatible with local transit – as we’ve learned from the Red Line and the 46th Street BRT station.

    The Green Line isn’t perfect – we all wish it ran faster – but it will be *by far* the most successful major transit investment out of all we’ve built or plan to build. It connected already thriving, walkable, transit-oriented nodes. That’s a win, even more than Hiawatha which is a traffic sewer trying to masquerade as a walkable transit corridor.

    The “high speed over long distance” justification makes sense, but for intercity service rather than transit. For transit, it leads to awful planning outcomes like our desire to build LRT to a park & ride at Mitchell Road in Eden Prairie, or a corn field in northern Brooklyn Park.

    1. Joe

      Matt, I could not agree more. I do not know how many failures (Red Line, SWLRT, North Star), need to be made, before transit planners understand what good transit is. Considering these other failures, I am surprised that they actually got the Green Line right. I often feel like the transit planners are trying to “figure out”what’s going to work. We know what works. It has been successfully implemented over and over again in many countries around the world. Build transit in places with high density that connect to other high density areas. Then people can use this transit all the time and retire their cars, b/c they would not need them.

  5. MplsJaromir

    Clearly a long thought out post, thank you for the contribution. Though I cannot agree with the idea that freeway running transit is a good idea. It seems that people get too caught up travel times between downtowns. I doubt the traffic that clogs I-94 is from people whose origin and destination are the central business districts. At some point route 94 service may have to increased, but that would be a relatively easy fix.

    I do not know how much blame can be placed on local politicians, to me they have done the best with a bad situation. They really wanted a tunnel through the U and could not get it done because of federal rules. I hardly doubt that as a state or regional area that there would be enough popular and institutional support to have come up with funding to tunnel the entirety of this line.

    Quick question to the author, you state under the “Who Dares Criticize” heading that “our metropolitan area continues to lag far behind many others in the U.S. at establishing good rapid transit”, to what areas are you referring?

    I also do not understand the line about Mexico City, is it that shocking that that one of the largest cities on earth has faster trains than the Twin Cities?

    Hopefully you do a thorough analysis on the new St. Croix river crossing and see if that is a worthy investment or a wasteful boondoggle.

    1. MplsJaromir

      I just read how you put the travel time for the 16 at 45 minutes. I highly doubt you have ever ridden or observed the 16 in action. I think that is showing some of your bias. Times I rode the 16 I would have to wait for couple of buses because they were at capacity and never approached a 45 minute travel time. In my mind the Green Line is a nerfed route 16, more capacity, more comfort, fast loading and slightly decreased travel time. Which makes sense because that was clearly a well used route.

      1. Dreww

        The scheduled run time for the 16 prior to the Green Line opening was about an 1:10 in afternoon rush. The longer Green Line is scheduled at 48 minutes.

        This piece is emblematic of the fundamental contradiction of Green Line critics. In one paragraph (or the same paragraph) pan the line’s ability to drive development and in the next describe how rising property value’s are hurting the corridor.

      2. Steven Prince

        Yes, but what about comparing the Green Lien to the 50 or the 94? The number of stops on the train is much less than the 16.

        1. MplsJaromir

          Faster than the 50 as well, not as fast as the 94 outside of rushhour. Click the link for more information.

          1. Steven Prince

            The link shows the end to end travel times on the Green line as 48 minutes and the 50 bus as 40 minutes.

            1. MplsJaromir

              Actually it does not show that. Early morning conditions show a 38 minute travel time, with the length of the trip wildly fluctuating throughout the day.

              “The good news is that the Green Line should be faster than the old routes 16 and 50 by a big margin, except it may be a bit slower late at night (11 p.m. to 5 a.m.).”

              You seem to possess the same selective analysis that this article’s author.

  6. Steven Prince

    Mr. Markle’s careful skewering of what passes for transit planning in our region is a real service, even if people don’t appreciate him raining on their Green Line Parade. Except that its shiny and cool, I am still waiting for someone to explain how the Green Line is an improvement on the existing 16/50/94 service we had before it was built.

    It is not.

    The problem with picking a route for this line was always a lack of honesty about what we were trying to accomplish. If the goal was to connect two downtown nodes, the University alignment never made sense. If the goal was to give St. Paul bragging rights over the next regional rail project, then the planning never mattered. That is why we built a line that will never provide the speed of serve required for connecting the two downtowns.

    The Hiawatha line, the day it opened, provided faster downtown to airport connections than taking a cab. When and if we ever get high-speed Amtrak service to Union Depot, does anyone think downtown Minneapolis folks will ride the Green Line to get there? Of course not.

    The point is to understand how we made such a horrible decision as a region, and try to get the next one right. Shifting criteria, poor leadership from our mayors and political manipulation of the process sound depressingly like the process that will get us a SWLRT that doesn’t actually serve people in Minneapolis, but is now justified as an issue of “economic justice” and the need to get something built.

    Come to think of it, this is the same argument that gave us the St. Croix River boondoggle bridge presently under construction. Regional thinking seems to be better to build something then to build something that makes sense.

    So I take issue with commentators who suggest this history does not matter.

    1. MplsJaromir

      The line’s goal was to improve transit service along a popular corridor, as a bonus the corridor still has lots of potential to develop. The goal of this line was not ‘how fast can we shuttle people from Downtown St. Paul to Downtown Minneapolis’.

      I understand that people who rarely use transit can only envision themselves using a train to go to the airport or to other high profile regional attractions. So to them the Green Line does not make sense. On the ground the Green Line corridor has thousands of attractions, certainly none as high profile as a hockey arena or an enormous mall, but place people want to go nonetheless. Many lack the empathy to see how others may use the line, therefore see this a some sort of failure. If one cannot see how the Green Line is a major step from the 16 they are intentionally being obtuse. Year one ridership figures will quell all questions about Green Line routing

      1. Steven Prince

        Interesting article in the NY Times about how the best informed are the best at ignoring facts and evidence:

        I comment less and less here because I see more and more of that phenomena at this site. The attacks of this post are a great example.

        FYI MplsJaromir, I have commuted on the 16 (and 94) for decades, and rode the Green Line to the Western Ave stop (from downtown) this weekend. A very nice experience, but no, I do not see how it is a significant improvement over the 16.

        Neither do my friends who live along University.

        1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

          All the evidence I need? The thousands of people riding the train every day. It typically takes years to build up ridership levels. This transit project has only been open for a few weeks.

          1. Jeremy HopJeremy Hop

            To be fair, most of the ridership is shifts from the 16/50, maybe even some from the 94 during off peak hours. Nobody needs to build ridership when you take away or massively curtail old service.

            I am a big transit supporter and do like the Green Line–I do wish a third track was built to support an express train to provide options for people who want to go from Nicollet Mall to Central Station in better time.

          2. Steven Prince

            Under your reasoning closing all the highway interchanges in the metro area; turning the ramps into parking lots; and running buses along the now deserted highways would be a successfully planned transit project because the buses would be full.

        2. MplsJaromir

          Sorry if don’t like that people think this article is bad (which it is), but linking to a study does not absolve the the article from its shoddy research and evident bias.

          The Green Line is faster than the 16 and 50, it holds more people, it can load passengers without using stairs or a lift, it has pre-paid PoP fare collection, its smoother, etc. I guess that are not substantial enough for you and your friends, you seem very hard to please.

        3. Nathanael

          “Interesting article in the NY Times about how the best informed are the best at ignoring facts and evidence”

          That does explain how you and Mr. Markle can write long essays with lots of citations while steadfastly ignoring the fact that the Green Line is a ROARING success with massive, booming ridership. Facts, Mr. Prince, you should try paying attention to them occasionally.

    2. Peter

      Whether or not the current implementation was the best choice, it’s hard to make an argument that the existing status quo was satisfactory, only someone who had never ridden would make that claim. The amount of ridership and the nature of the corridor meant that something needed to change.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Absolutely correct. Current demand should drive future planning, not speculative pandering. The 16 was due for improvement. Next stop, the 5, the 21 (in planning), etc. These buses are successful (to the point of suffocating on their own success) because they serve existing nodes. That’s where we should be investing in transit improvements.

        1. Nathanael

          A quick data analysis on the ridership by stop from 2013 says that #5 should be the next priority, followed by #18 and #19.

          It also verifies that the #16/#50/#94 was the top priority.

          The Minneapolis Streetcar plan would improve the #18 somewhat, but unless it has exclusive lanes I don’t think it will help much. The “long term” streetcar plan would also improve the #5 and #19 somewhat if exclusive lanes were included.

    3. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      It has more capacity and will have a lot more ridership. What other evidence of improvement do you need?

      We built a line that will serve a lot of people who live, work and go to school along it. That should be the first priority for transit investments.

      It’s also likely to spur a lot of redevelopment in areas, mostly in St. Paul, that could really use it. That’s nice too.

      And yet some people complain that it’s not a commuter rail line.

      It’s absolutely mind-boggling that you’d suggest that we’re supposed to be making transit investment decisions based on what people might do in the never-going-to-happen possibility that high speed intercity passenger rail might come to Union Depot.

      But not as mind-boggling as how you can pan the Green Line for not being a commuter train and then in the next breath pan SWLRT for being a commuter train.

      1. Tony HuntTony Hunt

        “And yet some people complain that it’s not a commuter rail line.” Ooh, ooh, ooh! Somebody should write a post for StreetsMN about this. 😉

        “It’s absolutely mind-boggling that you’d suggest that we’re supposed to be making transit investment decisions based on what people might do in the never-going-to-happen possibility that high speed intercity passenger rail might come to Union Depot.” <—– This

        "But not as mind-boggling as how you can pan the Green Line for not being a commuter train and then in the next breath pan SWLRT for being a commuter train." <—— This

        High five, Adam

    4. Nathanael

      Mr. Markle is a dope, but Mr. Prince is more of a dope.

      The Green Line is obviously an improvement over what existed before; the 5000 new riders every day prove it with their feet, every day they step on the train.

      I take issue with commenters who write brainless essays full of verbiage which deny reality. Fact: the Green Line has ridership 15% higher than all three bus routes which it replaced.

  7. Matty LangMatty Lang

    Geez. I tried really hard to read the whole thing, but it just got too long, repetitive, and condescending. I can’t even begin to try to write a response to this. I guess that’s one way to win a debate.

  8. Peter

    I can also make up statistics from studies that I didn’t cite. An 1843 study of zeppelins in the corridor found that zeppelins would have 1 million percent higher ridership than the current Green Line estimates.

    1. MplsJaromir

      For someone who was so concerned about showing their work it seems odd that they omit a reference to the relevant piece of information. Maybe because they are not being genuine in their criticism?

  9. Jeff Klein

    I remain convinced that you could cut ten minutes off the travel time by prioritizing the train at stop lights and getting rid of the stupid loopy curve thing and extra stop(s) in Prospect Park.

  10. Eric AnondsonEric Anondson

    Thanks for offering this perspective on the Green Line. I’ll be dwelling on it for a while.

  11. Mike Hicks

    Even if the Green Line could have been twice as fast by running in the I-94 corridor (which it probably wouldn’t due to the need for a significant number of stations), much of that benefit would get eaten away because people would need to walk on either end to reach their destinations. It takes 5 minutes or so to get from I-94 to University Avenue — double that for each end of a trip, and it’s hard for a highway-running service to beat any existing service on the avenue for door-to-door travel. It would happen in some cases, and would have some benefit for neighborhoods immediately south of the highway, but it just wouldn’t be as popular as something that goes right past the front doors of University Avenue homes and businesses.

    I do think better service on I-94 is a good idea in addition to University Avenue service — it just wouldn’t have been a good thing to implement instead of something on University. The route 94 bus probably shouldn’t have been cut as much as it has been — I would have preferred that they kept it running at about the same frequency as before, allowing the bus route to have more natural cuts in service as people better served by the train naturally gravitated away. I’m hoping that the Green Line will do well enough financially that some service can be restored. But, the route 94 cuts went into boosting service on connecting routes. It’s really great to have (for example) route 87 running later into the night, and the new 83 starting service with good frequency and operating hours.

    Someday, I-94 should either get dedicated lanes for buses, or an express rail line could be built. One of the big expenses with running a multi-stop service along I-94 was all of the vertical circulation at stations, potentially requiring many bridges to be rebuilt. But if it’s an express service, most or all intermediate stops could be dropped, making it cheaper to implement.

    I think the observations of travel times in downtown Minneapolis are the most relevant point in this piece. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been signal priority on that segment of the Hiawatha/Blue Line until now, it isn’t being implemented as part of the Green Line, and I don’t know of any plans to change it in the future. Signal priority is in place along the rest of the Green Line, but trains will always be subject to delays as they travel through downtown Minneapolis. Perhaps that will change as the Green Line extends southwest or the Bottineau extension happens to the Blue Line.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      My wish? Have I-94 lose its lane drops at MN-280 and Snelling, then convert one of the existing lanes into a HOT lane. Instant benefit for 94 and all the other bus lines that use the corridor.

    2. Nathanael

      ” I’m hoping that the Green Line will do well enough financially that some service can be restored. ”

      If ridership trends keep up, Metro Transit will be $2 million a year ahead of projections, which should allow for some service improvements!

  12. Steven Prince

    The point of this post was to detail a flawed and overly politicized planning process, not the transit times. Travel times are simply the empirical evidence that we did not get a very good result.

    1. JBL

      “Overly politicized”: does this mean anything other than “it wasn’t done exactly the way I wanted”?

      1. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

        My thoughts exactly. It’s always “overly politicized” when your policy isn’t winning in the debate.

  13. Erik Hare

    Just thought I’d stop in and say “Hello!” on this article. It’s exactly what I stared arguing ever since the line was pulled from I-94 largely at the request of John Finley, then a Ramsey County Commissioner. It was a bad move then and the horrible urban design along the line now, including substandard sidewalks, comes naturally from that very bad decision.

    The conclusion reached here, that a streetcar could have been built in the same alignment at about 1/3 the cost (1/4 if we were as competent as other cities) is the key – but the same LRT system running at Hiawatha Line speeds on I-94 would also have been cheaper because there would have been almost no utilities to move. As I have been saying and writing about for years a terrible mistake was made.

    It is very much worth harping on this because the Met Council and the rest of the system we have in place to build transit has proven itself repeatedly to be an utter failure. We must develop a new system if we are going to use our transit dollars wisely and achieve the biggest benefit from them. What we are doing now is ridiculous and larded down with grossly inferior engineering and urban design.

    1. Peter

      But where would you put it? MnDOT has no plans to expand I-94 because there isn’t any room. If you expand the road to fit in a train you’d have to replace all the bridges and take some private property. That doesn’t sound cheaper to me.

    2. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

      Admittedly some of the sidewalk design leaves a lot to be desired along the Green Line but it’s hard to imagine a better pedestrian experience on a freeway median LRT route. Also I agree with Peter that once they actually got into engineering the i94 route they would have found a ton of extra expenses they didn’t plan for and definitely couldn’t have achieved the savings you’re claiming.

  14. Adam Platt

    This blog is interesting and not without merit, but I think you have to have lived in a city with freeway median transit to understand the tradeoffs. Chicago utilizes more of this than just about any U.S. city. Trip times are obviously faster. But the platforms are islands of isolation, foreboding and lonely at night, and near-impossible to run from or attract help if danger is present. Freeway transit spins off little if any benefit in adjacent housing or small retail because freeways are giant gashes that tore up neighborhoods leaving no pedestrian scale amenities for blocks in their wake.

    Go to Chicago and ride the Blue Line on Milwaukee Avenue above ground, exit the stations into thriving urban neighborhoods teeming with activity and commerce. Then get back on and continue toward the airport in the I-90 median and exit a station into a sea of frontage roads or under dark, dank, block long freeway viaducts. It was all designed by freeway planners who thought like automobile drivers–get me out of town fast.

    Little of the rail transit Chicago hopes to build in the future is in freeway medians.

    There are ways to speed the Green Line up with signal preemption. There should have been raised curbs to keep autos and peds out of the right of way. These would have helped raise operating speeds, and the former still could.

    But Mr. Markle is basically writing to advocate for a user who travels from end to end on the line, not someone who rides one portion or another. The Green Line is imperfect, as is all urban infill transit, but quibbling over fractions of minutes and operating efficiency misses the forest for the trees: most Americans don’t like riding bus transit and they shun it, no matter how efficient. There’s something about a train that’s different and more inviting, and even an imperfect outcome is far superior to what preceded it in the eyes of riders.

    1. Southside

      I reject the notion that 46 minutes is slow for a local rapid transit service to go 11 miles.

      A quick survey of train schedules shows The O’Hare branch of the Blue Line is scheduled to take 40 minutes from Clark/Lake to O’Hare. Those of us who’ve ridden it know this is optimistic. Granted that’s ~16 miles, but it only stops at 16 stations. Our Green Line stops at 23.

      Chicago’s Northside Red line service is more comparable to our Green Line. From Roosevelt in the South Loop to Howard (the northern terminal), the Red Line takes 43 minutes to travel ~11.5 miles stopping at 23 Stations. The two Chicago services are fully grade separated.

      Looking at NY, the L train takes 38 minutes to travel ~10 miles, stopping at 24 stations. Again, this service is fully grade separated.

      What’s the cost of saving riders an additional 3 minutes from Target Field to Union Depot, a trip far less than 1% of riders will ever take. The Green Line service’s speed is comparable with grade separated services in other cities.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        I very much agree with your point, but I have been frustrated by the slowness of the Red Line many times. Metra to Evanston or Ravenswood is the way to go.

        1. Southside

          It would be nice if they would use the Purple Line line like a true express service. The current design treats the Red Line like an express service until Belmont and the Purple like a local. Then north of Belmont they switch and the Purple runs non-stop to Howard while the Red Line makes all stops. I’m sure this is largely driven by the odd track layout with locals in the middle rather than the outside like in NY and the subway rising into the center tracks.

          The UP North is great, but is far from the lake until you’re in Evanston. I had always hoped Mpls and St. Paul’s downtowns would be served with a speedy commuter rail connection as proposed with the Red Rock. Although, I believe the Red Rock has been changed to a bus corridor.

          I would love to see a single track DMU (ala Ottawa’s O-Train) run via Ayd Mill and NE’s Mpls rail corridor from TFS to SPUD every 30 minutes, possibly with a Stadium Village and Merriam Park stations.

    2. Alex B.

      Adam, thanks for these thoughts.

      There is indeed merit to the idea of favoring speed for rapid transit, adding grade separation, increasing capacity. However, the notion that the only way to do this is via freeway alignments for transit is misguided and ultimately counterproductive.

      Another troubling element of this critique is the idea that land use change and real estate development is somehow not related to the success of a transit line; your reference to Chicago’s constrating station areas shows that principle well. A good transportation plan is a good land use plan, and vice versa. And given that an urban freeway isn’t ever going to be a good land use plan, it’s not ever going to be much of a land use asset, either. Development around new stations is a feature, not a bug.

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  16. Washington County Watchdog

    There’s CLEAR evidence the same exaggeration of ridership while down playing the cost and impact is going on here with the planning of the Gateway Corridor and Red Rock Corridor here in WC. Thank you for the story.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      I assume you’re incensed about the biggest waste of public money in our state (that’s not stadium related) – the Stillwater Bridge to Nowhere. What a planning blunder that was!

      1. Caddy Kol

        This was a similarly driven investment. Land speculators and developers are the interest that pushed that one through, similar to the green line, and many other urban projects.
        I’m wondering if or when the farmland gets developed, and the road is full of cars will this be enough to label it a success and call it a good decision?

        I ask because that seems to be the consistent theme in challenging David Markle’s detailed and informative piece.

        If people use it and development happens because of it that makes it good right?

        1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Yes, absolutely. Did you really think someone would say no?

          Markle seems to be insisting that commuters crossing downtowns need a faster trip and thus need a faster alignment. The trouble is that there doesn’t seem to be much reason to believe there are many such commuters.

          1. Caddy K

            So you saying that if the new bridge results in people driving on it and more development in rural farm fields (sprawl) then it is a good thing?

            If so what is the point of all the density and transit investment?
            Is it just to facilitate development?

            I thought it was to reduce urban sprawl…


    2. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

      I think you’re saying Gateway and Red Rock don’t need rail service and I actually agree with you there. Not because LRT is inherently a waste of money, but only because it would be in relatively sparsely populated Washington County. OTOH, I think Rush Line should get LRT out to White Bear Lake. We might even build that for the cost of the new St. Croix Bridge ($629 million!)

  17. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Okay, so that’s really long. Unfortunately, its also filled with a lot of things with which I disagree.

    But let’s start with agreement: if you’re just building the (now) existing Green Line, a street car would make a lot more sense. We didn’t get a street car, we got LRT. Does that mean there was some horrible failure?

    I’m not so sure. The line is supposed to extend out to Eden Prairie, where LRT perhaps makes sense (routing issues aside). Perhaps it would have been better to build create two separate systems, but the general difficulty getting rail built suggests to me that one hybrid system may have been substantially more politically feasible.

    But where this article really loses me is in portraying the Blue Line as a more successful alternative. The Blue Line does a good job at getting people from the airport and MOA into town, but it does a lousy job of accommodating people along its route. The stations are relatively hard to get to by bike and on foot, thanks to the freeway-type roadway and rail corridor that need to be crossed if you approach from the east. The relative slow pace of development along the line (compare, for example, to development along the Midtown Greenway) is pretty strong evidence of the design issues around building a commuter train into the city. It’s good for commuters, but not so good for the city.

    The Green Line, so far, is meant to be for the city. Given that there (apparently) are not a lot of downtown-to-downtown commuter, that’s a good thing.

    1. Nathanael

      LRT is a streetcar with exclusive lanes so that it runs faster than traffic, and with level boarding for wheelchairs.

      That’s what you got. Hooray!

      Hopefully when Minneapolis builds its streetcars they will have exclusive lanes so that they’ll run faster than traffic, and level boarding for wheelchairs.

      (Historically, there is no real difference between “LRT” and “streetcar”. “LRT” is a rebranding of “streetcar”. Some streetcar routes were “interurban”, others were urban.)

      1. Caddy Kol

        Presently there is a very real difference.
        LRT is a high speed train, streetcar is not.

        LRT is mandated to run at 30 mph even though it is capable of running at more than twice this fast. That is the same as the speed limit. LRT is more expensive we paid for a high speed train that runs slow. That is just a silly waste.

  18. Dan

    I’m tired of people everywhere beating up on the changes to the route 94. I never have and never will have the need to use it for night/weekend service, so I feel for the people in that situation. However, other than that, route 94 was actually drastically improved. Most serious commuters would previously only use the 94C/D (94B made far too many stops), so frequency was realistically closer to every 30 minutes. Under the new setup, “usable frequency” is every 10-15 minutes. They are using larger buses, they are using a new route that more directly gets to/from the freeway, and doesn’t waste 5 minutes getting of the freeway at Snelling to pick up 1 person.

    Thanks to the new and improved Route 94, I save nearly 30 minutes every day. (mostly because it shaves off a few minutes each way, which allows me to catch earlier connecting buses instead of standing around and waiting for later connections).

    So while I understand that people are frustrated about losing Route 94 on evenings/weekends, the new Route 94 actually does a much better job of serving its “core customer” (workers looking to get from downtown to downtown to catch a connection on Marq2 or elsewhere)

  19. David MarkleDavid Markle

    The transit times and other figures for the lines shown in the table came from the transit authorities that run those lines. The ridership figures are the most recent available in May, 2014. Unfortunately the web publication omits the table’s footnotes.

    Yes, much of the article has to do with a very poor transit planning process that remains poor to this day. And yes, the article is quite long, but it presents a certain weight of history that the preceding sentence does not.

    It’s interesting that few if any of the responses dealt with the fact that the passenger-carrying capability of both Blue and Green lines are already maxed, given the present surface layout. They have not yet reached maximum ridership, but they can’t run trains more often and can’t run 4-car trains (unlike some in the comparison table). Possibly the Blue Line could, with tunneling in downtown Minneapolis and further station modification, and the tunneling would improve transit times and frequency potential on both lines. But it seems very unlikely that we’ll see major improvements over the remainder of the Green Line for many, many years: maybe not in our lifetimes.

    As implied in the first endnote, my personal preference would be tunneled heavy rail beneath University Avenue. Lacking that, I’d prefer a streetcar line on University and an LRT along I-94, but the Green Line spoiled that possibility. (“Along I-94” includes both highway and Soo-Line right-of-way.) I recognize that people tend to like rail better than bus travel. The thwarted train on University has a higher passenger carrying capacity than a streetcar line or buses, but that’s not an unequivocal advantage over the bus, as the train has far, far fewer passenger stops (a fact that may feel more important for many riders come winter).

    I’ve already ridden the Green Line east many times, but I have no choice because the West Bank no longer has No. 16 bus service. Since I’m not handicapped–am in fact a dedicated walker–the considerably longer walk at the other end hasn’t bothered me a great deal, but it has added to the transit time. Last time I checked, the Green Line cuts about 20 minutes from my usual trip of approxiimately 4 miles, compared to walking the entire distance.

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      The issue is that what you call “very poor planning” sounds more like political compromise, which is inherently required for this kind of investment.

      A notion that is only reinforced by your implication that we might build both an LRT line down 94 and a street car down University. Maybe that would be ideal, but it certainly wasn’t happening in anyone alive’s lifetime, if ever.

      We can “plan” lots of great thing in a vacuum, but that doesn’t make them remotely achievable in the real world. My impression is that you don’t seem to have grappled with that reality.

      1. David MarkleDavid Markle

        The record clearly indicates that short-sighted St. Paul and Ramsey County planners and officials put the line on the street to try to promote develpment, not for transit reasons, and not as some kind of political compromise. Politicians in Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the legislature deferred to St. Paul. A similar process took place with the Vikings Stadium and St. Paul’s quid pro quo of a new Saints stadium in lowertown (which I believe will hurt the team).

        And of course people ride the Green Line in numbers, but from a planning perspective it’s St. Paul’s “what’s in it for me,” not what does it do for us as a metropolitan region. As to improving the political realities, a first step should be reforming the Metropolitan Council.

        Sadly, as my friend remarked, “They do everything ***-assed around here.”

        By the way, the Green Line goes 3/4 of the distance on my 4 mile walk mentioned above.

        1. Matty LangMatty Lang

          So your position is that Saint Paul should have accepted a freeway style alignment away from its residents and businesses that would spur no development other than publicly paid for park and ride lots because of your perception that that would be best for the region? I have to disagree with that position.

          What is wrong with Saint Paul wanting to redevelop a (largely) abandoned car oriented suburban style commercial corridor into something that allows for more people and businesses generating a larger tax base?

        2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

          Political stakeholders are self interested? You don’t say.

          To be perfectly honest, I’d be opposed to building both a commuter line down 94 and a street car down University, at least for the foreseeable future. We aren’t anywhere close to a network with that much rail redundancy, and I doubt we ever will get there.

          Which makes it really hard for me to decide that a process that didn’t result in that was meaningfully flawed.

  20. Caddy Kol

    Very good piece offering a well researched critique of the green line.
    This is advocating for better transit planning, for existing realities and not for “economic development”.
    Thank you David Markle

  21. David MarkleDavid Markle

    In this article I’m not arguing against development (sensible development). But surely the primary purpose of public transit should be public transit!

    Incidentally there are quite a few residents close to the south edge of the freeway trench, and I would not describe University Avenue as a largely abandoned commercial corridor. Real estate professionals familiar with the Avenue feel that it’s attracting development on its own, maybe better than much of downtown St. Paul (which I’ve described as a commercial “ghost town”).

    Even with all the problems created by surface tracks in the two downtowns and at the University, the I-94 alignment would have resulted in a 28 to 32 minute trip, end to end, making the line a fairly reasonable central trunk line for the region. As noted in the article, there were also many other reasons in favor of that route.

    I think it likely–politically and financially feasible–that St. Paul (and Minneapolis) could have added a nice University Avenue streetcar line later.

    Our area’s bus service seems fairly good (the Legislative Auditor thinks well of it). Our rail system looks underdeveloped, ranked against comparable regions (see the “Planning to Succeed?” report cited from 2010). An earlier version of the comparison table accompanied my letter of March, 2010, to USDOT. While updating the table in May, 2014, I was struck by the continued march of progress in those other cities.

  22. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Each of the three track alignments (Burlington Northern/Pierce Butler, Soo Line/I-94, University Avenue) was to serve the downtowns, the main University campus and the State Capitol. Each was to have Midway area connections with major north-south thoroughfares and bus lines. The difference lay in the Midway placement. The 1993 DEIS stated that the I-94 configuration would attract 33% more riders, and there’s little doubt that higher speed would account for much of that percentage. Did the Midway change very much, between the DEIS and the final decision-making? More Asian businesses, fewer used car lots, not so much. No, the politicians wanted to try to promote more development at those intersections of University with Raymond, Fairview, Snelling, Lexington and Dale.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Your first mistake is trusting a transit planning document from the 80s or 90s. We’re still suffering from transit planned during those decades, back when planners didn’t know what the purpose of transit is.

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