“Minneapolis Needs a Subway” – Comments on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Policy Plan

“Minneapolis is the largest CBD in the United States without a subway.” I don’t know if that claim is true, or relevant, but it very well might be, since by some measures it has the fifth densest CBD in the US. More to the point, there is no CBD in the US that has more transit commuters that doesn’t have a subway (except Seattle, which has a bus tunnel with LRT, which sort of counts). (Table 7 here, and list of US subway systems here). This of course does not mean that more transit growth cannot come without a subway. It does mean that I should expect to hear the usual gong-bangers about transit investment pushing for a true Metro for the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, at least in the long term plan. A vision from a transit agency should note the need for more north-south and east-west transit capacity in the center, and the time savings from a grade-separated rapid transit system that did not get trapped at traffic lights. These time savings would both benefit current riders and induce more transit riders, and with the positive feedback mechanism between accessibility and development, lead to more intense land development at stations.  Yet this discussion is so far beyond the pale in the MSP region that it is barely even mentioned on the UrbanMSP forums.

(For the record, I don’t actually support or oppose a subway at this time, but I do think it should be seriously considered given changing population totals, demographic mix, technologies, and so on.)

Where this discussion should show up is in regional visions.

The 2040 Transportation Policy Plan: Connecting communities, fostering regional prosperity is the draft version of the official regional vision.  It claims to be “advancing a bold regional vision.” There is of course a vision here. It is not my vision. It is not an urbanist vision. It is, unfortunately,  not a bold vision.

It is a fiscally constrained vision. It is a vision of an organization whose leadership is entirely appointed by a governor representing seven mostly suburban counties. It is a vision of an organization that thinks the metro area has “nearly 3 million people” rather than the Census recognized 3.8 million people in the Minneapolis–St. Paul–St. Cloud, MN-WI region. These are just spatial definitions, and in some respects a smaller area is better than a larger one, but it illustrates parochialism of the official outlook.

The Policy Plan is critique-able on a variety of grounds. I have not compiled a complete list, but will throw some things out for discussion.

  1. So many resources are aimed at areas that are not transit serviceable except by park and ride. Look especially at the amount of purple lines in the exurban east metro. This is not surprising given the spatial make-up of the organization, just disappointing.
  2. Little is even proposed for the urban core cities and some first ring suburbs. Arterial BRT is an improvement of course, but there is so little of it.
  3. “Access to destinations” is one of the key transportation goals. I like the words of course, since I authored some of the 14 reports in the CTS series “Access to Destinations.” Sadly, accessibility (such as number of jobs or stores that can be reached in a given time (e.g. 30 minutes)) is not actually one of the performance measures. (page 30)
  4. The maps focus on lines rather than stations. Yet nodes of activity are at least as important, it is where all the positive benefits of service accrue. The lines themselves generally are the nuisance of train noise or pollution.
  5. The maps give equal weight to all areas, rather than focusing on areas with more people. Zoom in and the service provided per person is not as great in the center as at the edges.
  6. I don’t see any discussion of road pricing, even vehicle mileage taxes, which will likely be in place by 2040, as electrification or other power-train technology obsoletes the gas tax.
  7. I don’t see any serious discussion of changing transportation (and other) technologies. 26 years ago was 1988. There wasn’t even a World Wide Web yet.
  8. This should be scenario based, considering alternative futures, and responses to them. We know forecasts are bad. We should use alternative tools.
  9. Everything I said here: Framing Regional Development.

Add more to the comments section below. Of course to be officially heard: Testify. Submit your comments. Attend and discuss at the public hearing. Schedule below:


Public hearing is September 17 at 5 p.m.

The public hearing on the draft TPP is scheduled for 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 17, in the Metropolitan Council Chambers, 390 Robert St. N., Saint Paul.

Comment by October 1

The Council is accepting comments on the plan August 14 through October 1.  Once comments are received, the plan is revised to address comments and a final plan is presented to the Council for adoption.  The Council is expected to adopt the plan in December 2014.

  • Comment forms can be filled out at a workshop or the public hearing or mailed in.

  • Phone Public Information at 651-602-1500.
  • E-mail public.info@metc.state.mn.us.

  • Testify at the public hearing at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 17, in the Metropolitan Council Chambers, 390 Robert St. N., Saint Paul.

Workshop dates and locations

At each workshop, a very brief presentation will give an overview of the plan.  Afterwards, participants can engage with planners on a variety of topics. Note: Staff will be available to discuss the Council’s draft Housing Policy Plan as well.


Tuesday, August 26, 5 – 7 pm
Roseville Library
Community Program Room
2180 North Hamline Ave
Roseville, MN 55113


Wednesday, August 27, 5 – 7 pm
Chanhassen Library
Wilder Room
7711 Kerber Blvd.
Chanhassen, MN 55317


Wednesday, September 3, 4:30 – 6:30 pm
Marschall Road Transit Station
1615 Weston Court
Shakopee, MN 55379


Thursday, September 4, 12 – 2 pm
Minneapolis Central Library
300 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, 55401


Tuesday, September 9 , 5 – 7 pm
Anoka County Sheriff’s Office
Community Room
13301 Hanson Blvd NW
Andover, MN 55304


Wednesday, September 10, 5 – 7 pm
Brookdale Library
6125 Shingle Creek Pkwy
Brooklyn Center, 55430


Thursday, September 11, 12 – 2 pm
Amherst H. Wilder Foundation
Auditorium A
451 Lexington Parkway North
Saint Paul, Minnesota 55104


Tuesday, September 16, 5 – 7 pm
Eagan Community Center
1501 Central Pkwy
Eagan, MN 55121


Thursday, September 18, 5 – 7 pm
Washington County Government Center
Room LL13-14
14949 62nd Street North
Stillwater, MN 55082


Thursday, September 25, 5-7
Sherburne County Board Room
Government Center
13880 Business Center Dr.
Elk River, MN 55330

35 thoughts on ““Minneapolis Needs a Subway” – Comments on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Policy Plan

  1. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Our region’s transit planning and approval process badly needs reform, beginning with accountability of the Metro Council. The two current/recent LRT examples–the Central Corridor Green Line, and the SW Corridor–very clearly demonstrate a bad process. In the first example, a plan already compromised by lack of appropriate tunneling was undermined (pun not intended) by urban development dreams of politicians. In the second, we’re still seeing a messy plan further bedeviled by a process likely to end up in court. Professor Levinson makes a number of good points in this article. Let’s push our legislators and the governor to reform the process!

  2. Matty LangMatty Lang

    If we did end up investing the huge amounts of money it would take to build a subway in the MSP region I would suggest that we stick the cars and trucks down there in the underground instead of the mass transit system. My thought is that the mode being stuck underground is receiving the stick whereas the surface mode gets the carrot. We shouldn’t be giving carrots to driving cars in the urban core where a subway would be built.

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

      So instead of a skyway system, we just deck over the entire ground level, leaving cars and trucks below the deck, and everyone else on the deck? Paris has this around La Defense. Sadly this is not terribly attractive, though I am sure one could do better.

      1. Matty LangMatty Lang

        I’m familiar with La Défense and that space has a lot of room for improvement. I was more sharing a general thought about how putting transit systems underground has probably been as much about making space on the surface for cars as it has been about giving transit an advantage.

  3. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

    Alternatives networks for the Twin Cities have been studied previously studied many times over, as Alex notes in: http://gettingaroundmpls.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/the-best-laid-plans/

    The most likely corridors are East-West (E-W) through downtown and North-South (N-S).

    The E-W line would probably replace the existing at-grade Blue and Green shared tracks (which could be reconfigured for streetcar service), so say under 5th in downtown, with a tunnel emerging at the Yard on the East and Target Field on the West. This would allow a higher capacity on both lines, since you could run
    each at 5 minutes instead of 10 minutes, in ideal circumstances. This could move North or South a block or two depending on which is easier to construct.

    The N-S line would run below Nicollet through downtown and fork at the Midtown Greenway. The west branch would follow the Greenway to Uptown and the east branch to Lake Street. (A direct E-W service on the Greenway would also be possible). Another branch could continue south if demand warrants. Nothing prevents this and surface streetcars or buses on both Nicollet and Hennepin, they serve different markets. See e.g. Market Street in San Francisco for triple decker transit (buses and streetcars at grade, MUNI subway down one level, and BART down two levels).

    North of downtown, one branch would emerge to go at grade down Central Ave NE, and one branch along St. Anthony Main Street/Dinkytown Greenway/Stadium Village Station (part of the old “Northern Alignment” of the Green Line)

    This could of course be a “streetcar” subway, there is no reason that LRT sized vehicles are required, instead vehicles that were appropriate for streetcar operation outside downtown would get exclusive Right-of-Way in the tunnels. Hopefully the tunnels and platforms could be dual configured to enable both services, though I am not sure how to solve the “Mind the Gap” problem.

    Again, I have no idea if this pencils out, this is based on intuition and local knowledge of transit-favorable markets. If the demand for new development Minneapolis continues apace, this has a shot. If demand peters out, than the costs are prohibitive.

    1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

      The E-W line wouldn’t work on 5th St. between Nicollet and Hennepin – Xcel’s substation is in the way. It would probably be easier/better to just go on 6th through that part of downtown. Not sure how you’d get back to 5th to connect with TFS on the west end or the 35W crossing on the east end, though. Maybe just keep going down and go under the freeway?

  4. Froggie


    As a transportation researcher, I’m assuming you’re aware that some of the misgivings with the TPP are the result of Federal requirements for MPOs (the Met Council being the Twin Cities designated MPO) and fiscally-constrained long-range transportation plans…

    1. David LevinsonDavid Levinson Post author

      The requirement for “fiscally constrained” (whatever that means http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/planning/fcguid62705.cfm , it’s not like the money is lined up for all of this now – it all depends on assumptions … declining gas tax revenue in particular will need to augmented, and has yet to be) does not mean there cannot be other visions which are not arbitrarily constrained. It further does not mean that additional studies cannot be committed to examine both expanded networks and additional revenue. Other metropolitan areas manage to be more ambitious. See e.g. Denver http://drcog.org/sites/drcog/files/resources/2011%20MV%202035%20Plan%20for%20Web5-12-11_0.pdf

    2. Alex

      Froggie. This plan does not assume restrained fiscal projections. It assumes fiscal retrenchment. The lesser scenario assumes that three revenue sources will shrink between 2021-2030 – including that from property taxes! My understanding is that level of pessimism is very unusual, if not unprecedented. I wish they were explicit in their reasoning for why they expect the Twin Cities to become Detroit in the next 10 years.

      1. Cole

        Not sure I understand this comment. The funding is based on reasonable projections and the property tax is tied to debt service payments. So as we build more in the first 10 years, the debt service payments represent the majority of the revenue being raised. The plan illustrates the cash flow of this revenue, not the debt service payments. It is entirely true that the revenue isn’t growing, but it isn’t shrinking, it’s just front-loaded.

        Also, it is consistent with the types of plans that other regions are compiling, including Denver, but Denver has a higher base amount because of FasTracks. Our increased revenue scenario in this region is essentially their FasTracks. It’s a struggle here, mostly because of the governance structure for decision-making, which comes from state and federal law. State elections matter and contact your representatives if you think it should be different, especially Scott Dibble!

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Boston’s old rail (Huntington and Beacon lines) are subways downtown but quite streetcar-like in outer stretches where they’re quite slow. I was once more than an hour late for dinner after grossly underestimating the time it would take to get from downtown to Newton, having never ridden it so far west. Fortunately the city fathers wisely opted for heavy rail in later systems which have been quite successful. Last time I visited, the Cambridge line had been extended as far as Arlington and Braintree.

    There used to be an extensive streetcar tunnel under Crocus/Cathedral hill in St. Paul. But surely in this day if the political and financial means permit extensive tunneling, a desirable thing, then nothing less than LRV’s should go there, with adequate space for eventual heavy rail.

    And then there’s PRT as a possible widespread transit web–little discussion of this intriguing possibility in streets.mn.

    We had better get serious about reforming our transit planning and approval process. Driving back from the West on August 29 in the rain, after reaching MN Hwy 7 and US 494 it took me nearly an hour to reach the center of town. We’re facing transportation strangulation; not just personal inconvenience or a blight on the city as boutique, but serious inhibition of economic growth.

    1. Nathanael

      Stop frequency is the main issue on the western end of the Green Line’s B, C, and D branches. They could probably function fine with half as many stops.

  6. Daniel Berg

    One thing that always sticks out during these discussions is the degree to which people seem have an end picture in mind and spend the entire conversation justifying it. To plan properly nobody in the discussion should have any predetermined preferences on what modes or designs are best. The first step is to determine what measurements will be used to make design decisions. Unless we do that it will be nothing more than a scrum where everybody simply backs in to the goal which is supported by their preferred solution.

    It is impossible to have a discussion on much less develop a design for a complicated system that balances various modes and communities if we can’t agree to a set of metrics first.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Right on. And our current metrics suck, as shown by the outcomes. They’re focused on shiny new economic development rather than serving existing places, serving suburban park & ride users over walk-up urban riders, and reducing trip times for people that have high commute times because they chose that lifestyle.

      1. Daniel Berg

        Your comments though have already made value judgments based on what goals you believe transportation should be supporting. An example of what I mean is regarding the suburban verses urban issues. It is impossible to start a meaningful discussion if you have already alienated a majority of the population. We need to first determine what the lowest common denominator goal is and work from there. It will make the process long and difficult but is the only way to make a coherent plan that receives continuing support. The process is as important as the result.

        We need to talk first about how we measure costs and benefits, judge all modes and designs equally against those measurements and agree that whatever the results come to we will support them because we agreed to the ground rules. It shouldn’t matter if the results say all subway, bike or automobile if everybody understands the process was fair as free from bias as possible.

        1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

          The current system has alienated its primary constituency: urban transit riders. It’s fair to fight back against that even if it steps on some suburban toes.

          1. Daniel Berg

            Stepping on those toes will result in a poorly designed system that has systemic problems with funding. In other words, it will fail. Why bother starting down that path. It becomes a funding battle where everybody takes their “its our taxes” ball and goes home. A recipe for transportation planning pointlessness. Political boundaries have zero physical effect on how a transit system should be designed and aesthetic designations such as urban or suburban less so.

            Creating and agreeing to metrics and finding methods to honestly measure results are the only way around such fruitless endeavors. Starting with something as simple as how we determine total costs of various designs so we can judge all options using the same yardstick.

            Instead we seem to get cultural engineering disguised as transportation policy which creates system designs that cost more and do less than they otherwise could and should. We need to start with creating measurements. The next step is using those to understand how we can minimize our overall transportation costs relative to the amount we as a society are able to produce with a given and limited set of resources.

            We need to start with a baseline to which everybody can agree. Without that the entire process becomes nothing but a political fight that produces poorly designed, incoherent and wasteful results.

            1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              I look forward to a time when we “everybody takes their “its our taxes” ball and goes home.” — Urban land uses, whether in Minneapolis, old suburbs, or small towns would win in that scenario.

              And do you really believe that “aesthetic designations such as urban or suburban” lack value in transit planning? You don’t think these “aesthetic designations” impact the viability of transit?

              Your baseline is a recipe for failure. It’s apologizing for the status quo.

              1. Daniel Berg

                If people don’t cooperate we can’t develop a coherent system. The more we create pointless artificial political barriers like urban/suburban/rural based on ego and tribalistic ideals the less we are likely to cooperate. That is the current status quo and a reason our transportation planning has so many issues.

                Developing rational measurements of costs and benefits needs to happen before engaging in any successful design process. It is the foundation of all design. The more complicated the thing being design the more important it is to have clear and understandable measurements. Holistic transit systems are about as complex a thing as humanity can tackle.

                We can decide to treat this problem in a rational technical basis or have it driven by the vagaries of popular culture and politics as it is currently. In that realm is the only place definitions of urban/suburban and rural have any weight. If you would rather have the latter don’t pretend that the decisions being made are based on good transportation planning. They are purely political and will result in the same haphazard and farcical solutions that always emanate from that world. Just draped in a thin poorly fit veneer of engineering and design. If designed properly the aesthetic beauty will be inherent, true and long lasting. Worrying or defining aesthetics before starting is a sign of a processes or designer who lacks competence.

                1. Students_TT

                  ^^This guy needs to comment more often.

                  This us vs them stuff is so childish. There can be multi-modal optimization of resources and operations, we just need need to find a way to “quantify” everything onto a level playing field.

                  1. Daniel Berg

                    Rational and technical are descriptors tied to the scientific method in that they allow for meaningful testing adjustment and retesting that allow progress to happen. I agree that at some point when dealing with human behavior and social systems there needs to be a bridge which accounts for behavior which is “not rational”. Even seemingly irrational behavior is often just due to an incomplete understanding the observer has of the situation. Something that can be addressed through ongoing rational observation and technically careful research.

                    Political and social seem to most often be used to define areas where irrational behavior is accepted and technical expertise is subservient to to that behavior. Rational and technical are incredibly difficult and require constant adjustments be made as information is gained. Political and social by definition are ambiguous, malleable and open to interpretation by the observer. Things that make them of limited value when developing something as complex as a transportation system. They must be addressed at some point but only after we have actual usable information and measurement from which to have that conversation.

                    The fact that transportation funding happens through the political process is its biggest weakness. Likely one that makes any good planning impossible.

                    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

                      In my experience, the scientific method is never as simple as we pretend it to be. I know this because I do it myself.

                      Where do stats come from? What is and is not measurable? What things to we include in our models? Do our models accurately reflect the complexity of the world?

                      Anyway, I see there as being more than one kind of rationality, and that those sorts of logics are very dependent on many things that we often term as “culture.”

                      This is only to point out that there are many different ways of looking at these things, and I am unwilling to adopt one kind of “universal” logic.

                2. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                  Urban vs non-urban is not an aesthetic. It is a value that determines viability of an investment.

                  People who think that urban vs suburban vs rural is merely an aesthetic are the ones who get misguided into thinking we need billions of dollars spent on light rail to park & rides.

                3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                  The very problem we have right now is rooted in the desire we have to cooperate, as a region: regionalism. It says that low-value land uses deserve as much built infrastructure investment as places with high-value land uses. That’s a dangerous assumption that’s leading to all sorts of failure.

                  1. Daniel Berg

                    If you don’t want to find a way to cooperate don’t expect any in return. Get together with like minded people and fund your own system. Quite bitching about the rest.

                4. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

                  There are also plenty of urban places in the suburbs that deserve more investment and connectivity: Places like Excelsior, Shakopee, White Bear Lake, Robbinsdale, Osseo, South St. Paul, etc. We need to connect valuable places, not park & rides.

  7. Keith Morris

    If Eden Prairie warrants LRT, then Minneapolis necessitates a subway system. The latter is just more logical, yet when is Eden Prairie city council going to reciprocate support for that project with a hefty majority vote? I like how we’re supposed to bare the extra burden for this LRT system to compensate for the ridership they don’t want to provide (via unfettered sprawling policies), but turn the tables and somehow it won’t even be discussed. Part of the blame rests on the City of Minneapolis for not demanding more than whatever crumbs the suburbs feel like tossing our way.

    Speaking of suburbs and subways, I saw MVTA’s schedule/map on an MT bus and holy hell does it blow MT’s away: see the top left for the cover:


    Sleek simple design, bright colors, and it uses a subway-like route image with major destinations listed in linear fashion. The MT one next to it looked very bare-bones and told you nothing. It consisted of nothing more than the route numbers and a zoomed out map of Mpls with a little group of squiggly lines telling you it goes somewhere south of there, but anything else is pure conjecture. It might as well have been an approximate dot on the map.

    While a subway may be a bit much, the reality is that crossing one side of Minneapolis to the other requires that one has lots of time on her/his hands. Even high frequency routes are atrocious in this regard for the simple fact that Mpls does not end just a couple dozen blocks outside of Downtown. In which case, stopping every block or two on the bus wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case as it extends much further and if you want to get from NE to South Mpls that can easily take an hour or so. Streetcars also don’t address this problem, especially the Central-Nicollet in this instance. When you multiply this problem it seems that a lot of ridership is being forgone because in most cases you just cannot traverse the city by mass transit in a reasonably timely manner. A subway could solve this problem, but then a designated system of buses that provide this service could also do the job.

    1. Nathanael

      The Blue Line demonstrates that if you have exclusive lanes and priority at intersections, you can go pretty fast with surface rail. Unfortunately, in downtown Minneapolis, you do not have priority at intersections. Also, the stations are too close together.

  8. Chris Kurle

    To create a dedicated source of funding for improved transportation we should seek voter approval across the entire census defined Metro MSP Area which would be 11 counties in Minnesota and not just the 7 counties the Metropolitan Council has jurisdiction over. We need mayors and other leaders to work together to create a shared vision and reach the goal of improving our region’s competitiveness. There is no need for a new law or broadening the powers of the Met Council just work together to find common ground and recognize that our future depends on it. For example, Metro Denver was able to do just this and now they are home to one of the most premiere transit systems in the US. When going to the voters you need to give those specific projects and improvements that will allow them to see the value of what they will be paying for. When setting the levy determine the total amount needed for the projects and the duration needed to pay it off and set the amendment to those terms. By including the true census defined metro and including projects that benefit all communities then you will have greater chances for a successful buy in from voters. If we can secure funding this way we can then leverage our local dollars with federal ones and be on our way to another era of prosperity and economic growth.
    Expand I-94 between St Cloud and the Twin Cities to support 3 continuous lanes.
    Build LRT routes that are supplemented by modern street cars simultaneously to create a comprehensive rail system to serve our urban core where we have the most density and dedicated ridership.
    Look for opportunities to re-build aged highway corridors and include dedicated transit lanes or rails.
    The current vision being offered by the Metropolitan Council seems somewhat disappointing when considering our region’s potential. It appears the limited control of the Met Council has them only planning for the 7 counties which they control as opposed to working with other leaders to encompass the entire 13 county census defined metropolitan area. We as a region also should recognize the peer regions we are competing with include the likes of Denver and Seattle. We could learn from Denver’s example of creating one of the best transit systems in the country. Also, as a region we should embrace more urbanism in our planning and favor density over sprawl. We cannot afford to rest on the work that generations before us laid as that will only hurry our current descent into mediocrity.

    1. Nathanael

      I-94 already has 4 continuous lanes (2 each way). It does NOT need more.

      Adding a lane of roadway is as expensive as building an entire railway line. You could finish (and fully double-track) Northstar to St. Cloud for the same cost as adding 2 lanes to I-94 from the Twin Cities to St. Cloud.

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