Back in 2003 I was working as a volunteer radio news reporter for KFAI, a great long-time community radio station on Minneapolis’ West Bank. Much like blogging, it was a fun (if unpaid) job involving many unexpected conversations and encounters with people from all corners of the city. I remember going to Minneapolis’ north side to cover one of Don Samuels’ day-long vigils following a shooting. I remember interviewing Cam Gordon when he was running for office against Cara Letofsky. (And lots of other stories too.)
One of the longest drives I ever made during those days* was to go out and interview the Lake Elmo city manager (and his assistant). Back then, Lake Elmo and the Met Council were famously locked in a legal struggle over the city’s comprehensive plan, and the regional planning authority’s right to require development in suburban cities. Lake Elmo was and is a sparsely populated city along the I-94 corridor about ten miles east of Saint Paul, and it’s one of the few places near the beltway where you can still find farms.
At the time I knew very little about urban planning, zoning, or development, and I remember sitting in the Lake Elmo office with the two city staff and listening to them talk about quality of life and the city’s rural character. (Of course, that’s usually a dog whistle for “rich white McMansions”.) One of the things I distinctly recall was the city manager saying, almost gleefully, “we don’t want to be another Woodbury. We’re going to build out [on one-acre lots], and then there’ll be nothing anyone can do.”**
The Gateway Corridor
Flash forward ten years, and Lake Elmo hasn’t changed much. They finally got on board with the Met Council’s comp plan requirements, but did so in an interesting way that attempted to focus on cluster development in a few key places. (They also defunded their library so that it now operates entirely on hopes, dreams, and unicorn sweat.)
But a funny thing happened on the way to Stillwater. The Met Council recently released recommendations for the Gateway route, a bus rapid transit (BRT) project that would run east from Saint Paul along the I-94 corridor out to Woodbury. Compared to the Southwest Light Rail (SWLRT) Hindenburg, the Gateway has flown under the radar. For one thing, it’s a bus rapid transit project (a fraction of the cost of the semi-tunneled Southwest light rail). For another thing, it goes through Saint Paul’s sleepy East Side and far-less-populated eastern suburbs, which have been clamoring for more geographic equity in transit investments for years.
After choosing between BRT and light rail (LRT), and opting not to go along East 7th Street, the toughest decision the Gateway Corridor Committee made centered on the eastern part of the route. Once you get out to the 3M corporate campus, there are a lot of options for where to put the dedicated busway. As it turns out, the Committee and the Met Council settled on the D2-E2 alternative, which would run on the north side of I-94 through Lake Elmo (skipping already-developed Woodbury) and only cross to the South side of the freeway at the (skin curdlingly named) Settlers Ridge Parkway, on the far edge of Woodbury.
“We Don’t Want to be Another Woodbury”
Suburban transit is always something of an oxymoron, and I have mixed feelings about investing much public money in attempts to shoehorn transit service into cities that are uniformly designed to be auto-dependent. Typically, those kinds of investments are far too expensive, and do little to change the [time + cost + comfort] equation of different modes. (In other words, you can’t make second-ring suburbs walkable.)
The more I think about it, Lake Elmo’s histrionic attempts to resist planning might have been quite a savvy move. The Gateway alignment is proposed to go through Lake Elmo precisely because all the land along that side of the freeway is still undeveloped. It doesn’t have cul-de-sacs, strip malls, big box stores, and one-story beige three-garage homes as far as the eye can see, which means that the land can be developed in walkable ways that support transit-oriented development.
According to the people I’ve talked to about the project, this was precisely the thinking of the committee. When asked on which side of the freeway to build a BRT right-of-way, planners essentially looked at Woodbury and said, “this is a lost cause.” Instead, Lake Elmo’s farm fields, combined with a few willing land owners, mean that the Gateway BRT station areas could be mixed use, (relatively) dense, and walkable.
The Mediocrity of Suburban Transit Investments
In general, I believe that the cost-benefit ratio for transit investments makes suburban transit projects almost always a bad deal. We will need a massive amount of development in order to make a $1.5 billion dollar project*** like the SWRLT pay off for the public, and I doubt the ability of already built-out cities like Eden Prairie to make the kinds of changes they’d need to really shift their urban development patterns. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong, but I’m pretty skeptical. Meanwhile, transit investments make far more sense in cities that already have sidewalks, street grids, few parking moats, and some degree of mixed-use fabric. We should focus our investments along these already-existing transit corridors.
But if we’re really going to try to build transit in the suburbs, despite the underwhelming ridership projections, the Gateway project seems like the best case scenario. Thanks to Lake Elmo, there are a whole bunch of greenfield acres just waiting for an innovative transit-oriented developer to build something great. Compared to the car-only “CityPlace” development across the freeway in Woodbury, maybe Lake Elmo was pretty smart after all.
* I had a car back then, a 1986 BMW 325e. Pretty sweet. It died. It was expensive.
** I have the tape somewhere.
*** So far…