Downtown Buses Slow as Hell, Three Miles of Transit Tunnels and Bridges Planned Elsewhere

For a couple of months now, local route buses heading north and south through Downtown Minneapolis have been detoured off Nicollet Mall while a $50 million dollar rebuild of that street has gotten underway. Right now buses are running three blocks away on 3rd Avenue South, but they’ll be moving over to Hennepin Avenue next month. The detoured routes include the Route 10, 11, 17, 18, and 25–some of the busiest in the system.

It’s been…less than ideal so far, and will probably get worse with the move to Hennepin Avenue, but winter is coming. I’ve probably substituted half my downtown transit trips with Nice Ride or walking if I can think of some sort of errand halfway between my office and apartment. With winter and snow and ice and fewer bikers, the bus ride will probably not be great. The Route 4 and 6 on Hennepin Avenue are also very busy routes in the system, and the 6 is pretty legendary for being terribly slow in rush hour–it’s less than three miles on Hennepin from 4th Street to Lake Street, but it can take anywhere from half an hour to three to five business days on a bus.

Previously, buses would bunch up three or four or five to a block on Nicollet Mall, right now they’re winding around the gauntlet below, mixed in with rush hour automobile traffic. I was on a bus whose mirror hit the mirror of another bus. Not the end of the world! But ridership is down–good for remaining users, honestly, but probably not a great business plan.

It’s a tricky situation. Nicollet Mall was badly broken as a transit facility–it should not take 15 or 20 minutes to travel a mile in the afternoon rush hour. But at least Nicollet is in the middle of everything.

Looking at other options, Lasalle Avenue doesn’t go all the way through and Marquette and 2nd Avenue can’t really take on the additional local route buses given the ton of express buses it deals with during rush hour. There have been vague rumblings about the appearance of suburban express buses getting a superior route through downtown; I’m all about complaining about the appearance of that, but anecdotally those buses are already stacking up eight to a red light and we probably don’t want to screw that up out of spite. Here’s Marquette Avenue yesterday.

Downtown Minneapolis has a pretty high transit modeshare–about 40% of its 160,000 workers take a train or bus and that employment is pretty densely packed around a few north-south avenues in the western half of downtown. Employment has been flat for a while, but there are cranes everywhere, and the downtown area has been adding a thousand residents every few months for a bit now.

The recent decision by Minnesota United FC to build a soccer stadium in Saint Paul notwithstanding, Downtown Minneapolis is very much the economic, cultural, and spiritual heart of a large and prosperous metropolitan region that will probably continue to grow and be prosperous for a while. Plans for a 50 story tower on Marquette Avenue were announced just yesterday! We have a future to prepare for.

So, you know, one thing we should probably be doing right now is planning some sort of transit tunnel in Downtown Minneapolis.

~*~the sound of hundreds of Very Serious And Realistic People clicking x on this tab registers ever so slightly on the big map on the ground floor of the Science Museum of Minnesota that displays seismic activity~*~

There is no money! Things cost money, and we have none of that money–money is not available and cannot be found. You are terrible for even suggesting it and you, specifically, Magrino, you’re an idiot and the only three things you’ve written that anyone has read were crude and boorish.

Hard to disagree with some of those points, however, there is a ton of money that is spent on transit in Minnesota, somehow. Much of it is, as you know, is sort of tied up in weird knots in specific buckets on different platforms on ships sailing away from each other in a sea of political considerations. But a lot of the time, there is some initial decision to, say, build an $85 million dollar public amphitheater behind Target Field using transit money–even if the feds pay for half, the other half is still coming from somewhere.

We’ll skip making a list, but rest assured there are hundreds of millions of dollars of local spending flowing to transit capital projects around here on a regular basis, and many of those projects are dubious. Not to mention the billions of dollars in total metro area transportation spending building speculative freeways out into the hinterlands. You should apply for one of the vacancies on the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. Applications are due today.

One thing we could think about, for example, are all the bridges and tunnels on the Green Line extension after it leaves Minneapolis. This has been wildly under-reported in the media and elsewhere! Please sit down and watch this entire YouTube video.

Don’t want to watch it? Alright here’s a slideshow–er, can’t do it, the YouTube video and the engineering PDFs are not zoomed out enough to fully capture the three largest bridges or the Kenilworth tunnel in a single frame.

That’s a lot of bridges over freeways and swamps, as well as some just over regular roads. There’s a tunnel under Highway 62, as well as under that bike trail in Kenilworth. Here are the numbers, including the length of each stretch. They’re at 60% engineering right now and numbers are subject to some final adjustment. The numbers are from the project office:

  • Bridge over Prairie Center Drive & Technology Drive – 2,686 feet
  • Bridge over I-494 – 195 feet
  • Bridge over Prairie Center Drive & Highway 212 onramp – 997 feet
  • Bridge over Nine Mile Creek & Flying Cloud Drive – 1,406 feet
  • Bridge over Highway 212 & Shady Oak Road – 2,919 feet
  • Tunnel under Highway 62 – 582 feet
  • Bridge over wetlands and Canadian Pacific tracks near planned OMF – 3,000 feet
  • Bridge over Excelsior Boulevard – 1,620 feet
  • Bridge over Minnehaha Creek – 90 feet
  • Bridge over Louisiana Avenue – 146 feet
  • Bridge over Highway 100 – 212 feet
  • Tunnel under Kenilworth – 2,236 feet
  • Bridge over Kenilworth Channel – 75 feet

A mile is 5,280 feet, and the above encompasses just over three miles of grade separated transit–you’ll note that the existing Green Line runs through Downtown Minneapolis and along University Avenue at grade, among and across some of the busiest streets in the region.

Nicollet Mall from Grant Street to Washington Avenue is about a mile. The east to west stretch from the elevation change near Target Field to the elevation change near the new Vikings Stadium is a little over a mile. Is the above list of tunnels and bridges at all financially comparable to tunneling under Downtown Minneapolis? Obviously, no.

But at some point, a decision was made to pick that Eden Prairie alignment through swamps and over highways, and it was picked over a different Eden Prairie alignment in existing railroad right-of-way. You’re probably familiar with that Uptown vs. Kenilworth routing discussion in Minneapolis, but there was also a choice out on the tail end of the line.

“1” alignment in blue, “3” alignment in yellow

The “1” alignment stuck to an old rail corridor that Hennepin County purchased some number of years ago, though unlike the “3” alignment, it didn’t really hit much other than single family houses. The “1” alignment beats the “3” alignment on golf course access (score: 2-0) while one of the now-deferred stations on the “3” alignment is a mere 15 minute walk from the American Eagle Outfitters at Eden Prairie Center Mall.

Either way, not really amazing, but hey! A decision was clearly made here, and there was an obvious engineering challenge and cost difference associated with the decision.

The “1” alignment had a single bridge and tunnel west of Hopkins (page 21) whereas the chosen alignment has six bridges and a tunnel (it also turned out to be routed through hundreds of millions of dollars worth of swamp, but no one could have known there was a swamp there). The Hennepin County board and others looked at the situation and decided that attempting to serve the stuff along the “3” alignment was worth the extra cost. A mere six years later, the train isn’t quite running, nor has construction even started, but we are finally accounting for the number of “significant” trees in the Kenilworth corridor.

The Green Line extension to Eden Prairie is happening, though. And again, there does appear (?) to be money for transit. Not to mention political capital–a lot of effort went into saving the line during its recent $341 million dollar cost increase/near-death experience.

And so what we need now is for serious people to start seriously discussing the need for one or two transit tunnels in Downtown Minneapolis, rather than 15 or 20 years from now. Could be a combination bus/rail tunnel like Seattle, could be a bus tunnel like Boston, could be a streetcar tunnel that would make the Nicollet-Central project a far more worthy endeavor. There are many roads to Duluth, a wise man once said.

Every few months a new development project is announced downtown, and we lose another surface parking lot that could be a potential tunnel portal or potential property whose increase in taxable value could be used to fund said tunnel. The existing north-south transit routes through Downtown Minneapolis are terrible, and they’re not slated to improve in the next 15 years. We should be planning for the future, not some version of 1987.

Nick Magrino

About Nick Magrino

Nick Magrino grew up all over the place but has lived in the Loring Park neighborhood of Minneapolis longer than anywhere else. He has a new cat, Sweater, and does not use hashtags at @nickmagrino. He is probably on a bus right now.