Stop Choosing LRT Alignments Before Knowing the Cost

As the Twin Cities proceeds with plans to build over three billion dollars worth of rail extensions for the Blue and Green Lines, many transit advocates question if we’re missing an opportunity for transformative projects that lift up urban neighborhoods on their routes between suburban park & rides and the downtown core.

A shallow tunnel proposal for the Green Line Extension. file.

A shallow tunnel proposal for the Green Line Extension. file.

Will Rogers once said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” We’ve picked our “track” for these two projects: Locally Preferred Alignments adopted for the Green Line Extension in 2009 and the Blue Line Extension in 2012. But how do we know we’re actually on the right track, when we can’t adequately estimate cost?

We may be past the point of course adjustment for these projects – especially the Green Line project – but we can take valuable lessons for future projects. When we see roughly 50% cost increases after locking in a Locally Preferred Alternative alignment, we miss our chance to value engineer the best transit outcomes for our region. Here’s what I’d change:

Study costs and benefits in parallel

Cost increases during planning will happen. But they should happen in a way that is still open to greater benefits as cost for a lesser-benefit-alternative approaches or exceeds potential alternatives with greater benefits.

With Southwest LRT’s ballooning cost, we could have resurrected the 3C or 3C-Alt2 alignment (connecting via Uptown/Lyn-Lake) for similar cost but with higher benefits. Likewise, as Bottineau LRT’s price tag goes up as engineering is refined, we may be able to get added benefits – such as stronger connections to Broadway/Penn and North Memorial – without marginal cost relative to the lower-but-increasing-cost Bassett Creek routing we’ve supposedly locked in.

Grimes Pond Bottineau LRT

New causeway proposal for Blue Line extension over wetlands. (Met Council image)


It comes down to this: Let’s discuss costs and benefits in parallel until shovels hit the ground, rather than committing to a “value” alignment and then being all ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ when the cost goes up 50% or more. For things like tunnels under parks and bridges over the Grimes Pond which are being planned precisely because these low-development corridors were supposedly going to make the chosen alignment more cost effective. If we’re going to build viaducts and tunnels, let’s at least do it in a way that brings stations to the doorsteps of tens of thousands more transit riders. (I realize there are likely FTA guidelines preventing this sort of parallel process. But that’s not an excuse – local officials can pressure the FTA to change their process.)

Development oriented transit

Streets.MN File file

We need to be honest about the types of land uses that are compatible with high-cost, high-amenity rail backbones of our regional transit system. We need development oriented transit before we need transit oriented development. Sorry Brooklyn Park (especially north of 610) and sorry Eden Prairie… your land uses are designed for drive-up transit rather than walk-up transit. As we’ve seen from ridership on the new Green Line compared to the Red Line BRT or Northstar Commuter Rail, walk-up transit beats drive-up transit every place every time.


LRT serving parking lots

To this end, we should be second guessing just how far these extensions should go, at least in their initial phase of construction. The Blue Line extension should terminate in Robbinsdale rather than in a farm field north of our second beltway. And the Green Line extension should terminate in Hopkins rather than at a parking ramp near the Carver County border.

Don’t use transit dollars for road improvements

Cedar Avenue. Widened for cars, paid for by transit. Streets.MN file.

Widened for cars, paid for by transit. file.

Lastly, roadway reconstruction projects associated with LRT projects should be funded with road dollars, not with transit dollars. Of course we need to revamp local streets to be walkable, development-friendly, and connected (and, by extension, transit compatible). But with realignments like the proposed Wirth Parkway/Golden Valley Road redo, or the widening of Cedar Ave for car commuters in Apple Valley with Red Line project (CTIB) dollars, or Olson Memorial and West Broadway streetscape work alongside the Bottineau project, these should not be funded with transit dollars. Let’s use transit dollars to build transit.

38 thoughts on “Stop Choosing LRT Alignments Before Knowing the Cost

      1. Nick

        Yes. And I’m fairly confident that their 528 colleagues would be more than happy to find a way to spend the money that is currently allocated to MN.

        The regions that are doing anything on transit (successfully) right now are funding at the state and local level. But don’t wait for CTIB to carry that cross…

        1. Mary G

          So true about state/local funding. Getting federal funding adds a whole layer of ridiculous hoops that need to be jumped through prior to the knowledge needed for a fiscally restrained project. CTIB doesn’t need to carry the cross either – at least not alone. Except for the incredible political resistance, there’s no reason that a different agency/organization couldn’t oversee a regional sales tax.

          1. Wayne

            CTIB needs to be thrown in the trash and replaced with something at the Hennepin/Ramsey county level or maybe even opt-in at the city level if we’re ever going to get actual improvements in urban transit for people who live in places that can support it.

            But of course we have to get the paternalistic overbearing state legislature to so kindly grant the authority to tax ourselves to pay for things ourselves that we want and need and they refuse to provide, all while raiding our coffers for whatever they happen to want.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Maybe someone can correct me, but we don’t actually apply for federal funding until we have the route picked, a certain amount of engineering work done (aka ready to build basically), and our end of the funding stream committed, right? How would doing a more detailed evaluation of alternatives before settling in on one keep up from getting FTA approval? Wouldn’t our FEIS just be a much larger document? As long as we (CTIB, the state, whoever) is willing to pony up the money for more engineering work, why would we need any FTA process changes?

      1. Nathanael

        The FTA process absolutely allows for the local government to consider price, *and do exploratory soil bores and conceptual engineering to determine the actual price*, before picking a preferred alternative.

        Several projects I know of *have actually done this*, so I’m quite sure it’s allowed by the FTA.

  1. Monte Castleman

    So now 3A is going to cost as much as 3C would have. Is there any reason at all to suspect that 3C, once the engineers found what was actually underneath Nicollet, wouldn’t have ballooned by a similar amount?

    I’m also not convinced you can make a value judgement on drive-up transit based on our two trial lines. It seems to work pretty well in Chicago and Boston (aside from the parking kiosks and ticket sellers taking cash only causing us to miss the train and have to drive to the next station). Despite sticking a red line on a map and calling it macaroni, the Red Line is still just a bus, so you’ve eliminated all the potential users that won’t ride buses. Plus it’s not especially fast or convenient- it doesn’t even go downtown. (and would have been even slower if Cedar hadn’t been widened).

    As for NorthStar, as brutal as the drive is from Anoka to Minneapolis, I suspect a lot of people there work in the northern suburbs instead, and it’s already developed an unsavory reputation for delays since they picked the busiest rail line in the state to locate it on, which might discourge people from moving there in order to use it.

    And you didn’t mention the farm field the Blue Line will end in is right across from one of the biggest employers in the northern metro.

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele Post author

      Not really right across, more like .4 miles of windswept hostile stroad from LRT platform to Target doors. And that corporate campus is in decline, a recruiting albatross that’s getting Target’s best and brightest to quit for jobs that are somewhere closer than beyond the second beltway.

      1. Wayne

        Also, since when are we using public dollars to prop up poor decisions by businesses on where to build their corporate campuses? Target and UHG are touted as reasons to justify the alignments of the blue and green line extensions, but should we really be spending billions to bring their workers to them instead of maybe expecting them to eat the costs of deciding to locate their real estate investments in areas that millennials don’t want to work?

        1. Monte Castleman

          They’re not going to eat the costs in any case. They’ll just hire people that can afford to and choose to own cars, not pay for the transit for the people that don’t, who’ll now have fewer job choices.

          1. Wayne

            My point is that younger workers (WHO YES, CAN *AFFORD* CARS) are generally preferring not to work so far out and drive that much, which will make it harder for them to attract qualified workers if/when the labor market tightens up (in some fields it’s already pretty tough to find anyone qualified in town btw). So if they get a shiny new train to their doorstep in the far fringes of town, it’s essentially a recruiting tool for them to make them more competitive against other companies that made wiser investments in where to locate. Once again, we’re subsidizing poor land use decisions, just like we always have in the suburbs.

            1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

              Precisely Wayne. I’ve worked in technology for multiple local Fortune 500 firms. I actually work at one with Wayne right now. And I get recruiters calling every couple weeks about gigs at Target BP or UHG Eden Prairie or Medtronic Blaine or wherever. I own a car. But I will not subject myself to two hours of misery in it each day, so I tell them I’m not interested.

              And I work with a few people who have left other firms due to a bad car commute to the suburbs. Or Targetrons who left after their team was moved to Brooklyn Park.

              And I no longer work with my former colleagues who have moved to Seattle or Boston because Minneapolis is literally not urban/walkable enough for them.

              Suburban corporate campuses are an albatross for companies that need to recruit talent that have options in the 21st century.

          2. Nathanael

            Companies with distant suburban campuses are discovering that they have a “brain drain” as the smartest employees (who can pick their job) decide that they’d rather work downtown.

            Sure, those companies will still hire people, but they’ll get an inferior selection of employees. This is why Amazon located in downtown Seattle: to get the pick of the employees.

            In most metro areas, downtown is where rich people with money and choices are now. The poor are exiled to the suburbs. This is restoring an old, old trend.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Let’s ignore the 3A v 3C case here. The bulk of the post-Kenilworth tunnel decision cost increases were overpasses and marsh bridges out in the suburbs. So the cost/benefit comparison in this particular case study is the LPA serving the winding route through Minnetonka & EP to hit job centers vs staying in the old rail ROW at significantly less cost (but less benefit).

      There is no guarantee we wouldn’t have found significant cost increases in the suburban rail ROW as well – maybe there be dragons or more marshes that require a similar number of bridges. But that’s the problem, it’s a complete unknown. What if we did ~15% engineering or 40% engineering (significantly narrowing the cost uncertainty) for the chosen route as well as the cheaper one? We would then be able to evaluate updated costs against updated benefits (for example, what if new jobs or housing had cropped up along the non-chosen route, similar to the housing boom that occurred around Uptown post-2009 LPA decision?).

      (the same could be said about the much-earlier issue in 3A v 3C when the tunnel in Kenilworth was decided – what if the LPA hadn’t been solidified and we were running parallel studies on Nicollet to evaluate the true costs of that tunnel and Greenway route. I don’t want to open the actual can of worms, just describing the process).

      The drawback, of course, is that earlier stages of the project cost more because you’re spending staff resources on engineering work for at least one (if not more) routes that will not be built. Some might see this as wasteful. I don’t know how much budget was poured into SWLRT or Bottineau to get to the current level of engineering work. For a $1bn ++ project, I guess you could make the case that somewhere around $10m extra is worth it to have a better understanding of all costs/benefits before picking an alignment.

      1. Nathanael

        I know of a number of studies which progressed multiple alternatives to the point of soil testing and consultations with landowners. This made it possible to make a decision based on relatively accurate cost assessments.

        You could just do this; the FTA absolutely allows it.

    3. Joe

      Yes, it almost certainly would have. But if you are originally deciding between option A at $0.6 billion and option B at $1.2 billion, option A seems like a no-brainer at half the cost (we could build two for the price of one!). Then when option A goes up by a billion to $1.6 billion and option B goes up by 0.8 billion to $2.0 billion maybe we’re okay just choosing the better, more expensive option B, as option A is now only 20% cheaper.

      1. Wayne

        /\ This is what I wanted to say. The cost estimates for an urban cut and cover tunnel are generally closer to the actual cost because we *know* that it’s going to involve utility relocation work and the occasional archeological issue. With building through undeveloped parkland and marshes, no one really knows what to expect because no one has done much investigation previously … you know, because it’s undeveloped. The potential variability is so much higher in those kinds of alignments than in urban ones, even if the costs are *seemingly* higher before having a full understanding of the conditions.

          1. Wayne


            A simple cut and cover down Hennepin or Nicollet is nothing like the Big Dig from an engineering perspective, setting aside all the other issues with mismanagement and corruption that plagued it. We’re not trying to build a 1/4-1/2 mile wide highway tunnel in unstable landfill (with about 400 years of buried history) below the water table with seawater seeping in while keeping an active elevated highway open above it and threading it above and below multiple subway lines and an active train station.

            But, you know, sure. Let’s use it as our go-to example for building a shallow transit tunnel in sandstone in the midwest far from the ocean in a state with generally less corrupt construction contracting.

            1. Nathanael

              The Big Dig was known to have lowball cost estimates before it was started. It was basically fraud from beginning to end. They got sued by practically everyone and the response was to buy everyone off.

              Another example like that is Seattle’s Big Dig (Bertha). It looked fishy and suspicious from day one and all the independent experts were warning about it. It was literally chosen in a back room after being rejected by all the formal studies. (There’s an interesting federal Alternatives Analysis procedure — go through the process, reject alternatives with fatal flaws, and then decide to build one of them in a smoke-filled back room, and get federal funding for it. Say what?)

              You don’t have *anything remotely like that anywhere in Minnesota*.

    4. Wayne

      “I’m also not convinced you can make a value judgement on drive-up transit based on our two trial lines. It seems to work pretty well in Chicago and Boston (aside from the parking kiosks and ticket sellers taking cash only causing us to miss the train and have to drive to the next station). ”

      I just wanted to respond specifically to this.

      In both cities there is a robust transit system that serves walkable destinations within the city coupled with a drive-up commuter rail system to the suburbs. The only reason why the commuter rail systems work is because people who take it into the city can ride the local public transit to get around without a car while they’re there. If you only have the commuter rail and no transit that adequately serves them once they get into town, you get only 9-5 commuters and nothing else. Which seems to be fine with metro transit since that’s all they their actions suggest they care about, but it’s not how you build a robust transit system.

      With the exception of a few stations at the ends of lines in Boston, very few of the actual rapid transit (although ‘rapid’ might be a bit generous given their recent issues with maintinence) lines have parking. It’s almost exclusively the commuter rail system that has parking lots (which, by the way, they actually expect users to pay for … SHOCKING!). But the commuter rail has much lower frequencies than the inner-city transit system and is oriented mostly towards commuters. We seem to be building light rail and trying to make it act like a commuter rail system, even though it’s far more expensive and should be used as inner-city transit. It makes zero sense to try to build some ugly hybrid of commuter rail and frequent rapid transit that basically avoids density and provides way more frequent service to suburban park and rides than is actually needed. With commuter rail you just re-use existing freight ROW and throw some stations down. Since commuters are driving to it anyway they can go a little further out of the way to get to the parking lot and it’s not a big deal. Suburban commuter rail is supposed to be relatively cheap, but we’re gold-plating it like it was a line through someplace of actual density.

    5. Nathanael

      Monte: the point is that the city should have done the exploratory investigations (soil bores, etc.) of what was under BOTH routes. Before picking one.

      This is absolutely legal.

  2. David MarkleDavid Markle

    A conspiracy minded person might wonder whether the vast real estate investments of one of the Rockefellers may have influenced the path of the Blue Line extension. Comments?

    Given even the isolated example of the slight vibrations emanating from SW Corridor critics in the Lake of the Isles area, the public has had little effect on rail planning here. By the time official hearings take place it’s pretty much all done except for the actual construction. The official responses in the final EIS to critical remarks by citizens at Central Corridor hearings tended to be intellectually and politically insulting.

    Incidentally I had the questionable honor of receiving notice of vacancies on a citizens’ advisory panel of our unelected, unaccountable, unresponsive and opaque Met Council–two days before the application deadline!

    1. Wayne

      I’m more of the mind that it’s the vast investments incorporate campuses on the exurban fringe and companies who want to be able to attract young workers who increasingly don’t want to drive or live that far out.

      But the public input process is definitely a sham. Their idea of public input is “what kind of art do you want on the shelters at the station” and not “WHERE SHOULD THIS ACTUALLY GO.” It’s just “here’s some routes to choose an LPA, but we’ve already picked the one we like and massaged the numbers to make it the only logical choice.”

      1. Nathanael

        Faced with this sort of sham, people in Milwaukee got fed up and started suing every time a highway project was approved by sham process. They’ve been winning.

        I don’t think it’s quite bad enough in Minnesota to do that, but the Metro Council should be wary — if they keep running fraudulent sham processes, eventually someone will sue and win.

  3. Matthew

    “We need development oriented transit before we need transit oriented development. Sorry Brooklyn Park (especially north of 610) and sorry Eden Prairie… your land uses are designed for drive-up transit rather than walk-up transit.”

    Is there a typo here?

    “We need transit oriented development before development oriented transit” would be much more consistent with the immediately following sentence. Also with the world’s historical experience that transit following dense walkable development is usually more successful than transit built with the “hope” of development following.

  4. Chris

    As a member of the community working group in Brooklyn Park are planning has re-zoned the land uses all along the W Broadway corridor in Brooklyn Park to accommodate higher density and Transit Orientated Development. The line will be serving our retail center on Brooklyn Blvd, our institutions at 85th such as North Hennepin Community College and the new library, and our “cornfield” by Target’s Northern Campus will host the maintenance site. Target and other developers are already building a high density apartment along with plans for a hotel and a “main street” styled TOD complex. This information is all available from our last meeting online. Feel free to do some research…..

    As far as re-aligning, or really, cramming this project down the throat of North Minneapolis there didn’t seem to be much community support for this. The business owners representing Broadway had concerns about impacts to their businesses. Also, how would this fit down Penn or Broadway without negatively impacting drivers? Call it Rondo 2.0?

    Brooklyn Park has had full open houses in comparison. The city’s EDA has been working to maximize the benefits for our future and I am proud of the work we have done. Brooklyn Park is more diverse than either Minneapolis or St Paul and also has concentrated pockets of poverty.

    1. Wayne

      TOD on the far exurban fringe will always be of less value than infill and densification closer to the core because it costs less to support from an infrastructure perspective. Sure it’s good to build new suburban development in a not-awful manner, but it doesn’t justify or warrant this kind of expense and investment when there are places that are already far more supportive of transit in their current built form that are being ignored and underserved by transit.

      Also the public input process is terribly broken, especially when your stake holders are working class people who have jobs and schedules that don’t allow them to attend meetings during working or commuting hours, generally not convenient to where they live. But we just have meetings where the only people who can come are retired old people who hate change or business owners whose business model apparently is completely reliant on free street parking and is so fragile that any amount of disturbance will destroy their american dream for good.

      It’s pretty absurd and disingenuous to liken transit investment to Rondo, which IF YOU WILL RECALL was a wholesale destruction of a neighborhood with the intent of displacing a thriving minority community. That kind of hyperbole when referring to a transit investment in an area that has been pretty much ignored by everyone for far too long is just ridiculous. Also, if we weren’t talking about building bridges through marshes or tunnels through the woods, we could maybe actually take a serious look at tunneling through places where tunnels make sense, like the bottlenecks that we were told could *only* be solved by taking houses and bulldozing them. That was a slimy tactic by the planners to make the option that actually served the north side a poison pill. So far as I can tell they never seriously evaluated grade separation as a solution for urban alignments (but were perfectly ok with it for suburban portions).

      It’s a dishonest process and I seriously question how the routes were arrived and at presented to the limited selection of the public that was involved.

        1. Chris

          How is that Rondo comment disingenuous? Please elaborate?

          You are talking about cramming a line down a neighborhood that doesn’t have much room for street expansion. You already have the few successful business owners concerned about being able to remain open during construction but I am being disingenuous? Please.

          Educate yourself.

          Further, the meetings throughout this process have been open to residents and multiple notice mailed. They were during the evenings and have had good turn out.

          1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            Because building a train line there does not mean bulldozing an entire neighborhood.

            Which you tacitly acknowledge when you go on to talk about “the few successful business owners.”

            What happened to Rondo was a lot more than a few successful businesses failing in the face of temporary disruption during an investment in the neighborhood.

              1. Matthew

                Chris, that comment is insulting, dismissive, and gives no indication that you educated yourself by actually reading and understanding the very educational comments left for you by Wayne and Adam.

                Chris, I think everybody here would much rather hear you discourse on Brooklyn Park, a topic on which you appear to have some knowledge.

                “The line will be serving our retail center on Brooklyn Blvd, our institutions at 85th such as North Hennepin Community College and the new library”. That sounds like a good topic you could write a whole StreetsMN article about.

              2. Nathanael

                Chris, your comments betray a gross lack of understanding of… well, anything. Go educate yourself and come back when you can talk in an informed manner. Until then, you should be quiet and let people who actually understand the topic discuss it.

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