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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.