The long-running transit saga that is Saint Paul‘s “Riverview Corridor” is finally coming to an actual decision point. To my mind, it’s the most promising high-investment transit corridor on the books right now in the Twin Cities. (“High-investment” = not an aBRT line; that’s a long story for another post!)
Unlike the two planned Minneapolis light rail lines, which in some sense are really expensive “commuter rail” lines to the suburbs that bypass the walkable urban core, the Riverview line goes right through walkable urban space for its entire route. This is the best remaining transit corridor in the East Metro, and likely in the top three overall for the Twin Cities (despite the fact it doesn’t hit Minneapolis or the University of Minnesota, the two main drivers of transit ridership in the city). Anyone serious about transit in the Twin Cities needs to think about how to improve Riverview.
For those who don’t know about the project already, there is a long history of trying to build transit on or along West 7th Street. Failed attempts to built transit here include a scuttled (very early!) bus rapid transit project in the 1980s, plus another delayed aBRT line from just two years ago.
This is the charmed “third time”, and my hopes are high that this is finally the year when Saint Paul invests in high-quality transit that will improve lives for people who travel to and from downtown, and through the West 7th Street neighborhoods. (Note: I’ve been serving on the Technical advisory Committee for about a year now. See also my earlier streets.mn post on the Riverview planning, from about a year ago.)
After years of public input and committee meetings, the politicians and decision makers are getting really close to selecting a “locally preferred alternative” (LPA). The decision should come down the pipe in the next month or two, and the most recent report from the planning consultants had the first inkling of ridership and cost numbers for the proposed routes.
Right now there are a bunch of options on the table, but with these numbers available to us, it’s about getting clearer which options perform better than others according to the (inflexible) Federal modeling standards for ridership estimates.
(Note: this is a DRAFT summary that was provided to the Technical Advisory Committee, and the public. It will be revised before the next Political Advisory Committee meeting in a few weeks. For example, see the “cost per rider” column which is still “in progress”, and based on a complex formula that includes infrastructure expected lifespan and difficult-to-calculate things like that.)
So what’s going on? The short answer to that question is that there are a few decisions still on the table:
Here are the questions on the table:
a) What mode is best: rail or bus?
I’m a big fan of rail and think that its advantages tend to get lost in the vague catch-all term “rail bias.” There are a lot of tangible pluses to rail, including better ride quality, large vehicles that far better serve people with disabilities, fewer emissions or noise, and a omnipresent traffic calming effect that buses inherently lack.
But of course they are more expensive. The key question is “how much more expensive”? The answer is, “a lot.”
The corollary: “Is it worth it”? The answer, “it depends!”
b) Where will the line cross the river: Ford or Highway 5?
This is the big decision on the table. The Ford site is such a huge opportunity to do transit oriented development, to integrate transit and walkable car-lite or car-free housing into one seamless whole. That is the key to transit and urban design! Plus you’d serve the thousands of people who live close to the Ford/Cleveland area.
On the other hand, Highway 5 is much more direct. Lots of people use this as a way to get to the airport and mall. Which is better?
c) CP Spur or no?
The line could go along the now-abandoned CP rail route, at least from the Schmidt Brewery area all the way down to Davern/Saint Paul Avenue. This would minimize the impact on West 7th Street, and likely be cheaper and faster.
On the other hand, it’s a block or two farther away from people living on the north side of West 7th. Does that matter?
Well with the actual early data in front of us, we can begin piecing together answers to these questions.
Here are some quick takeaways.
1. Parking Differences are Minimal
People really really get worked up over parking. The reality, however, is that these are small numbers of parking spots. For example, in the downtown section it says that “between 46 and 68% of the parking spots” are going to be lost. That seems like a lot until you consider that downtown Saint Paul has thousands and thousands of madly-expensive-to-produce parking spots, many of which are underused for most of the day.
The same is likely to be true for many of the other spots that appear on the “lost” diagram. The consultant team hasn’t done any actual counts of how many of these spots are actually used on a regular basis, which is a critical factor for thinking about parking impacts. (Need I say “parking meters”?) Nor is there much information yet about how much off-street parking exists along the corridor. (early guesses are that 50% of the businesses have off-street lots). Nor is there information about how much available space there might be on the surrounding side streets.
In the grand scheme of thing a few hundred parking spaces are a small price to pay for great transit used by thousands of people every day. And the BRT option is no “parking savior,” also demanding the removal of a whole bunch of off-street spaces.
2. A Lot Gets Lost in the Numbers (e.g. CP Spur and the freeway cap, the Fort Snelling bridge)
When you look at the final ridership and cost chart, it seems like the differences are pretty small. The Highway 5 route is cheaper and has more riders. The CP Spur is more expensive. The raw numbers make it look like a no brainer.
However, a lot of important details are fudged out in that simple chart. One of my favorite reasons for supporting the CP Route, for example, is that it would include a “freeway cap” at Montreal and 35E. The proposed “Montreal” station would actually fall right in between the Summit Brewery and the city’s largest public housing project, and involve a large green space “land bridge” connector between the existing Montreal bridge and the railroad bridge. That’s a big deal! It would knit together both sides of the freeway that currently creates a huge divide between the two “halves” of the West 7th Street neighborhoods.
Similarly, the Highway 5 river crossing would actually be a brand new bike/ped/rail bridge alongside the existing Highway 5 freeway. Even if you never take transit, and simply walk or bike in this area, a new car-free bridge would be a huge benefit for the area, knitting together both sides of the Mississippi.
There are more hidden details like traffic calming in Highland, safe walkable crossings, intersection re-designs for many of the dangerous angular West 7th corners, etc.
3. Rail Mode Choice is Irrelevant, Somehow
If you spend much time on West 7th Street, you’ll likely have already noticed the “No Light Rail on West 7th” signs in the windows of almost all the businesses. (Signs brought to you by the West 7th Business Association.) By now they’ve been hanging for so long, they’ve begun to fade to the same shade of red as a tasteless McDonalds tomato.
My hope had been that there would be different variations of rail on the table for this project. For example, I was really hoping there might be a streetcar option that would minimize construction impacts and provide a middle ground between bus or light rail.
But after asking the project management team, I found out that the utility relocation would be a big factor for any option that involved a street reconstruction. If they take off the top surface of the street, water, electric, and other utilities are going to want to take the opportunity to update and relocate their infrastructure. That means it’s going to be intrusive and take longer. The project is going to be disruptive to the street. (If they do it on the CP Spur, where there are no utilities, it would be less so.)
(On the other hand, new utilities are good.)
4. The Transit Answer for the Ford/5 Choice is “Both”
After chatting with the consultants and project managers, it became clear that the “either / or” choice between Ford and Highway 5 is more of a “both / and” situation. If the project goes along Highway 5, with a high-quality investment like rail, transit will still be built along the Ford site, connecting West 7th to 46th Street station. Maybe it would become an aBRT line somehow, linking up Highland in all directions.
Likewise, if the project goes through the Ford site, many people would also still use the (aBRT?) bus to get back and forth over the Highway 5 bridge. That’s the main reason why the Highway 5 option has the seemingly contradictory ridership estimate here, showing MORE riders than the Ford site route. (With a much larger population and more stops, you’d think that Ford would have more riders.)
In other words, if they went through Ford, they’d have 19,000 riders per day PLUS another 7,000 riders per day taking the Highway 5/West 7th bus. And vice versa, we can assume.
That number, put together, means that this route performs as about as well as the Blue and Green Lines. And that’s awesome!
Taken as a whole, this is a great transit corridor. As one of the long-term transit forecasting experts said at the end of last week’s meeting, “we’re in the ballpark.”
This project could absolutely quality for Federal “new starts” funding, which would pay for half of the cost. In less than a decade, Saint Paul could have great transit to and from the airport, and all along West 7th Street. There are a lot of details to be worked out, but I think the investment would improve the lives of thousands and thousands of people in Saint Paul, Minneapolis, and Bloomington. I’d love to see us build on the success of the Green Line and make Saint Paul a city that puts transit first.
Full Feb 2017 TAC Pre-Project Development Study and Technical Appendix.