The Riverview Transit Study Prioritizes Everything Except Good Transit

The Riverview Corridor study made news last week, after planners revealed the six alternatives that have survived the study’s analysis from which a final recommendation will be chosen. At the Pioneer Press, Frederick Melo has a good summary of what remains, and the paper ran a separate article on the absence of light rail from consideration. In short, the study group is facing two major choices; the mode of transit (aBRT or streetcar), and the route it should take (direct across the river, or a diversion to serve the Ford site). To anyone who has been following this process from the beginning, the natures of the choices have been abundantly clear from the start, but the value of this process has been to quantify the different options, putting dollar amounts to different vehicles and times to different routes. The numbers came in earlier this year, and the options were narrowed accordingly.

But numbers themselves do not determine the outcome, because it’s left to the study group to determine the weights of the competing interests. The recent results from the study have made it clear that virtually every concern, from neighbor’s parking complaints to the blessings of the TOD fairy have been prioritized over what ought to matter most: the actual quality of the transit being built.

The study’s course has led to the bizarre outcome in which the best possible alternative that the study could choose will be an admission that several years and millions of dollars have been wasted.

Short Term Concerns Have Overridden Guaranteed Short, Middle, and Long Term Modal Benefits

When the Riverview Corridor study was first put into motion, many assumed the study was cover for the implementation of rail down the corridor. Politically, a route from Saint Paul to the airport makes tremendous sense. While Minneapolis has enjoyed the direct-to-downtown service of the blue line for over a decade, the capital city has only had that route served by the 54 local bus. The lack of prestige that comes from a lack of a direct airport connection has to sting St. Paul leaders, especially when companies move from downtown to the Mall of America. The completion of such a line would additionally close the “transit triangle,” giving MSP a very satisfying mass transit map, and help spur further development along St. Paul’s West 7th corridor, which offers the best opportunity for an expansion of the density and energy (such as it is) of downtown.

But for city leaders enamored with a rail connection to the airport, it appears that a streetcar will serve much the same benefits as light rail, and without a lot of the heavy political lifting. In the Riverview presentation for May 11th, the researchers recommend dismissing the LRT option (Slide 22) for the following reasons:

  • Greater traffic impact due to dedicated lanes
  • Greater parking and/or sidewalk impacts due to dedicated lanes
  • Greater construction impacts due to dedicated lanes

Slide A-46

These negative impacts are undoubtedly accurate, and yet this reasoning is astonishing (Slide A-46, to the left, shows by omission the misshapen political priorities guiding this analysis). Transit projects of this nature are an at least a 50 year investment. The downsides to LRT listed here will be felt for two years post completion, at most. Traffic will adapt to the loss of lanes. Businesses and the neighborhood will get over the loss of parking, or additional parking could be built off of West 7th. Construction impacts will be felt at any given location for only part of the initial project. To list these three extremely temporary reasons for torpedoing the LRT option is inexplicable, its like refusing a flu shot for fear of the initial prick of the needle.

[A better reason for killing off the LRT option would be the high cost of dedicated rail transit, but the study planners do’t seem concerned. “The base price is slightly higher for light-rail cars over streetcars,” Melo explains in the Press, “but other projected impacts — such as traffic, street parking and right-of-way use — were significantly greater.”]

Left completely unsaid are the benefits to LRT, and they ought to be considerable. A streetcar runs in mixed traffic, while light rail trains run along their own, exclusive right-of-way. Streetcars are at the mercy of heavy car traffic and a car crash or breakdown on streetcar tracks can shut down the entire system. Even MSP’s light rail lines are frequently delayed because driving a car is hard, and they run mostly free of traffic. Exposing rail vehicles to the whims of bad drivers by running them both in mixed traffic is a recipe for slow transit. Streetcars from Atlanta to Portland are often slower than walking. It is precisely at the most narrow and congested parts of the Riverview route where dedicated right-of-way for transit is most essential, to avoid delays and provide the best possible transit experience. Otherwise there is no reason to build on fixed rail tracks, when a bus could at least drive around obstructions.

The issue of time is critical to the transit experience. Minneapolis-Saint Paul has occasionally excelled in this area, so there’s really not excuse for missing this lesson. The Riverview study somehow elides this issue altogether by assuming that the light rail and streetcar options will have the same travel times (Slides A11-A12, A-18-A19). This is a weird finding, akin to expecting a runner to finish the 100 yard dash at the same time as a hurdler. It’s really the crux of the entire issue and what allows this study to so confidently pin its bets on streetcars.

It’s also a finding that, if we take it seriously, actually calls into question the necessity of the study in the first place. How can the West 7th corridor be both be so lightly trafficked that a streetcar cannot assume to encounter more delays than a light rail car, yet also be busy enough to be deserving of high-capacity rapid transit (not to mention subject to “greater traffic impact” if car lanes are removed)?

In dismissing the LRT option and keeping the streetcar choice, the Riverview study relies on extremely suspicious projections about travel time, ignores a wealth of concerning experience regarding streetcars, and ultimately prioritizes the availability of convenient street parking and congestion-free driving over the benefits that would be enjoyed by tens of thousands of daily transit riders for decades.

Long Term Hypothesized Benefits Have Overridden Guaranteed Short, Middle, and Long Term Route Benefits

The flip side to the Riverview study’s modal assumptions is the fact that transit service to the Ford site is still among the alternatives. This fact stems from very different, yet still questionable priorities, and still the loser is the same; the convenience of everyday transit riders.

Slide A-31

Serving the Ford Site with high quality transit is, in and of itself, a laudable goal. With the superblock in the southwest corner of St. Paul, the city has the chance to facilitate the creation of a “twenty-first century development,” that is dense, walkable, affordable, and filled with all kinds of environmentally friendly gizmos. Transit connections to facilitate true transit oriented development are a critical part of that. But the good news is that the site is already served by the A-Line aBRT. If planners want to build an option for future rail transit into the site, they should ensure that the existing Canadian Pacific rail spur to the site is preserved and extended to Ford Parkway. That way, as the site is built out, a seperate line traveling south along the Blue Line right-of-way could branch off, cross the river, and serve the Ford Site, and meet the Riverview route.

But sending the Riverview route up to the Ford Site itself is a mistake, and the fact that it is still being considered is hard to understand. The study’s own findings suggest that serving the Ford Site with a Riverview line would add eleven to twelve minutes onto the end-to-end streetcar trip (Slides A-12, A-14, and A-31), turning a 44 minute trip from downtown Saint Paul to the Mall of America into a 56 minute one. When the Green Line’s initial opening was criticized as being too slow, adjustments cut the travel time down three to five minutes and it was heralded as a big improvement. Seriously considering a Riverview route that would be twelve minutes longer than necessary only makes sense if you again assume that the experience of everyday transit riders is a minor concern to this study.

The habit of emphasizing the development effects of transit is a common theme in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and it’s how we get glowing press releases from the Met Council touting $4 billion in TOD along the Green Line, at the same time as trains (carrying many people) are still routinely delayed for up to a minute at Snelling Avenue while single occupancy vehicles (containing less people) drive through north to south with green lights. TOD is fantastic, but it is enhanced when the transit itself is high quality and worthy of development. A slow, meandering streetcar is not transit, it’s a theme ride.

The Theme Is That Daily Transit Riders Are Not Part Of The Conversation

The Riverview Study has done a lot of excellent work overall,  and there’s some great detailed analysis done on a ton of other topics, like potential bus route connections. But the study’s thoroughness shouldn’t escape the problems laid bare by its conclusions. When it comes to modes, the study is willing to sacrifice quality transit to short-term NIMBY concerns. When it comes to routes, the study appears unwilling to eliminate options that obviously will destroy the quality of the transit because of long term development concerns. The reasons are different, but the losers are the same. Everyday riders of the Riverview line appear to be the bottom priority of this study’s decision makers.

This is not a new issue. We know most of the decision makers at the Metropolitan Council do not actually use the transit that they plan. The same may well be true of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, which is running this study. In fact, it’s worth remembering that the mere occasion of this study was used to delay implementation of the planned B-Line aBRT project. That bus would literally be up and running by now, had it not been halted. Everyday riders along the West 7th corridor would be benefiting as we speak.

It’s perverse then that one of the final alternatives of the Riverview Study is to build the aBRT, despite delaying it and diverting the money. What’s more incredible is that this is obviously the best option remaining on the table. The aBRT project would cost an estimated $75 million and take 39 minutes end to end. The best of the streetcar options would cost $1 billion in 44 minutes. For an astonishing $925 million, St. Paul could build a train that (if we even accept the time estimates of the streetcar) on a good day would run five minutes slower than a bus and basically would improve upon the bus only by additionally serving Fort Snelling. Even accounting for an increase in riders due to rail bias, the aBRT option is far and away the most cost-efficient and useful. When the best result to hope for from a study is that the study itself concludes that it was a mistake and a waste of time and money, than you know something has gone wrong.

All of the analysis in this study has not changed several key facts. This route is not exceptionally dense, but it is of political importance. For these reasons, it is a fringe contender for rail transit. If you care about providing the best possible transit down this route, (because the earth is warming really fast, because you want to save downtown St. Paul, whatever the reason) the option is to build light rail. If you care about providing cost-effective transit down this route, the choice is aBRT. The streetcar flirtation and the Ford Site routes are diversions that undermine the credibility and usefulness of this entire process, and possibly its final outcome many years down the road. This is a transit investment that will serve the citizens of St. Paul for decades. It’s crucial to get it right, not just for 2025, but for 2075 as well.

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31 thoughts on “The Riverview Transit Study Prioritizes Everything Except Good Transit

  1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    Really well written, Alex. Thanks for sharing this.

    I’ve been at the table in lots of these conversations with the consulting team and raised a lot of these issues with them. One thing to keep in mind is that the “shared use” section of the route is fairly small. If we take them at their word about the projected run-times, it won’t have a huge impact. (It’s fair to be skeptical about their modeling, though…) The shared-use section and streetcar vehicle / street design compromise reminds me a bit of the three “extra stations” on the Green Line, which were similarly “inefficient” when compared to the ideal transit scenario. And yet, the existing Green Line is great and now serves the neighborhood really well, at least I think so.

    In my ideal world, I’d make this route a dedicated rail line past the Xcel Center. But I can live with this compromise if it means building high-quality rail transit in a key part of the metro area. (I mean, LRT is slow as hell through downtown Minneapolis, isn’t it?) I think Riverview is a better transit project than either of the two West Metro LRTs by a bunch of key criteria, including building off existing ridership and actually going to walkable places.

    I’m planning on writing a post for about this soon. Thanks again for starting a good conversation.

    PS. Fully funding regional aBRT is separate, somewhat related issue. We need to do it ASAP. But I think with CTIB dissolution, the money for a high-quality rail connection to the airport is there, provided the Feds are still funding the “new starts” program in a few years. If not, where else in the East Metro would you suggest putting a high-quality transit investment?

    1. Faith

      Could any shared ROW be planned with an option for future conversion to dedicated?

      It seems like Seattle did not think hard enough about their shared ROW idea and have a lot of regrets: Also, an option for LRT length trains would make sense too, otherwise there could end up being capacity problems in the future too.

      To say that the travel times for dedicated ROW vs. shared ROW are the same is disingenuous. However, MSP LRT design standards are overengineered in comparison to other cities, so maybe it a streetcar could result in a lighter touch.

    2. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

      Thanks for reading Bill. I know you are more involved and better informed of the deliberations on these issues than am, and I appreciate the work you’ve done. Your calmness about this project is what keeps me sane.

      I think the smallness of the shared use section is offset by the fact that it’s the section where that kind of grade separation is really needed the most. Streetcar or light rail will fly down West 7th for most of the route, but the area in downtown, Xcel, and early West 7th is all areas where a streetcar will face traffic, and having part of that route in mixed traffic will invite delays.

      The fact that parking, traffic, and construction effects are being so heavily weighted tells me that this project, despite the potential billion dollar investment, is not being prioritized over the cars that use the route. If that’s the case, I think, “why not just a bus?”

      Think that comparisons to the green and blue lines don’t hold up. The three extra stops were added to the Green Line to serve more riders, not to preserve the dominance of a different mode of transit. Trains are slow in downtown Minneapolis because the signals are still wrong. I guess that’s another example of prioritizing the dominance of a different mode of transit, but it doesn’t strike me as something to emulate.

      One thing I don’t quite understand about the study’s decisions is why having a shared ROW at one portion of the segment precipitates all this talk about different vehicles. Is that talk in the media, or would the Riverview line really run different cars instead of, say, just one and two car LRT trains? Part of that talk has spooked me as well, because it ties into my fear that a lot of decisions are being made for political reasons and not transit reasons.

      Anyway, I look forward to reading your full thoughts on the topic. And I know you’ve been a Ford Site proponent in the past, but I really strongly believe that needs to be a separate project. I wonder if you’ve changed your view since.

      1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

        Mostly I want to see rail built on West 7th! I think it would be a tremendous benefit to people who rely on transit for basic mobility needs, and for those who seek alternatives to driving. And it would calm traffic on a key dangerous street in Saint Paul.

    3. GlowBoy

      “LRT is slow as hell through downtown Minneapolis, isn’t it?”

      Not as slow as streetcars.

  2. Jeff

    Great post. I completely agree with your note about the fact that the Ford site alignment is still in play. If I lived along W7th and had to detour every ride over to the Ford Site in order to get to the airport or MOA (or conversely to get downtown St. Paul), I would not use transit.

    It does seem like the best outcome at this point would be arterial BRT, which would at least illustrate to folks who are currently OK with the 54 how much better the BRT stations are and how much of an improvement the frequency is (assuming the BRT would have 10 minute headways versus whatever the 54 is now).

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      The ridership projections assume that many many people would also take a faster bus connection to the airport from lower W7th areas, in addition to new riders connecting up through the Ford Site. So in a way they are low-balling the total transit ridership that would exist on this corridor.

      1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

        Should be precisely the opposite. Let the train make the straight, direct route. Serve the Ford Site via bus. Which, of course, it already is. Getting to the airport from the Ford Site via transit is quick and easy. Getting to downtown Saint Paul is a bit less direct, but they could always add a bus route for that.

        I really object to the idea that a train line should touch all the bases. Our highest capacity transit routes should be the quickest and least complicated.

        1. Alex SchieferdeckerAlex Schieferdecker Post author

          I take it back, there are direct routes to downtown Stp from Ford as well.

    2. Joe T

      12-15 minute headways currently… literally 1 or 2 more buses per hour.

      I agree that now that exclusive ROW is off the table, we need to just go with aBRT, but it is a minor improvement, as opposed to the A-Line which was a significant upgrade.

  3. John Susag

    Why not a subway or elevated line? Was that even considered? Yes, it would be expensive but it would avoid the parking and street impacts they seem so worried about.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      IIRC, a tunnel was considered but would have no way to cross the river, as well as being more expensive and unwarranted here in a place with a lot of ROW for most of the corridor. Elevated lines were not considered.

  4. Nate Hood

    Remember: If not for this study, West 7th would already have A-BRT (similar to the A-Line).

    1. Cameron Slick

      You mean route 54 with a few real-time information signs and devices to buy tickets I’m advance?

      1. Mike

        But also with fewer stops spaced farther apart and traffic signal priority which would improve speed. Similar to comparing the route 83 bus to the A Line

        1. Joe T

          Nope. 54 is already limited stop, so there were no time savings from station consolidation. I don’t know if TSP has already been installed on the corridor (it is on several local routes already).

          The 84 was a local, stop every other block service, the 54 is already limited stop, and not a single one was removed in the aBRT study.

  5. Jeb RachJeb Rach

    I still am frustrated that the Ford Line spur is being seriously considered as the main through route. Adding 12 minutes each way (so 24 minutes round-trip) is a lot. If the Ford site needs rail, then run a shuttle train to/from the Riverview line with cross-platform transfers. Otherwise, run frequent aBRT-style bus service either along the CP spur to Riverview and make the connections simple. Even if we hold trains/buses for timed transfers, the time cost would still be a lot less than routing everyone through the Ford site.

  6. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Regarding the Ford site, to me the question is whether we’re building it to connect its two ends or to serve various start and end pairs along the line. As with the Green Line, you can use it from downtown to downtown, but it’s not great at doing that relative to other choices. Thankfully, it’s really useful for shorter trips in between.

    So, yeah, if the point is connecting downtown to the airport – which might be worthwhile – then don’t serve the Ford site. But maybe the point should be connecting neighborhoods and useful stuff?

    1. Jeb RachJeb Rach

      We’re already connecting a lot of sites via West 7th along the Riverview “fast” route. Ridership also drops when we add the Ford site specifically because it’s such a long detour for pretty much everyone on West 7th to get to the airport and MoA. Unlike the Green Line, which is faster for most destinations along the line (pretty much the only thing it’s significantly slower at serving is downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul), we’re pretty much breaking up the current 54 route into two routes with a 12 minute penalty to get between the two segments (the airport/MoA part and the Madison north part.)

      We’re also losing ridership because of it in the projections, and the Ford site is by no means a done deal either. We’re banking on some development to make the extra time useful, and I’m really skittish about doing that with such a large time penalty when the projections show lower ridership.

      A question from the packet sums it up nicely (for me):
      The Ford Site has a higher population and more jobs, so why is there less ridership? Because of travel time? Yes, travel time is one reason. People also want to travel to a variety of end markets. People on W. 7th St. want a direct route to the airport and mall. People at the Ford Site want to travel to several different areas, many outside of the area served by Riverview, and have more transit options already available. The Blue Line and A Line already serve this area.

  7. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    I’m always amazed at how existing bus services are treated as if they don’t exist. Taking transit to downtown St. Paul or the Airport and Mall of America is already easy and convenient.

    The Ford Plant site is directly connected to downtown St. Paul via Route 74 on Randolph and Route 70 via St. Clair. Travel time is only 30 minutes.

    Reaching the airport and MOA is easy and already available via two routes. The more convenient is via the Ford Bridge, where the A Line and Routes 46 and 74 connect the Ford site to the Blue Line. Less convenient but certainly viable is Routes 46 and 84, which both connect the Ford site to the Riverview Corridor at Sibley Plaza.

    Certainly these service could be upgraded, but at least they should be recognized as existing resources.

  8. Jason

    One significantly overlooked aspect is that the Ford site is 1.5 miles from BOTH the current 46th Street station on the north part of the property and 1.5 miles on the south part of the property to the proposed Davern station via completely off street bike paths. That is only a 7.5 minute bike ride on all off street dedicated bike path.

  9. Will

    From this standpoint, it seems the best option is to leave it alone. The streetcar doesn’t seem to save that much time over the 54. If it’s to detour around St. Paul and south Minneapolis, that might be useful as a separate service, but that shouldn’t be the main focus.

    As it is, the 54 has suffered inconsistencies between airport construction and having to sit in the mall’s security line. Now, Meteo Transit wants to expand it to Maplewood. This will make the line much too unwieldy and make it more prone to bunching. THAT longer line should’ve been the rail line, if anything.

    As it is, if the estimate is a billion dollars for the streetcar, no thanks. That’s not bang for your buck and will only serve to make other projects less politically feasible.

  10. Keith Morris

    Scrapping the streetcar is a no brainer. $75 million for an aBRT leaves $925 million to build at least a dozen more aBRT lines (A Line was only $27 million) to connect to the one on W 7th and multiply ridership in and around St Paul. Done as a single project in a couple of phases it would greatly boost support for mass transit far more than even the ideal LRT option on W 7th. Being able to take aBRT to W 7th from virtually every major street in the Twin Cities should clearly be the goal here.

  11. Aaron Isaacs

    Metro Transit is about to rebuild the MOA transit center so buses will no longer be delayed in the security line.

    1. Will

      This. There’s nothing more frustrating about using the MOA station than missing a transfer because the bus was stuck behind several private vehicles and a couple of delivery trucks in that line. I’m sure it’s also frustrating for the bus drivers looking for their brief break before making the return trip.

  12. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    There’s one more factor to consider–the sudden availability of funding. Now that CTIB is dead, Ramsey County is free to spend its transit sales tax on itself. Riverview is competing with the Rush Line to White Bear and Forest Lake, the Gold Line to Woodbury and the Red Rock Line to Hastings, as well as other Arterial BRTs. It will be interesting to see which ones get funded.

  13. Scott

    My niece lives in downtown Portland, Or, and she walks to her job in Knob Hill because the streetcar is so slow. It regularly gets stuck in car traffic- especially at rush hour. While visiting her last summer, we were planning to take the streetcar one afternoon and it was running 20 minutes late. We walked instead, and it was so nice- lots of fun restaurants and businesses, wide sidewalks, and mature trees providing shade. My takeaway: walkable places plus transit with dedicated r.o.w. is ideal. Seems like we just cannot seem to manage that in MSP, though.

  14. GlowBoy

    As an ex-Portlander (and still frequent traveler there) I have to echo comments about the slowness of the streetcar. It’s ideal for highly walkable areas with very high density, but otherwise it’s just too slow compared to LRT or even buses. The only places in the Twin Cities that seem to make sense to me for streetcars would be maybe a Hennepin-Lake-Nicollet loop, a downtown-inner Nordeast-U of M loop or possibly a downtown St. Paul – Capitol Hill – *INNER* West 7th loop. There is just no way it makes sense to run one the whole length of West 7th. It would be ridiculously slower than the 54, and does not make sense to spend 1.2 billion.

    If LRT really is off the table, then I don’t really see any of the 6 options as viable *except* aBRT. Upgrade the already excellent 54 to aBRT, along with the 70/74 to Ford, and leave a whole pile of money for other aBRT projects.

  15. GlowBoy

    I should add that the Oregonian article famously calling out the streetcar as “slower than walking” wasn’t entirely fair. Most of the Portland Streetcar forms an oval, and the pedestrian route that proved faster was cutting across the middle of the oval, covering less than half the distance that the streetcar did between the start and end points. If the goal is to get from the middle of the Central Eastside to downtown, the streetcar isn’t the right route, and there are several bus routes that would be much, much faster than walking.

    But it is true that although the streetcar is considerably faster in mph than walking, it is also generally slower than local buses.

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