Right now, and up until Monday, the Metropolitan Council is accepting public comment on whether or not to add the proposed Riverview Corridor streetcar project to its long range transportation plan. I encourage anyone who wants to see good transit service in Minneapolis-St. Paul to make it a priority to weigh in and express highly circumscribed support. The deadline to respond is Monday, January 21st, at 5:00 PM.
The Riverview Corridor is an important corridor for transit. It would directly connect downtown St. Paul to MSP International Airport and the Mall of America/South Loop, linking three large concentrations of housing, jobs, retail, and entertainment. The neighborhoods along the route are not as dense as they could be, but there’s room for growth and they are are laid out well for transit service. The existing #54 bus is not the system’s best performing route, but it is popular, especially at peak hours. There is a reason why this corridor has taken so long to emerge atop the regional priority list, but its not wrong to believe that its time has come.
Unfortunately, Ramsey County and St. Paul’s recent political leadership have made choices for the corridor that have delayed investments in better transit. The corridor was once anticipated to be the second aBRT route, labeled the B-Line. However, local officials convinced Metro Transit to allocate their money elsewhere, for the justification that investing in better transit along the corridor today might preclude even better transit along the corridor tomorrow. I believe that opposite is true; the success of aBRT service on the Riverview Corridor would’ve strengthened the case (both locally and also in winning competitive federal grants) for further upgrades in service, including rail. The costs for this myopia are being borne entirely by transit riders in the corridor. In passing up the opportunity for aBRT service that would, at this moment, be operational, political leaders have forced current and potential riders along the corridor to wait over a decade before they see improvements.
The aBRT deferment has been compounded by a greater mistake, against which I urge readers to submit their comments. After a multi-year pre-project study led by Ramsey County (Disclosure: the study’s consultant firm is also my employer—I have not discussed the project with anyone within the company, and am unaware of anyone who was on the project team), the study’s steering committee chose a modern streetcar option as the locally preferred alternative. This mode choice would cost exponentially more than aBRT service ever would have, take far more time to build, and provide slower end-to-end travel times. On the flip side, this mode choice would cost a similar amount to light rail service, take a similar amount of time to build, and also provide slower and less reliable end-to-end travel times with far less capacity. The result of the study is an alternative that will not achieve gains for transit riders in the corridor, while still spending enormous amounts of money and time.
As I wrote at the time, this mode choice was made for all of the wrong reasons. In formally comparing the streetcar and light rail alternatives, and dismissing the latter, the study examines the issue exclusively from the perspective of a driver or local property owner, entirely omitting the significant differences between the two modes as experienced by their actual users (see the chart on the left, which was taken from the pre-project study summary document). Ostensibly, this transit investment is being made for the benefit of the people who would use it. But when decision makers are not transit riders themselves, the inevitable consequence is that the interests of riders are sacrificed to appease more immediate constituencies. That is what has occurred here. There must be better ways to accommodate the needs of these other groups without sacrificing the utility of the project itself.
Interested parties should expect and demand better from the Met Council, an agency that is staffed by people who really do use and care about transit, and that has largely done excellent work to date. While the agency seems highly likely to add the Riverview Corridor to its 2040 transportation plan as requested, it should do so with a mandate to revisit the flawed assumptions that guided the pre-project study, and without formally committing to the streetcar mode choice. There are three signal flaws of the pre-project study’s recommendation, which are each compelling reasons for the Met Council to proceed in this way.
1. Dedicated Right-of-Way Is Essential To The Success Of Rail Transit
The primary difference between “light rail” and “streetcar” is that the former operates on its own exclusive track, while the latter shares space with ordinary passenger vehicles. When transit has its own right-of-way, it can move quickly, and predictably, because nothing is ever in its way. This provides it with a critical advantage over other modes of transportation. When transit (especially rail transit, which cannot drive around obstructions like a bus) is forced to share space with other less efficient modes, it forfeits this tremendous advantage, and often moves more slowly and at a less predictable rate.
This matters to riders. The Canadian city of Toronto, which never removed its legacy streetcars, recently attempted a pilot project that changed traffic patterns on King Street to get cars out of the way of the streetcar. The quality of the service improved, and ridership jumped 30% almost immediately. Meanwhile, across the United States, cities that have built modern streetcar projects in mixed traffic have been disappointed by the ridership. The most successful modern streetcar services in operation today are free, and when fares have been implemented, the results for ridership have been catastrophic. To a large number of users, the quality of service provided by these streetcars is not worth paying for. In proposing a streetcar service with over six and a half miles of new track, St. Paul would dramatically upscale a model for transit that has failed to meet expectations nearly everywhere it has been tried.
It is true that the plans for the Riverview project mollify this concern slightly because they call for the streetcar to run in dedicated right-of-way for much of its route. While this is better than nothing, it is less important than it seems in this case. Any points of conflict with other vehicles are potential areas of trouble (as Green Line riders have occasionally discovered), and the portion of the route intended for mixed traffic is the portion closest to downtown St. Paul, which is the most congested area in the entire corridor. It is precisely when conditions are the most limiting for mobility that dedicated right-of-way transit has the greatest advantage, and in contrast where transit in mixed traffic suffers the most. The most successful streetcar system in the US, located in Philadelphia (title photo), runs in mixed traffic in West Philly neighborhoods, but becomes a subway underneath major universities and the downtown, where traffic is always congested.
This principle applies to mobility-limiting conditions beyond simple rush hour congestion, which a personal experience can illustrate. On the first of December last year, my girlfriend and I went to lunch at the wonderful new Keg and Case Market on West 7th. We planned afterwards to drive with a friend into downtown St. Paul to get drinks at Barrel Theory Brewing, then to hop on the light rail to Minneapolis to see the Timberwolves play the Celtics. But an afternoon and evening snowstorm complicated our plans. In normal conditions, it would’ve taken us just ten minutes to drive between the food hall and the brewery. But in the wintery conditions, cars were traveling single-file down West 7th, the bridge over the railroad tracks at Grace Street was especially treacherous, and the trip took nearly forty-five minutes. In contrast, the trip on the Green Line from the Union Depot Station to the Warehouse District Station took more or less exactly as much time as had been anticipated. With dedicated right-of-way, our train had no issues keeping to its schedule despite the snow and ice.
The experience of cities across the United States and Canada has demonstrated that operating in mixed traffic can slow down streetcars even in the best of conditions. It may still be true that the expected difference in travel time between a Riverview light rail service and a Riverview streetcar is not significant for many trips, because the weather is often fine and traffic is only occasionally congested in downtown St. Paul. It may also be true that other improvements, like traffic signal priority, might help move the streetcar along. But there will be times and dates, especially at rush hour and in winter, where the advantage of dedicated right-of-way of light rail would make a significant difference between the quality of transit service, and it is at these moments when the need for that service is greatest.
2. Dedicated Right-of-Way Is Important To The Success Of The Entire METRO System
One of the primary advantages of the proposed Riverview route will be that it will interline with the existing light rail routes on either end. In downtown St. Paul, it is planned to merge with the existing Green Line tracks, and serve Central and Union Depot Stations. Near the airport, it will merge with the Blue Line tracks and serve all stations west of Fort Snelling. These shared sections will give riders the ability to transfer easily between routes.
But the benefits to riders would be lost if the interlining causes delays throughout the METRO rail system. Currently, the Blue and Green Lines occasionally experience delays when merging track in downtown Minneapolis, as trains from each line are running too close in time to each other. Ultimately one train must wait while the other goes. If you are a regular user of the light rail, you have experienced this frustrating delay, looking up at US Bank Stadium and wondering when your train will move, or whether the Vikings will ever make an important field goal.
These problems will occur naturally as a result of the interlining planned for the Riverview route. But the problems could be far greater because of the problems inherent to the lack of completely dedicated right-of-way for the streetcar. The delays entering downtown Minneapolis occur despite the highly planned schedules of each train and each route’s mostly obstruction-free path. But because it runs partially in mixed traffic, the Riverview streetcar will run off schedule as a matter of course. These unpredictable delays will subsequently cause problems when the streetcar must merge and share track with the existing light rail service. In turn, these delays might then impact the timing throughout the system, including entering downtown Minneapolis, leading to repeated frustrating waits for riders, and a lot of hair-pulling for Metro Transit schedulers and operators. In this way, the choice to not run Riverview transit in an exclusive right-of-way hurts not just its own future riders, but also future riders of all METRO trains.
3. Single Car Trains With Smaller Stations At Smaller Intervals Will Hamstring The Route From The Start
While sharing right-of-way with other vehicles is the calling card of a modern streetcar, there are other disadvantages that almost always come along with modern streetcar projects (although there is no inherent reason why they should). A common example is that modern streetcar services in the US all use single car trains, tend to build smaller platforms that can only accommodate that one vehicle, and tend to place stations more closely together than is common with other urban rail. While not directly decided upon in the pre-project study, I fear the Riverview project will inexorably roll into the same choices. All three do a disservice to riders.
Smaller trains and smaller stations mean less capacity, eliminating one of the key distinguishing factors between bus and rail. There is a fundamental paradox at the heart of this project, that will ultimately run into a buzzsaw at the federal grant level if not resolved. Does (or will) the Riverview Corridor have the ridership that merits a massive transit investment? If yes, than it requires at least two car trains, with stations that can serve three, like the existing Blue and Green Lines. If not, then there is no reason to spend two billion dollars on a corridor whose transit needs could be easily met by a better bus. The current proposal seems to imply that it’s possible to have it both ways; a billion in federal money, but not enough ridership to support running more than a single S70.
In truth, the Riverview Corridor is a marginal one, from a local and national perspective. The projected capital cost per weekday rider is already in the “medium-low” priority category for the federal funding formulas. The strongest case for such an expensive transit investment in the Riverview Corridor would be if the surrounding neighborhoods got significantly denser in a hurry. But more density would also necessitate more capacity and better service. The better the case for transit in the corridor, the less well a streetcar would serve it.
Smaller trains and smaller stations also mean that the Riverview transit would be badly suited for handling major events in downtown St. Paul, especially professional men’s hockey games. One minor success of the Twin Cities’ light rail system has been its enthusiastic embrace by professional sports fans, who pack onto trains before and after games. Many fans from the south and western metro often drive to park and ride lots along the end of the Blue Line, and take the train to games in downtown Minneapolis. Undoubtedly many fans would like to have the same option to reach Wild games, but the capacity of the streetcar would not sufficiently support this use. The needs of this group are relatively minor when compared with regular weekday riders, but it is genuinely striking that such an obvious and easy use of the train would be precluded from the start.
From smaller trains and smaller stations apparently flows the thinking of smaller distances between stations. Outside of downtowns and the someday-maybe future downtown in the South Loop, both existing and planned light rail routes have stops no less than half a mile apart. But the Riverview pre-project study call for at least three pairs of stations that are unnecessarily close, and would slow down the trains without providing much in the way of new riders. There are stops planned for both Davern and Maynard Streets, which are just 1,000 feet apart. There are stops planned for Homer and Montreal Streets, which are just 2,000 feet apart, and in the least populated area of the corridor. In downtown St. Paul, there is a split stop planned in the vicinity of Wabasha Street, of which the closer portion could lie less than 700 feet from the existing Central Station. Hopefully these redundant stops will be eliminated as the project is further refined. But given that the study at times highlighted smaller stop spacing as an intrinsic feature of the streetcar mode, I worry that the project will ultimately be developed with more stations than needed, further delaying travel times and wasting money.
Where The Process Goes From Here
The deadline for public comment on the Riverview Modern Streetcar proposal is Monday, January 21st, at 5:00 PM. If you are interested in submitting a comment, you must do so before then. After the conclusion of the comment period, the Met Council will vote on adding the project to the “Current Revenue Scenario” of their 2040 Transportation Policy Plan. This means the Met Council expect to start working on the project in the near-ish future. It’s a big step.
It also means that there’s a long way to go, and no time to waste. The FTA has a formal process for transit projects looking for federal grant funding. This process has two main stages; Project Development, which is expected to take two years, and Engineering, which is a bit more open-ended, but requires that significant progress be shown within three years. Construction and testing might take four years, totaling a nine-year process if everything goes smoothly. For revenue service to start in 2028, the Met Council might want to enter into the process fairly soon. While sometimes major project details can change fairly late on, it’s always better to be on the right track from the start. Planners with Ramsey County and the Met Council need to hear from transit riders and advocates that the interests of the line’s users must be the first consideration in designing an extension of the METRO system, and that the proposed modern streetcar does not meet that criteria.
A feature and a bug of the way that transit is built in this country is that it happens in giant leaps and bounds, instead of incrementally. That means that when you build, it’s critical to get things right the first time. That can still happen here, but if transit users and advocates speak out, I believe something better will come out of the process.
I think you need more evidence for your one car train theory than simply “other places with streetcars do that.” As Bill noted, project staff are planning on a three car stations. https://twitter.com/BillLindeke/status/1083494746046296064
Now, can that change? Possibly! I would encourage comments to the Met Council include something about three cars being necessary, but I think this piece paints a bleaker picture than is necessary as far as this point is concerned.
I feel as though I was clear enough in the article that the pre-project study does not resolve this question either way. Given the photos and descriptions used in the study’s definition of alternatives, it is clear that Ramsey County chose this mode despite being presented with examples of modern streetcars in action, all of which have smaller platforms and single car trains. My fear, which I state in the article, is that Riverview will inexorably move towards this model.
Perhaps I’ve misread the tone, then. In any case, my comments included a specific plea to require higher capacity stations and vehicles, and I applaud your efforts to demand a better project. Thanks for writing this.
And thanks for submitting a comment!
I am of the belief that there is a strong population of individuals who are connected to the West 7th neighborhood who are strongly opposed to any sort of change on West 7th Street. They began opposed to aBRT, when that was connected to the transit study they came out opposed to LRT, then when a Streetcar was proposed they became opposed to anything on rails. At the root of the concern seems to be anything that will limit parking or alter the streetscape in any way. They currently oppose the streetcar because it will eliminate the potential of a bike lane on West 7th. Of course the addition of a bike lane on West 7th is quite difficult given former CM’s ammendment to the bike plan: “Councilmember Thune added an amendment to the table on page 67 to make it an enhanced shared lane with an instruction that implementation of this shared bike/car lane will not displace any parking or travel lanes ( and also will not displace the center left turn lane).” – Dave Thune’s Blog http://davethuneward2.blogspot.com/2015/04/st-paul-bike-plan.html
“St. Paul City Council Member Dave Thune opposed the express busway in 2002 because it would have removed a traffic lane, reduced parking and narrowed sidewalks. But he’s glad that transit options for Riverview are again being studied and said he could support either a limited-stop bus route or a streetcar line, neither of which would require their own lanes.
“We need to go ahead with the study. It’s kind of now or never, to be in the funding queue,” Thune said. “If this is a good idea, let’s have a whack at it — provided it’s nondestructive.” – Star Tribune, September 13, 2014 (http://www.startribune.com/transit-in-riverview-corridor-getting-fresh-look/275016591/)
If we operate with the understanding that the mentality behind many of those opposed to the Streetcar are also those opposed to Light Rail and were also opposed to aBRT. At the root of the opposition appears to be the sentiment of former CM Thune. This can be summarized simply as, We support enhancing transit and road safety for all users as long as doing so requires absolutely no change to anything.
I am torn because all the opposition seems to be after is delaying much needed improvements and kicking the can further down the road.
It is worth noting at the last Fort Road Federation Annual Meeting former CM Thune spoke up against the resolution that sought to eliminate any dedicated rail along W7th and revert to the aBRT plan. Although I must question if that is because the streetcar will potentially not eliminate any lanes…
On Wednesday, January 30th from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Palace Rec Center the Fort Road Fed and the West 7th Business Association are co-hosting a community conversation about transit on West 7th. The focus will be finding common ground on nine principles that we hope will inform what the neighborhood wants out of this process, now and in the future. Check the Fort Road Fed’s website for more details.
Also, I think there are more people who feel positively than maybe the few loud voices suggest.
I live in W7th and I became so frustrated with everyone telling me that I was a bad person for wanting some form of transit improvements that I stopped even trying to be a part of the conversation. I probably need to take some personal responsibility and reengage since it has been a few years.
Please rethink it. I am on the board of FRF and, in my view, the organization is changing its views and trying to engage the community in more positive ways on this issue – focus on areas we all agree rather than shouting.
Also, come to the annual meeting (April 17, I think), and vote for board members that support your views. We are working to make it a welcoming event rather than a shouting match.
You make a great point about the interlining delays, and I fear you might be right about the likliehood of single-car trains. During the advisory committee meeting, the assumption was always that there would be multiple-car trains, and the default platform sizes were always meant to accommodate three-car trains just like LRT today. I think that possibility is still very much on the table, even if there are not clear US antecedents to point at.
Stop spacing seems fine to me, for the most part. Yes, Maynard/Davern is the closest pair, and I do think they are too close to each other, especially given that the strip mall owner at that site is NOT redeveloping the existing mall with greater density. (That’s another whole story, and a frustrating one.) A good public comment would be to have them remove that stop, which I would hope the project team would consider.
The issue of the B-Line is a bit of a dead horse at this point. Would it have been better to make different decisions years ago? Sure. What do we do now, though? The route 54 bus is the highest-performing bus in the system from an rapidity and efficiency standpoint, IIRC, and in many ways already offers the speed and stop spacing benefits that aBRT would provide. What it does not do, though, is offer upgraded capacity, ride quality, and stations. If we are going to invest in those things, it makes sense to me to do it with rail, especially along this key corridor.
Getting more dedicated ROW on the table, especially in the congested areas, should be the focus of people’s attention. If the project could offer that, I think it could be a good-to-great transit investment, certainly the best rail project planned anywhere in the metro.
If you’re reading this, please send in comments! Thanks.
I added a couple paragraphs about aBRT because I feel like it is fairly illustrative of the priorities that have governed this project. I agree that it’s a dead horse, and that’s primarily why I focus on the deficiencies of Modern Streetcar vis a vis light rail.
I think the way forward is to move forward as light rail, and with an aggressive press from St. Paul and Ramsey County leaders to encourage greater density all along the route, because otherwise (barring a Green New Deal infusion of funding) this project won’t score highly for the FTA’s Capital Investment Grant program.
Per stop spacing, I’m sticking to my guns:
– Maynard/Davern are completely redundant.
– Homer/Montreal would be on the border of defensible if they were located in an extremely dense area. In fact, they are located at a place where nobody lives and there is limited area to build.
– Finally, in downtown St. Paul, there’s simply no reason to add a stop on Wabasha and a stop by the X, when you can serve both destinations with a single station on the opposite side of the Landmark Center or next to Cleveland Circle.
Downtown LRT stops in general in this metro area are redundant. Cut them all in half or by 2/3.
One reason why I liked the CP spur at least for the alignment south of Otto is that it would have allowed for a wonderful stop at Montreal/35E that could have included a small land bridge between the CP spur and the existing Montreal bridge. It’s also right next to the largest public housing building in the city. Making sure that transit serves that population is quite important. I can see putting a stop just south of Montreal, sort of half-way.
Making West 7th (more) walkable is a big benefit of the project IMO. I have high hopes for that.
I think at the southwestern end, you can make a case for three stops, but at different locations than the four stops currently proposed.
After Otto… (2/3 of a mile to) Montreal… (1 mile to) St. Paul Ave… (1/2 a mile to) Munster. But the latter two might be too much, you might be able to serve the whole area with a single station at Davern.
I think station location is definitely a debatable point, but I think there are pretty clearly redundant stations in the current plan, and there’s no reason to treat Riverview any differently than the Blue and Green Lines, which have 1/2 mile station widths outside of the downtowns.
Sending in a comment. Thanks for making me aware of the opportunity!
Also sent in comments. Thanks for your insight!
I think it’s rather disingenuous of those people who are pro transit to complain that street cars are not “good” enough. It seems like they want the absolute best or nothing. Street cars worked very well for many decades. They are a method of transportation The cost of light rail is so high, and so few lines have been built I don’t understand why streetcars won’t work for some areas of the metro. I realize many people don’t want cars, but we have to make room for them as well as other forms of mass transportation. Thank you for the informative article!
I hear your concern Betsy. As a planner, I think it’s really important to find common ground and common solutions. Compromise is essential when you’re talking about millions of people living in a small area.
But not all compromises are good, and this one isn’t. As I wrote in the piece, the proposed streetcar would travel slower than light rail, and yet cost the roughly same as light rail, and carry far fewer people. In fact, the proposed streetcar would travel slower than a bus, and cost astronomically more. In short, this is a lose-lose compromise; the worst of both worlds. Not all modes of transportation are created equal, and so I hope you see why transit riders and advocates shouldn’t settle for this solution. I and nobody else are demanding a subway, which would truly be the best type of transit. But we are demanding a form of transit that gets transit riders where they need to go without unnecessary delay.
Upgrading this project from streetcar to light rail wouldn’t prevent cars from using this corridor at all (after all, cars still use University Avenue just fine), there would still be ample room for them. But it would make sure that cars and streetcars don’t get in the way of each other, creating a safer and more free-flowing street for all.
Thanks for the update. If it’s close to the same cost than light rail makes way more sense. I missed that.
The gods, they must be crazy
Green Line $2 billion to build, 41,000 trips / day
West 7th $2.5 billion to build, 4,000 trips / day
Your numbers are wrong. Ridership projections are north of 20,000 and if built well, would would be exceeded immediately. It would be similar ridership to the Blue Line within a few years.
The real issue here is that rail should be goign in on West 7th. This is an opportunity to make all of West 7th a vibrant, pedestrian friendly corridor. Redo the 35E and SHeppard Rd interchange to get traffic onto Sheppard. Put the rail there, too. All of west 7th is either walkable or bike share / circulator / eScotterable / skateboardable from Shepard.
You get the traffic off of West 7th’s south end which is a dumpster fire for pedestrians. You allow it to undergo a road diet and you create a model corridor for US cities to emulate. It’s win, win.
That’s the plan Allen, rail on W7th.
Shepard / 35E has been a pipe dream for a long time but the engineering makes it all but impossible with the river bluff to do a full interchange with Shepard at that point.
Apparently back in 1975 with a state law authorizing Shepard / Warner to become a state highway we decided we’d rather have people in cars using that as opposed to 7th St. If we had done that reducing capacity for people in cars on 7th would be more palatable. But since then we’ve
1) Failed to build a proposed interchange at Shepard Road and Chestnut street, and in fact have added traffic signals and lowered the speed limit.
2) Failed to resolve the situation where the freeway ends at the St. Paul border. The original situation where it splits in two- one part for MN 5 / 7th, and one part for what was then MN 51 / Edcumbe made sense at the time, but now we don’t seem to want to really rebuild it to funnel people in cars to Shepard instead of Edgecumbe or 7th.
Also with only two through lanes and a 45 mph speed limit the advantage of using I-35E over 7th isn’t as significant as it could have been, and is in fact illegal for trucks. I-35E is also a lot less direct if you’re going to St. Paul from the southern Minneapolis suburbs.
Ok, but need to get trucks onto 35e then, as shepherd is the main bypass for trucks going to s st paul
Minor detail: The Tucson AZ streetcar is not the best example of what you justifiably object to. It has dedicated ROW at the points of greatest traffic congestion. I haven’t followed it recently, but it initially was very successful.
I’ve been on it! It actually is one of the more successful streetcars, with about 4,000 daily ridership when AU is in session. But it’s reasonably successful (at least according to the low, low, standards of other streetcars) because its route is good, it connects the University, the 4th Ave shopping district, and downtown.
Your contention about the ROW is not correct to my memory though, it runs in mixed traffic through all three of the districts I listed above.
Alex: Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed article.
It is clear from other cities like Cincinatti, Portland, and New Orleans that mixed traffic streetcars can be painfully slow due to congestion and should be avoided. This is why I don’t support the Nicollet- Central line in Minneapolis. If our region is going to commit hundreds of millions of dollars to a rail project, it should have dedicated right-of-way. It also needs to have dense, walkable places. It’s not rocket science, but our region’s leaders keep pushing this stuff forward despite evidence about what types of transit work well.
I’m going to comment right now!
The potential interlining problems indicate a more fundamental existing error: that of having placed the Green Line on the street.
I doubt that it’s practical to use multi-car hookups on a streetcar line, and the notion of so doing also suggests that same fundamental error. A train (such as LRT) is not a streetcar, nor is a streetcar a train.
Regulating semaphores to favor street rail transit reduces delays due to auto and truck traffic, but can worsen traffic problems. Both of our existing LRT lines illustrate this at peak times.
As to BRT service on the Riverview route, why not try it? Whether it would attract high ridership or catalyze demand for rail would remain to be seen.