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A Comprehensive Transit Overhaul for the Twin Cities: Part I

This is the first of a three-part series, published today and the next two Mondays, detailing the rapid transit and regional rail requirements for the Twin Cities to become a transit-oriented, climate-neutral metropolitan region. Today’s entry focuses on rail rapid transit. Next week will cover bus rapid transit, while the final article will look at regional rail.

Transportation plans are constantly changing as governments regularly reevaluate how best to maintain, improve, and expand them. The road system in the Twin Cities has been mostly built out; we’re at the point where most roads can no longer be expanded without significant property acquisition, in addition to the environmental impact of increasing our dependence on cars, roads, and fossil fuels. Meanwhile our transit system is slowly improving, but there’s a lot more that has to be done. Two major parts of transit improvement are rapid transit and regional rail, and plans of how these should be implemented in the Twin Cities region have evolved over time including the proposals outlined below.

Before getting into that, however, note that the word “fantasy” is subjective. While there is a common understanding that a heavy rail (subway) system in the Twin Cities region is fantasy, something as simple as a dedicated busway or regional rail service on an existing rail line is considered fantasy by certain people. Before light rail was built in the Twin Cities some people thought the idea of it being here was fantasy, but with the Blue and Green Lines we’ve proven it can work and is one of the most successful modern light rail systems in the country.

The proposals outlined here today and in the coming two weeks are feasible; if our country can fund and build a nationwide highway system including carving wide freeways through dense urban areas (for better or worse) then our country can massively overhaul transit systems so they are world class, up to modern standards, and serve a variety of travel needs. What’s needed to make these proposals reality is strong political and public will for significant improvements in a short amount of time as we near a climate crisis and our population continues to increase (the Twin Cities population is projected to grow by 485,000 between now and 2040). This upgraded transit system will serve both current generations and future ones. While electric autonomous cars are being developed and will eventually be proven technology, we shouldn’t consider them a cure-all for our transportation issues. Doing so would be repeating the mistake post-World War II of relying heavily on roadways and cars while dismantling valuable and important transit and railroad infrastructure.

Just as with all transportation plans, these proposals are subject to change.

Lessons on Rapid Transit and Regional Rail

Based on experiences with our own transit system as well as transit systems in other cities, we can learn how to effectively implement rapid transit and regional rail in the Twin Cities.

Rapid transit can’t serve the entire Twin Cities region

Rapid transit serving all the neighborhoods and suburbs of the Twin Cities would be unfeasible. For neighborhoods in the suburbs it would be unfeasible to even have regular fixed-route buses serving all of that sprawled area. People may want rapid transit in their area, but it has to make sense to study and implement such a huge upgrade in transit service.

Rapid transit isn’t useful if stations are difficult to access

It’s important to have safe and easy accessibility to/from rapid transit stations. If stations aren’t easy and safe to access then the service won’t be as useful and ridership will be lower. The El Cerrito del Norte Station of San Francisco’s BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is a good example of a station that’s difficult to access. The station was a half mile from the airBnB I stayed at and involved crossing a freeway entrance ramp and two crossings of a major intersection with wide roads (4-5 lanes) and traffic going at least 35 miles per hour. There was local bus service to the station, but the frequency fluctuated throughout the day. At certain times it was much faster to walk between the station and the airBnB than to wait for the next bus.

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Looking towards El Cerrito del Norte Station, which is in the background. To the right is the freeway entrance ramp that must be crossed to access the station from neighborhoods to the west. Just before the station a major intersection with wide roads must be crossed twice. | Photo: Google Images.

An example of a rapid transit station with good accessibility is Ullevål Stadion, served by Oslo’s T-Bane (Tunnelbanen, or Metro). The distance between the student housing and the T-Bane station is similar to the distance between the airBnB and the BART station, but there were key differences that make the experience with Ulleval much better than El Cerrito. Half of the route is along quiet residential streets, the crossing of a major highway is grade-separated with a pedestrian bridge, the only major street on the route is narrow (2 lanes) with traffic going 30 miles per hour maximum, and the only major intersection that has to be crossed is a small roundabout. In addition there is local bus service with 15-minute frequency throughout the day, so taking transit to/from the station instead of walking is more feasible.

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Looking towards Ullevål Stadion Station (in the distance but not visible due to being in a trench). The roads are narrower, traffic is slower, and only a small roundabout needs to be crossed to access the station. Note the bus stop at right, which is served by a high frequency local bus route. | Photo: Google Images.

With rapid transit bringing high quality transportation, there also has to be high quality walking and biking infrastructure around station areas in addition to reliable and convenient local transit connections. Doing this will make a rapid transit service much more likely to succeed. However, there also needs to be a push for calmer streets (narrower roads with slower traffic like the Oslo example) so people will feel safe getting to/from a rapid transit station without a car.

Long routes aren’t suitable for rapid transit

In the Twin Cities region, most areas over 20 miles from the central business districts of Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t have the population and job density to support high frequency service all  day in both directions; there aren’t enough reverse commuters and commuters with non-typical work hours. For suburban commuters going to downtown, the long distance means a long travel time which makes it more likely choice riders will either drive or take an express service instead.

Stations should serve activity centers

In addition to stations being easily accessible, they should also be used throughout the day and located in activity centers; places where people live, work, and play. While a park & ride may have a lot of riders, most if not all of the people using the park & ride are only riding transit during the morning and afternoon rush hour. Transit service operating to a park & ride at off-peak times will produce very little ridership if there aren’t actual destinations within walking distance.

There’s debate over building rapid transit to green fields where transit oriented development can be built easily and cheaply versus building rapid transit in developed areas. While there will continue to be development in undeveloped areas, it is strongly recommended that sprawl be restrained. As previously mentioned rapid transit can’t serve everywhere; in order for rapid transit to effectively serve communities it’s better to have development clustered together than building out in all directions. Cities need to analyze where development should be for transit service, especially rapid transit, to make sense and be a good investment. Building higher density in several different spots will make it more difficult for rapid transit to serve than if high density development is focused on certain areas.

Rapid transit means rapid frequency

If the service doesn’t have a frequency of 15 minutes or better throughout the day then it’s not rapid transit. Case in point is the Red Line between Mall of America and Apple Valley, which has a peak frequency of every 20 minutes despite being marketed as bus rapid transit (BRT). A frequency of 15 minutes or better will mean people likely don’t have to worry about a schedule and are more likely to use the service. Several more BRT routes have been proposed in the Twin Cities region, but a majority of these wouldn’t actually be BRT because the frequency will be 20-30 minutes midday, early morning, late evening, and/or on the weekend. More information on those specific proposals later.

Regional Rail

The lessons regarding rapid transit can also apply to regional rail, but with some differences. Regional rail is better than BRT and light rail for longer distance routes because regional rail can typically achieve a higher average speed and have a competitive travel time with driving. A certain number of stations will primarily be for park & riders, but the majority of stations should be located in activity centers. Frequency of each regional rail route would vary with a couple routes potentially having 15-20 minute peak frequency while most routes would have a peak frequency of every half hour to an hour. All routes would have service throughout the day in both directions. The main factors that would attract riders to regional rail are rider comfort quality, an easy to understand schedule, competitive travel time with driving, and more reliability than bus service especially during inclement weather and road construction season.

Improving Transit Post-COVID 19

The Coronavirus has impacted daily life including commuting patterns. Transit ridership, along with driving and air travel, have dropped significantly due to telecommuting and stay-at-home orders. While there will be long-lasting effects from this pandemic, we should still be planning transit improvements in our region as our economy slowly recovers and commuting returns. However, we shouldn’t rely heavily on one type of travel (e.g. 9-to-5 commuters) for ridership. A modern transit system serves a variety of travel patterns and is convenient for more than just the typical suburban commuter with a job in downtown. While overall transit ridership has declined during the pandemic, the hardest hit are commuter routes that only operate during the morning and evening rush hour between the downtowns and the suburbs. A rapid transit and regional rail system, along with significant improvements to our bus system, will make our transit system more likely to recover and thrive in a post-pandemic world.

The previous rapid transit and regional rail proposals were updated to reflect the lessons mentioned above. In addition to the updated maps shown below, detailed maps of the rapid transit and regional rail systems can be looked at here and here, respectively. Detailed information on each route is shown in the next sections.

Tcrt System Map Winter 2020

Updated map of existing and proposed BRT and light rail routes in the Twin Cities region. | Image: Eric Ecklund.


Arterial Brt System Map Winter 2020

Updated map of existing and proposed arterial BRT (aBRT) routes in the Twin Cities region. | Image: Eric Ecklund.

Light Rail Expansion in the Twin Cities

The Green Line Extension between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie is under construction and expected to open in 2023. Meanwhile the Blue Line Extension between Minneapolis and Brooklyn Park is in limbo due to opposition from BNSF Railway to give part of their right-of-way for the project. There is a chance the project will be significantly altered or cancelled, but for now the assumption is the issue will get resolved. If it doesn’t get resolved there is the possibility of a Plan B. The Riverview Corridor, a light rail/streetcar hybrid between Mall of America and Downtown St. Paul, is in the early stages of planning and is expected to open in the early 2030s assuming funding can be achieved. As of now the Riverview Corridor is the final light rail line in planning, but there are several more corridors in the Twin Cities that should be considered for light rail.

Existing Blue and Green Lines

The existing light rail alignment on 5th Street in Downtown Minneapolis is already at capacity, and the alignment in Downtown St. Paul will be at capacity when the Riverview Corridor opens. Extra frequency isn’t possible and neither are longer trains due to platform length, so in order to increase capacity in both downtowns there will need to be grade separation. That will most likely mean tunneling, and while expensive it would have several benefits: increased capacity allowing higher frequency service, decreased travel time, and better reliability. Tunnel length would be around 2.5 and 1.5 miles in the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively.

A small improvement for the Blue and Green Lines would be signal preemption (trains always having signal priority through a crossing) at certain intersections along 34th Avenue in Bloomington and University Avenue in St. Paul. However, it’s uncertain if this would be implemented due to the prioritization of cars and with both light rail lines operating at high frequency there would be a short window for cross streets to have a green light. While signal preemption works along Hiawatha Avenue for the Blue Line, there are traffic backups at certain times. Signal preemption on other segments would likely require traffic studies.

Riverview Corridor (Pink Line)

Since the Riverview Corridor (referred to here as the Pink Line) is in early planning stages, a lot of questions remain to be answered such as service frequency, platform length, and the alignment along West 7th Street. Part of Canadian Pacific Railway’s Ford Spur should have been chosen for the alignment, as it would be dedicated right-of-way and only a short distance from West 7th. Instead, the preferred alignment will have trains operating on West 7th and sharing the road with general traffic at certain sections. Optimally, the alignment can easily be converted to dedicated right-of-way.

It’s likely that the operation of the Pink Line along West 7th will be similar to the Green Line along University Avenue in which trains don’t have signal preemption. Signal preemption could be implemented, but just as with the Blue and Green Lines this would require traffic studies to determine how much impact there would be for West 7th and cross streets.

Platform length of stations on the Pink Line should allow for 2-car trains with the ability to extend platforms for 3-car trains later on. The same type of light rail vehicle (the Siemens S70) used on our existing light rail lines will likely be used on the Pink Line for fleet commonality.

I-494 Corridor (Pink Line Extension)

Although arterial BRT (aBRT) is officially proposed along American Boulevard between Mall of America and Southwest Station in Eden Prairie, there needs to be a study of different alignments of bus rapid transit along the I-494 Corridor as well as consideration of a western extension of the Riverview Corridor (referred to here as the Pink Line Extension). The current proposal for aBRT along American Boulevard would make it difficult for people who live or work north of I-494 to access it, and it would miss several areas of potential ridership while serving auto-oriented businesses that have little to no use for this transit upgrade.

The Pink Line Extension with an alignment in which trains would operate on the median of I-494 for a majority of the route is preferred. Although rapid transit on the median of a highway isn’t optimal, it has worked in several cities such as the Blue Line in Chicago. Traffic calming measures should be implemented at streets crossing I-494 in order to make pedestrian access to stations easy and safe, as well as installing noise barriers at stations to reduce traffic noise. This alignment is preferred because it allows areas on both sides of I-494 to be served, the right-of-way already exists, it’s fully grade-separated, and it would provide faster and easier connections between the southwest metro, MSP Airport, and Downtown St. Paul.

As part of this extension, there would be a realignment to Mall of America and a new transit hub. This is because the existing alignment for the Blue Line to Mall of America makes for slow travel time and the design makes it difficult to extend light rail to the west. The two likely locations for a relocated transit hub are the north side and south side of Mall of America. Each have pros and cons, but the preferred location is the north side as this would have a straighter and faster route, and the area already has a taxi/bus shuttle pick-up/drop-off area that can be modified for bus service. In addition to a relocated Mall of America Station, 28th Avenue Station would be realigned and Bloomington Central Station would be closed to decrease travel time. As of Fall 2019 around 200 people per weekday use Bloomington Central Station, but with the stations at 28th Avenue and American Boulevard within walking distance the extra time to access either station would be short.

Nicollet-Central Corridor (Lapis Line)

This corridor has the highest local bus ridership in the Twin Cities region with around 17,500 daily riders as of Fall 2019 (combining the ridership of Routes 10 and 18). The Nicollet-Central Corridor (referred to here as the Lapis Line) would take advantage of an existing railroad spur that cuts through Bloomington and Richfield. Part of this rail line is located midway between Lyndale and Nicollet Avenues, allowing both to be served with a single route. North of Richfield the Lapis Line would take advantage of the existing right-of-way and grade-separation of I-35W with trains operating on the west side of the freeway trench. Trains would operate underground for a short length on the Richfield-Minneapolis border, around the 46th Street & Nicollet area, and between Lake Street and Columbia Heights. North of Columbia Heights the Lapis Line would switch from Central Avenue to University Avenue and terminate at Northtown Mall. The most expensive and challenging part of this route is the underground segment between Lake Street and Columbia Heights, but building a tunnel under a downtown and river is not a new concept; the main difficulty is political and public will and ensuring there is competent leadership during planning and construction.

While aBRT is likely to be built on this corridor in the near future, it can still be replaced by light rail while allowing the existing aBRT stations to be utilized by regular bus service. Routes 10 and 18 would provide local service along Nicollet Avenue and Central Avenue, respectively.

Between Richfield and Columbia Heights this route already has high transit ridership and high population density, so trains should operate at a 5-minute frequency throughout the day. South of Richfield and north of Columbia Heights service would be at 10-15 minute frequency throughout the day due to the lighter demand in those areas.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.