When Hennepin County prevented the BNSF and Canadian Pacific railroads from building a freight connection where their lines crossed in Crystal, that killed any chance of light rail sharing the BNSF right of way for seven miles through Golden Valley, Robbinsdale, Crystal and Brooklyn Park. That alignment is no longer available, so what now?
I’d been in the camp of those who supported the BNSF alignment because it would have been competitive with express bus speeds for suburban commuters headed downtown. I felt that detouring the line through north Minneapolis would slow it to the point of irrelevance for suburbanites. Also discouraging was the staff’s conclusion that running down narrow Penn Avenue from Broadway to Olson Highway would require the removal of all buildings from one side of the street. That sounds like Rondo all over again and was not acceptable.
I’ve changed my mind. I drove along County Road 81, then Broadway, Emerson/Fremont and North 7th Street to see if LRT might fit and still have reasonable travel time. My conclusion—it will.
Everyone seems to agree that County Road 81 looks feasible for the portion outside Minneapolis.
Upon entering Minneapolis, CR81 narrows and turns into West Broadway which has four lanes in the rush hours when parking is prohibited. At all other hours it’s two lanes with parking. I can think of a couple of different options.
Option A: Eliminate parking and give two lanes to LRT. That reduces traffic to two lanes, certainly in keeping with the city’s new pro-transit priorities.
Option B: Run streetcar style in mixed traffic. It’s only for a mile or so and lost time might be one minute.
The obvious route from Broadway to downtown is to split the LRT via the Emerson/Fremont one-way pair, then take North 7th Street. Emerson/Fremont have parking, one traffic lane and a bike lane. I’m hoping they can squeeze in one track, otherwise remove the parking. Or it can run as a streetcar probably with no time delay.
North 7th Street is plenty wide to accommodate the LRT, which will have to ramp up over Olson Highway to access the existing line.
What about speed?
Based on existing LRT station-to-station timings, 2 minutes in most cases, I estimate that a trip on the original Bottineau alignment from Hennepin Avenue to Brooklyn Park would be 25 minutes. That assumes plenty of 55 mph running, interrupted only by 8 traffic signals on Olson Highway.
Once out of Minneapolis, the alternate alignment on County Road 81 has comparable top speeds to the BNSF corridor, but has to negotiate ten signalized intersections. The question is how many can either be bridged or given LRT signal preemption. If done right, the running time for that segment should be the same as via the BNSF. However, I think there will be pressure to add a stop at 36th Avenue and that will add one minute.
If the LRT has to run streetcar-style in mixed traffic on Broadway, Emerson/Fremont and North 7th Street, the new 25 mph Minneapolis speed limit would have a negative impact. If the LRT gets its own lanes, it can run faster than traffic, 30, 35 and maybe even 40 mph. Signal priority will also help.
So what’s the end-to-end travel time for the reroute through the North Side? If the LRT runs in mixed traffic like a streetcar on Broadway and Emerson/Fremont, I estimate 30 minutes. If LRT gets its own lanes within the city, it would be 28 minutes. That’s only 3-5 minutes slower than via the BNSF, which isn’t much. Remember when the Hamline, Victoria and Western Avenue stations were added to the Green Line? It slowed the trains by about three minutes, but no one really noticed and it was worth it for the increased ridership.
Spending those extra minutes to run through the North Side will dramatically increase ridership. North Memorial Hospital will be served, as will the commercial and residential development along Broadway and at 36th Avenue N. North Siders will have faster direct access to suburban jobs and North Hennepin College. Besides serving considerably more population, running through the city will open up transfer connections to the C Line and D Line BRTs, which will still be needed and perfectly viable in the Penn Avenue and Emerson-Fremont corridors. It will also add connections to the Route 30 Broadway Crosstown bus to Northeast.
But what about those suburban express riders?
Every successful commuter express bus corridor has one or more big park-ride lots that concentrate riders, justifying frequent service. In the Bottineau Corridor those lots are the Maple Grove Transit Station and Maple Grove Parkway, both located just off I-94 interchanges. Combined they have 1729 spaces and were 86 percent occupied according to the 2019 Met Council Park-ride survey. They serve Maple Grove but also intercept commuters driving in from Rogers, St. Michael and points beyond. They have non-stop express buses to downtown every 10 minutes. Route 781 takes 21 minutes to travel from the Maple Grove Transit Station to 4th and Hennepin. They can bypass congestion because there are shoulder bus lanes all the way to downtown. Will those commuters switch to light rail?
The Bottineau Line could have been routed to replace the express buses at those park-rides, but instead it’s going up Broadway to North Hennepin College and the Target campus. It will have park-rides, including the 565-car facility already in existence at 63rd Avenue, located just south of I-94. Even running through the North Side, I estimate travel time from 63rd Avenue to 5th and Hennepin will be 18-20 minutes, depending on the amount of signal priority. That is competitive with the express buses because the rail route is physically shorter than I-94. This tells me that LRT will divert some of the Maple Grove commuters, while quite a few will stay on the express buses, because:
- The LRT won’t have enough park-ride capacity handy to I-94.
- Park-riders generally want to exit the freeway and switch to bus earlier in their trip. The LRT lots require staying on I-94 longer.
What the LRT will do is attract great numbers of suburban riders to Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves and Lynx games. It’s a cheap and convenient ride.
Now that I’m convinced it can be done without an unreasonable time penalty, I’m a convert to the North Side alignment, but no bulldozing of houses to achieve it.