Could new FTA “livability” funding rules change Southwest LRT route?

The two alignment choices in Minneapolis

The big news this week is that the planned Central Corridor LRT line will get three new stations between Minneapolis and Saint Paul, and the reason seems to be the new FTA rules which relax the sole focus on cost-effectiveness from travel time savings to include broader goals of “livability“.  With the three new stations, the project would not have met a “medium” rating for cost-effectiveness, and therefore would not likely not have been funded by the FTA under the old rules.

What implication might this have for the planned Southwest LRT line and its contested route?  It’s hard to say, but it certainly seems like the alternative routes should be re-assessed under the new formula before telling the feds that 3A is the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA).  More below the break.

Project planners say that ridership and travel time savings on 3A and 3C are very similar, and that the difference between the two is cost (capital, not operating cost).  This seems to be exactly the type of situation that the Obama administration and the FTA had in mind with this rule change:  projects for which a potentially less-desirable route or design was chosen, simply to meet CEI requirements.  Decision-makers for Southwest LRT are on the record as saying they were constrained by the CEI, and one would hope they would be happy to be able to re-evaluate the route choices using a broader measure of benefits.

According to the U.S. Secretary of Transportation’s blog, Fast Lane, the new criteria that projects will be evaluated by include:

  • Economic development
  • Mobility improvements
  • Environmental benefits
  • Operating efficiencies
  • Cost effectiveness
  • Land use

(I would suggest that federal rule-makers consider accessibility improvements rather than just mobility, but perhaps this can be reflected in “land use”.)

The traditional cost-effectiveness for travel time measure remains in the mix, but is no longer the be-all, end-all.  Again, what these changes will actually mean is still to be determined as part of a rule-making process, but if they can have such a big impact on Central Corridor, a project that is now in the engineering phase, it certainly seems like Southwest project planners should be taking a careful look at which route will score best under the new rules.  Under at least one of the criteria, economic development, the 3A route is not looking nearly as promising lately, while the Uptown area remains a destination for business development, even during the worst recession since the Great Depression.

The LPA is not officially chosen until May of 2010, when the Met Council will amend its Transportation Policy Plan to include it.  Before that happens, two public meetings will be held and a comment period will be opened to receive public comments on the LPA.  According to the SW LRT website, the first meeting during which the comment period will be opened is February 24th.  Now is the time to make sure that planners are thinking about the new funding guidelines.

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  • Thatcher

    It’d be great if they’d relook at this. I doubt it will happen because until the ridership forecasts are revised (address the irregularities), I don’t think the political will of the County or the PAC will reopen the discussion. That’s especially true after hearing what some public officials have told a couple of our constituents around here.

    I hope that the FTA will address how ridership forecasting is conducted right now, as it led to all sorts of issues for the Uptown alignment that just can’t be right. Uptown’s boardings were projected to be 1,100 per day while Kenwood (21st St) were projected at 1,000. The Uptown (and Eat Street and LynLake) station(s) all had incredibly low numbers for people walking to the station. In many cases the suburban locations had more. This led to either an inflated number for 3A or a deflated number for 3C1 and 3C2.

    Certainly the FTA decision would help Uptown, if anyone wants to revisit it. But quite frankly, it’ll require new voices to the discussion as those of us who were big advocates aren’t popular right now with the PAC or other elected officials. Perhaps it’s time for a lawsuit, who knows.

  • http://www.twitter.com/uptown612 Anders

    3C will remain dead for political reasons. We went from having few friends in office–mainly CM Remington, CM Goodman to a lesser extent, and a sympathetic Mayor–to no one at all. CM Tuthill has shown little interest in transportation issues, Goodman is (at least publicly) a team player on 3A, and Rybak is busy running for governor.

    It doesn’t matter that actual ridership would inevitable be higher on 3C (especially over 30-50 years), or that more minority, lower-income, transit-dependent populations would be served by 3C. It doesn’t matter that the tax base would grow more as a result of 3C. It doesn’t matter that mobility would be improved for tens of thousands of urban residents as they bypass congested roadways on 3C. The politicians either kowtow to suburban commuters (who keep winning on transit issues) or are worried a delay will scuttle the project (in spite of the new FTA rules which were clearly made with SW LRT issues in mind).

    But that’s the Twin Cities for you. The most conservative ‘progressive’ metro in the nation, at least on transportation.

  • Phil

    Nicollet Avenue is well served by buses right now. Light rail on Nicollet would kill the street and create a disservice to “minority, lower-income, transit-dependent populations.” The stations are spaced too far apart and will lead to a much longer walk for many riders that are currently very well served. The southwest corridor is pretty much a commuter route that serves the southwest suburbs and this is not what Nicollet and Uptown need. Instead of trying to kill two birds with one stone, it needs to be done properly. 3A should be built with a streetcar connecting the West Lake station to the Lake St. Station of the Hiawatha line. As for Nicollet (and Hennepin), perhaps arterial BRT would be the best option: enhanced stations and buses, higher frequency, bus-only lanes during peak periods, signal priority, etc. would be a world of improvement of what currently exists.

    3C as it currently stands is just like the central corridor before the new FTA rule. Re-examining the route only with ADDITIONAL stations at 24th St. and 15th St. on Nicollet would make sense.

  • Anders

    Phil–

    “The southwest corridor is pretty much a commuter route that serves the southwest suburbs and this is not what Nicollet and Uptown need.”

    That’s exactly the problem. The route was not pre-destined for that fate. If you think it was, I suggest you read the project documents (particularly the Alternatives Analysis). Enhancing mobility, one of the key goals, should not be only a goal for suburbanites. City residents, such as those who commute along Nicollet (or Hennepin or Lyndale), face 20-25 minute rides under good conditions at rush hour. Longer in bad weather or if there’s an accident, stalled vehicle, or disabled person needing the ramp.

    As for station distance, the engineering never got far enough along to meaningfully address this point. The Franklin Ave station could just as easily be mid-block, closer to 22nd St. With that placement, there would only be a .6 or .7 mile distance between the two stations — easily within the half-mile radius traditionally used as a catchment area.

    Nicollet and Uptown need separate-ROW transit. This is the best chance the areas have. Bus-only lanes aren’t feasible on any of the north-south thoroughfares as long as local business owners oppose eliminating on-street parking (lane widths are already quite tight). Streetcars will be even slower than buses, doing nothing for accessibility or mobility.

    The Greenway streetcar between the two LRT stations will likely see lower ridership than the north-south bus corridors already receive, and at a much greater cost. While routes 21 and 53 are highly utilized (and extremely slow), there’s a question of how many people are willing to switch from the Lake Street corridor, where businesses are, to the Greenway — a trench a block and a half away. In any case, if you look at employment data, you see that there’s not a great deal of east-west commuting within Minneapolis. Generally speaking, only riders travelling from areas near either end of the line will have much of an interest in riding that streetcar.

    And this is just the beginning of the long list of flaws with the piecemeal, unconvincing plan for Minneapolis transit. So many different modes, so little connectivity.

  • Phil

    Anders-
    I am tired, so this will be very brief.
    The 5-10 minutes saved in travel time will be lost in the extra several blocks of walking for many riders. This will be especially unpleasant in the winter months. Additionally, I take it you do not live in a neighborhood along Nicollet. Most of the neighborhood organizations oppose 3C, and as a resident myself, I would much rather have no change in the current situation than LRT on Nicollet.

  • http://www.twitter.com/uptown612 Anders

    Phil–

    Also tired, also short.

    Neighborhood organizations represent a demographic that is less likely to ride transit. Their opposition to LRT (and I’ll note that ECCO and CARAG actually supported it) is not remotely representative of what the larger community wants. If you think for a minute that these groups represent a majority of the citizenry, you’re very, very optimistic.

    The last census showed that single-occupant cars were still a major commute mode for workers in the Uptown/Nicollet area. Those that do ride transit (and that’s a larger percentage in Whittier/Wedge) would benefit from guaranteed ride-times and fixed schedules — something the current bus system does not provide. Ride the 6, 17, or 18 during rush hour and tell me that you’d prefer that to a LRV that gets you from downtown to your stop in 5-10 minutes regardless of traffic or weather.

    I don’t know whether you ride the bus or not, but as someone who does (daily), I know that the current system is unsustainable in the long run. Traffic counts are swelling along all the north/south thoroughfares, and when K-Mart is moved to open up Nicollet some day, even that street will see major increases in traffic. Buses (or streetcars) have to deal with that traffic, which will only get worse. Submerged LRT along the Greenway and under Nicollet would not.

    This is a major metropolitan area that thankfully is becoming more urban once again. Unfortunately, we’re not planning for that change. We’re giving suburban commuters a leg up while telling city residents that their slow, unreliable buses are what they deserve. Oh, and apparently we should be grateful. Please.

  • dreww

    Anders – Blocks long open light rail cuts on Nicollet would make traffic much worse in Whittier and the Wedge. Also, ECCO and CARAG support it because it would have only positive impact for their neighborhoods. Whittier would be very much harmed if Nicollet were turned into essentially a service road.

    Also you’re going to need to provide some proof that the larger Whittier neighborhood wants light rail.

    What south minneapolis needs is improved bus service. Removing a few stops, adding bus lanes and allowing rear door boarding would do more for residents than the train ever could – for hundreds of millions less.

  • Anders

    I was going to leave the last comment alone, but for the sake of clarity:

    “Blocks long open light rail cuts” is a completely fabricated complaint. 3C was going to have a tunnel under Nicollet; only during construction would the street be disrupted. Either way, traffic counts on Nicollet are relatively low compared to other N/S streets. In any case, why prioritize cars over transit when they already get the advantage on every other thoroughfare? (Is Nicollet even a real thoroughfare?)

    How does one prove that “the larger Whittier neighborhood wants light rail”? Why does that even matter? Why assume that a neighborhood group represents majority opinion? Should transit investment be decided on a majority-rules basis anyway? This seems so tangential to the larger questions involved in the disturbing Southwest LRT planning process.

    Improved bus service for the south side would be great, but in a growing city like ours, it’s not enough. Meaningful change means separate rights of way and high frequency. Without LRT, it looks like we won’t have either of those in the densest parts of Minneapolis any time in the next few decades.

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