“significant risks of derailment at both ends”

Twin Cities Business via Minnpost, has an excruciatingly detailed look at the history of the TC&W railroad and the problems facing potential relocation of said railroad for the SW LRT project.

The goal is that TC&W head west as it does now out of downtown Minneapolis on BNSF rails, but rather than turning southwest into Kenilworth, it would continue past Highway 100 to join the MN&S, heading south through St. Louis Park to rejoin its current route near Louisiana Avenue and Highway 7.

Problem is, the MN&S, which in 1993 looked to TC&W like a long-term solution for a modest amount of additional spending, is now perceived as unworkable by the railroad. The cost of remaking it to fit TC&W’s operations has ballooned from an optimistic $1 million to $70 million or more, and the railroad and others say it presents engineering challenges that may not be solvable within the budgets of the SWLRT project.

In December, the railroad filed its most emphatic objections yet to the SWLRT reroute. Wegner says the MN&S reroute is “a design we intuitively know is bad.” It has “significant risks of derailment” at both endpoints.

In a nutshell, the MN&S, and the proposed connections to it, are engineered for the small CP freight trains that currently use it, not the 100-car trains TC&W runs. The railroad is wary of the undulating MN&S grades, curvature, and proximity to St. Louis Park High School for their potential to insert costly inefficiencies into its operations.

“We have no issue with Southwest Light Rail,” insists Wegner. “But we need to get to St. Paul with the same cost structure as today.”

St. Louis Park officials, concerned about the impacts of the reroute, concur with TC&W. “A lot of the reroute is unfeasible,” says Mayor Jeff Jacobs. He maintains that as currently drawn, the reroute will require expensive noise and vibration mitigation, and the likely removal of 30 to 40 homes. But he says a realistic plan that also functions for 100-car freights will require more expense than the $70 million or so estimated for it, plus removal of additional buildings. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see [the reroute] get to $100 million or above.”

The cost of the freight rail reroute was never included in the evaluation of alternative alignments for the SW LRT project.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s dedicated ROW!

Over at streets.mn, I have a post about everyone’s favorite fictional urban transit revolution, the urban gondola (or aerial tram).

The case history on US urban gondolas doesn’t look good cost-wise, but the travel time savings look great.  The Portland Aerial Tram, which could also be called an urban gondola (if you consider low-slung Portland urban), cost $57 million, or roughly $90 million per mile, if I calculated the hypotenuse correctly.  The Portland Aerial Tram travels at a top speed of 22 mph, which could make an Uptown Transit Station to Hennepin-8th Street trip in 6.5 minutes.  That’s about one-third the posted travel time for the #6 bus, and less than half the travel time of the limited-stop #12.  6 minutes is even less than half the travel time identified by Metro Transit for an upgraded arterial BRT on Hennepin.

Interlining

Everybody knows that the LRT alignment that would go through the second most dense area of the Twin Cities metro would have fewer trips than one that goes through a railroad trench and parkland, but few have dared to ask why.  Come with me on a exploration of the wild world of transportation modeling.

If you dig deep in the Southwest Transitway DEIS, like a stubborn prospector, you can sometimes find real gold.  And by gold, I mean stinky logic.  Deep in Appendix H, “Supporting Technical Reports and Memoranda Part 1″ is Table 1 in the Transit Effects Appendix (on page 274, to be exact).  Table 1 summarizes the daily LRT boardings by segment.  These segment summaries are based on station-by-station ridership numbers found later in the Appendix.  Here is the table:

Notice anything strange?  That’s right, route 3C-1 is assumed to have zero riders continuing their trip from the Central Corridor LRT.  Chapter 6 of the main DEIS document has a section on “Interlining Assumptions” which goes into more detail, but the key sentence seems to be on page 6-6 and the table following:

The LRT 3C-1 (Nicollet Mall) Alternative is not integrated with either the Hiawatha or Central Corridor LRT guideway for daily operations.

In the table that follows, under “Passenger movement/convenience” while other alternatives are labeled “One-seat ride possible”, the Nicollet alignment is branded as a “Stand alone LRT line”.  That’s right.  When you exit the train at 4th Street and Nicollet Avenue, you step off into an abyss.  You’ve just ridden a stand-alone LRT line to THE END OF THE LINE.  Don’t even try to transfer.

Of course, there are legitimate operational concerns about tracks not aligning and trains not being able to continue on for use on another line.  But to assume that ALL travelers coming from the Central Corridor, when confronted with the idea of a *gasp* transfer literally hundreds of feet away would abandon all hope and just drive a car the whole way (or take a slower bus), seems terribly ridiculous to me.  The ridership projections also assume that the 3C-2 line, which does interline, actually has fewer Central Corridor riders than 3A, because you know, those few extra minutes.  It’s not like there are any attractive destinations along Nicollet and in Uptown.  I’m pretty sure no one from the U of M goes to Uptown for anything.  They’re all, “out of my way mister, I’m headed for Eden Prairie!”

If you add back in those 5,300 Central Corridor travelers to 3C-1, you get 29,850 daily boardings, or the highest of the all the alignments.

LRT will reduce development potential on Nicollet, says SW Transitway DEIS

From the Southwest Transitway Draft EIS (page 5-18) in regard to the Nicollet/11th & 12th street alignments and their consistency with land use plans:

The area along Segment C-1 is already developed as TOD due to high frequency transit service. Implementation of LRT and the accompanying reduction in bus service may reduce TOD development potential which is inconsistent with regional and local plans.

So reduced bus service, even with the addition of LRT, means less development potential. Nobody tell the Met Council.  Here is what the Central Corridor EIS has to say about TOD near LRT stations:

Experience across the country has shown, that implementation of fixed guideway transit can catalyze economic development activities at station locations.

And:

According to a report cited by the Native American Community Development Institute, Quick Facts Supporting the Development of an American Indian Cultural and Economic Corridor, property values along the Hiawatha LRT Corridor are increasing 22 percent more than property values overall across the City of Minneapolis. The report went on to say that by 2020 more than 19 million square feet of new commercial space and up to 68,000 new jobs would be attracted to the Hiawatha LRT Corridor.

It seems to me future political leaders could regret this document stating that new rail transit infrastructure reduces development potential.  Just saying.  So is LRT on Nicollet inconsistent with the Access Minneapolis plan, like the DEIS says?  Not according to, you know, the actual plan document.

UPDATE:

A sharp-eyed reader points me to the Transitway Impacts Research Program, sponsored by Hennepin County, which features all kinds of interesting academic research on the effects light rail has on property values, access to jobs, and perception of transit.

Will driverless cars abolish transit?

At Human Transit, Jarrett Walker answers a reader question about whether SDVs (self-driving vehicles) will eventually replace some or all transit.  Read the whole post, but here is an excerpt.

So to sum up, the technophile urbanists who believe that self-driving cars will eliminate the need for public transit are making several mistakes:

  • They are assuming that technology will change the facts of geometry, in this case the facts of urban space.
  • They are assuming that the costs of having every passenger encased in a metal sphere (in terms of production energy and emissions) are readily absorbable by the planet.  (To be fair, the SDV discussed here is one that you don’t own but just grab when you want it, so if it replaced the car there would be far fewer cars.  But that’s different from replacing a bus.)
  • If they think that self-driving cars will replace buses but not rail, then they haven’t informed themselves about the vast diversity of different markets that buses are used to serve.  Self-driving cars many logically replace some of these markets but not others.
  • They believe that public transit is incapable of improving in ways that make it more positively attractive to a wider range of people, despite the fact that it is doing so almost continually.

Again, the whole bus vs rail confusion here arises from the fact that technophile urbanists classify transit services according to how they look and feel, whereas transit experts care more about the functions they perform.

So yes, buses are currently doing some things that other tools could do better, especially in sparser markets.  Some agencies, like Vancouver’s, already have the tools to solve that problem.  But when a huge mass of people wants to go in the same direction at the same time, you need a rail if you have tracks and an exclusive lane for them, or a bus if you don’t.  I don’t care whether it’s rail or bus, but the need for a high-capacity vehicle running high quality service that encourages people to use space efficiently — that’s a fact of geometry!

I think I agree with all Walker’s points, except maybe that he oversimplifies the geometry argument.  Couldn’t we have self-driving microbuses taking the place of low volume routes?  Walker states this is a legacy problem with unions, which could be solved without robot cars (but of course, hasn’t yet).

Also, his geometry argument ignores carpooling.  If I could sign up for robot dial-a-ride service and I could choose a higher price to ride alone or a lower price to ride with other commuters, I imagine many people would choose the carpool option (especially existing transit riders).  Theoretically, routing software could calculate who your carmates would be based on your origin and destination, and you would arrive at your destination slightly slower than the ride-alone subscription (hence the lower cost).  This imaginary system makes the “geometry” argument less valid.

Of course, such a system is a long ways off.  We will still of course need transit for a long time, and as Walker states, transit agencies are making efficiency and attractiveness improvements all the time.

The bridges of Hennepin County

I’m just getting around to watching this video of the Southwest LRT alignment.  The alignment approved for preliminary engineering will have a 3,000-foot bridge (!!) among others, plus a tunnel or two.  I can’t quickly find the costs of these many bridges, but might they come anywhere close to $600 million?  And could there be a less-bridgey route on this western end of the line?  Just checking.

Imagining a city without its public transportation

The Atlantic Cities reviews the work of WMATA (DC’s transit agency) on the business case for transit.  They turned off public transportation in the regional transportation model.

“It was literally just imagining Washington, and all of a sudden, you wake up tomorrow, and the transit system isn’t there, Antos says. “What would you do?”

People, it turns out, do something very interesting. They stop making long car trips because the traffic is so bad. In one hypothetical scenario, Antos took away the transit but kept the rest of the area’s road infrastructure the same. People were allowed to change their trip patterns – to chose different jobs or shopping centers – and most of them stopped crossing the region to get to those things.

“The congestion was forcing people to regress into a more local economy,” Antos says. “We looked at that and realized we were watching the economy splinter. All of a sudden, we weren’t watching a regional economy function where workers could find jobs in the whole region.”

People weren’t crossing county lines – or even rivers – to get anywhere.

Let’s welcome “Rapid Bus”

Metro Transit is studying 11 corridors for significant upgrades to bus service.  These corridors represent high-ridership, dense locations with high potential for service improvements.  Sharp-eyed readers might recognize these “rapid bus” corridors as something that is called “arterial bus rapid transit” in the 2030 Transportation Policy Plan.

So what designates a rapid bus route? Fewer stops, off-bus fare collection, all-door boarding – all equal faster service.  At the open house last week, project displays showed between 20 and 30% travel time savings, depending on the corridor.  Stops will become stations, with shelters, dynamic signage and possibly raised curbs and bumpouts.  These look like great improvements.

Metro Transit staff told me the next step is to identify first corridors for implementation by looking at what corridors have the most potential for service improvement (and probably which are most politically feasible).  The rapid bus concept will also be used in the alternatives analysis for Nicollet (sometimes called the streetcar study).

Census: Minneapolis bike commuting remains steady, transit grows

New American Community Survey 1-year estimates are out for large places, which means we can check in on commuting information for our #1 bike city, Minneapolis.

  • Bike commuting seems to be remaining steady (within the margin of error)
  • Transit is up beyond the margin of error
  • Carpooling continues it’s descent
  • Working at home continues to increase slowly
The above chart is courtesy of the City of Minneapolis.

Going green but getting nowhere

A sobering Op-Ed by Gernot Wagner in the NYT.  This link deserves it’s own post.

Leading scientific groups and most climate scientists say we need to decrease global annual greenhouse gas emissions by at least half of current levels by 2050 and much further by the end of the century. And that will still mean rising temperatures and sea levels for generations.

So why bother recycling or riding your bike to the store? Because we all want to do something, anything. Call it “action bias.” But, sadly, individual action does not work. It distracts us from the need for collective action, and it doesn’t add up to enough. Self-interest, not self-sacrifice, is what induces noticeable change. Only the right economic policies will enable us as individuals to be guided by self-interest and still do the right thing for the planet.

Every ton of carbon dioxide pollution causes around $20 of damage to economies, ecosystems and human health. That sum times 20 implies $400 worth of damage per American per year. That’s not damage you’re going to do in the distant future; that’s damage each of us is doing right now. Who pays for it?

We pay as a society. My cross-country flight adds fractions of a penny to everyone else’s cost. That knowledge leads some of us to voluntarily chip in a few bucks to “offset” our emissions. But none of these payments motivate anyone to fly less. It doesn’t lead airlines to switch to more fuel-efficient planes or routes. If anything, airlines by now use voluntary offsets as a marketing ploy to make green-conscious passengers feel better. The result is planetary socialism at its worst: we all pay the price because individuals don’t.

It won’t change until a regulatory system compels us to pay our fair share to limit pollution accordingly. Limit, of course, is code for “cap and trade,” the system that helped phase out lead in gasoline in the 1980s, slashed acid rain pollution in the 1990s and is now bringing entire fisheries back from the brink. “Cap and trade” for carbon is beginning to decrease carbon pollution in Europe, and similar models are slated to do the same from California to China.

Alas, this approach has been declared dead in Washington, ironically by self-styled free-marketers. Another solution, a carbon tax, is also off the table because, well, it’s a tax.

Never mind that markets are truly free only when everyone pays the full price for his or her actions. Anything else is socialism. The reality is that we cannot overcome the global threats posed by greenhouse gases without speaking the ultimate inconvenient truth: getting people excited about making individual environmental sacrifices is doomed to fail.