Let’s be pro-transit

My latest at streets.mn is all about positivity:

I’ll start by saying I have strong feelings about Southwest LRT. So do some people on this very blog. You probably do too. However, I won’t be contributing further to the gallons of spilled real and virtual ink or weeks of public testimony.  I’d like to talk about how we can set the stage for some other projects that could be really beneficial for transit-dependent and transit-interested communities. Nothing in this post should be interpreted as diminishing the importance of that LRT project, the upcoming decisions that will determine it’s fate/depth of its tunnel, or the correctness of any particular opinion about it.  But I have this urge to start some positive conversations about other projects that need some support.  Weird, right?

“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.

LRT plans, past and present

The Transportationist posts this 1988 LRT plan developed for Hennepin County.  Obviously, the SW LRT route has moved and the “south” alignment has become freeway BRT.  Also note the dotted line, which I assume means tunnel.

In this plan, Minneapolis, especially the most dense parts, is well served by high-quality transit, with the exception of North.  In real life, if Bottineau goes with the LPA, 3/5ths of the regions high-quality, “fixed” guideway transit improvements won’t really serve Minneapolis at all (I’m including freeway BRT in the count of 5 since it’s been “converted” from the planned LRT. I’m also not counting Northstar).

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.

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.

$70 million needed for freight rail interchange not accounted for in Southwest LRT alternatives evaluation

MNDOT says that in order to accommodate the proposed alignment of the Southwest LRT line in the Kenilworth corridor, which currently includes a freight rail line, a $70 million rail interchange would need to be constructed in Saint Louis Park to reroute freight trains.  From the Strib:

The new [freight] connection is under study because the Kenilworth corridor is part of the route selected for the proposed southwest light-rail line between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

Hennepin County, which owns the Kenilworth corridor, says pinch points along the route — between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles — do not leave space for both freight and light rail. The county has planned the light-rail line assuming the freight tracks would be moved.

The County may have planned the line this way, but it didn’t include these costs in the capital cost estimates for the 3A route.  This is from the Locally Preferred Alternative Evaluation Documents, Technical Memo #7A – Capital Costs:

Freight Rail Modifications – Modifications to freight rail operations were not separately quantified in the LRT alternative cost estimates. The relocation of TC&W near Louisiana Avenue is not considered a cost of any LRT alternative in this project. Minor shoofly alignments associated with bridge construction are included in the cost of the bridge in this estimate.

I assume this means that none of these costs made it into the Draft EIS which is under review by the Federal Transit Administration.

Train in the Woods

The Minneapolis Station Area Strategic Planning Document for the Southwest Transitway is a pretty good piece of analysis.  It lays out the existing conditions at each of the five station locations, including barriers to pedestrian access and other details of urban form important to transit-oriented development.  It provides what seem to be realistic recommendations for opening-day improvements, as well as hypothetical build-out scenarios for transit-oriented development around the stations.

While I disagree with some of the specific design elements (low-density, over-parked development at Royalston, bike trail intersecting with pedestrian realm at Van White), I realize those details are all likely far from finalized, and overall I think the document is a great jumping-off point to decide where public investment is needed, how regulation might need to change, and what questions still need answering.  It provides details where there used to be few, and that moves the line one step closer to successful implementation.

What the plan illustrates that frustrates me so much, is how inappropriate the routing decision for the Southwest LRT line through Minneapolis really is.

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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.

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Creating Real Transity Improvements in Uptown Part 2: The Potential of Arterial BRT

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

Kansas City MAX Station. That's a nice bus stop.

In a previous post, I promised some insight into creating substantial transit improvements in the Uptown/LynLake areas of Minneapolis now that LRT is basically off the table.  In what is hopefully the first in a series of guest posts by different transit experts, I’ve asked a Metro Transit planner who is involved in transitway planning throughout the region to give his (or her) insight.  As our guest will reiterate, the opinions seen here are personal (although professionally informed) and do not represent the opinions of Metro Transit.

As a reminder, I’ve asked our guest to limit the response to improvements that could really be implemented, and are not wildly expensive or politically infeasible. And, of course, ideally these improvements should have the potential to significantly increase ridership and make the overall transit experience in the area better.


First I’ll thank Brendon for the opportunity to contribute to this excellent blog. Net Density does a great job offering posts that are understandable and approachable, but also of sound technical merit and well-reasoned professional planning. I will aspire to match these qualities in my post.

Second, I will note that the information contained in this post is meant only to advance the transportation planning professional discourse. It is my own work, and does not necessarily reflect the policies of my employer.

Introduction

Many residents of Minneapolis neighborhoods, and those in the planning community were frustrated by the HCRRA decision to pursue Southwest LRT on route 3A, via Kenilworth corridor. Given the current greater density and increased transit usage along Lake Street, Hennepin, and Nicollet, many came away with a desire for rapid, high quality transit improvements. This post does not revisit the many, justified reasons for 3A. Instead, it focuses on the many, justified reasons for transit improvements in several additional corridors in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

High quality improvements are warranted in south Minneapolis. In this post, I will respond to Brendon’s request to detail planned improvements. I’ll also point to other regions’ experiences with realistic, implementable investments in transit speed and quality.

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