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.

Barriers to access at Van White

After undertaking a thorough analysis and carefully assessing alternatives, this plan concludes that the extent of transit-oriented development that may occur at the Penn Avenue Station is a grand total of one mixed-use building.  One.  The 21st Street Station area?  No new development (this is consistent with the City’s Comprehensive Plan).  Van White and Penn are so constrained by freeway viaducts, freight rail lines and topography (Penn Avenue Station is at the bottom of a valley between two “high bluffs”), that even if the market would support office or residential development in these areas, very few structures could even be built.  Existing roadway and pedestrian connections are very limited at all three of these stations, with the plan envisioning opening day at Penn Avenue with no direct roadway access to the station.  The nearest bus transfer point will be 1/5 mile away on a route that carries very low ridership.

West Lake and Royalston are legitimate locations for LRT stations.  But these could still happen with a different alignment.  The other three stations are so constrained by topography, existing infrastructure (freeways, freight rail) and the existing development pattern, that it seems like they ought to be scrapped to save money and reduce travel time from Eden Prairie.  That’s why we chose 3A in the first place, right?

The Southwest LRT line may provide enough of an amenity to lure some commuters from the southwest suburbs out of there cars.  But by skipping the jobs, population density and transit-dependent populations of Uptown, the line will not be serving Minneapolis, and thus will be primarily suburban focused, where urban form and densities are not transit-supportive.  I sincerely hope that the line doesn’t suffer the fate of Northstar, and give more ammunition to those who would oppose future transit projects.

In summary, this plan brings into clear focus the two key concerns I have about the proposed alignment.  LRT can be very successful in the region (Hiawatha had record ridership in 2010 and may approach 50% operating cost recovery from fares in 2011), but how successful can it be without serving the dense, urban, transit-supportive neighborhoods of Minneapolis?  And, do we really want to build new, permanent transit infrastructure for the southwest metro and fail to serve the second downtown of Minneapolis?

8 thoughts on “Train in the Woods

  1. A proposal to cut stations in Minneapolis is inevitable. Hopefully at that time there will be the political will and vision to open up the alignment discussion again.

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  3. It’s unfortunate that the FTA stopped focusing so heavily on the cost-effectiveness index (which is biased toward reducing travel time) only about three months after the routing was officially decided. The change led to the inclusion of the three “missing” stations in the Central Corridor line, so I believe it would have affected the Southwest LRT routing as well.

    Given the current political climate, I think the Southwest line is going to be delayed a bit. I’d like to see something built sooner rather than later, but if it gets delayed, it should give an opportunity to re-evaluate the alignment.

    If a realignment doesn’t happen, I hope that the proposed Minneapolis streetcar system will be built to be as compatible with the Southwest LRT system as possible. It might not allow LRT vehicles to run on streetcar lines, but it would be great if streetcars running down Nicollet and/or Hennepin could turn to the west along the Midtown Greenway to access a few Southwest LRT stops.

    But yes — it’s probably appropriate to drop the Penn Ave station from the Southwest LRT plan. Basically the only remaining “gap” in the Central Corridor line is the intersection of University Ave & Cleveland Ave, and that’s got way more ridership potential than this spot.

  4. What continues to frustrate me is the notion that streetcars in Minneapolis are somehow equivalent to missing out on Southwest LRT service. Even imagining for a moment that every line in the City’s long-term streetcar plan actually gets built within the next decade, exactly how will mobility or access be improved? While this kind of infrastructure might spur valuable development around the city, it’s certainly not going to do anything to better connect people to jobs.

    Given the gradually expanding employment base in Uptown (see Mozaic), we can hope that some of the mobility challenges in the area will be mitigated by the growth of white collar jobs, and the daytime uses they support, near the dense residential neighborhoods. But on a regional scale, the chosen Southwest alignment–and Minneapolis’s underwhelming reaction–will not do much to strengthen Minneapolis neighborhoods or make most city residents’ lives any easier.

    And while I don’t have the figures in front of me, I recall that a sizable portion of the reverse (east to west) commutes on Southwest are predicted to come from the Central Corridor. So St. Paul residents. That’s great, but you’ve really got to wonder what, if anything, Minneapolis plans to get out of this whole project — especially when Penn and 21st Street get cut.

  5. Pingback: Planning For Southwest Transitway Includes Bike Routes. | Cycle Twin Cities

  6. Good analysis – you can always tell if a politician has never taken the bus or been to the northside if they say that sw transit will improve access to jobs for northsiders.

    When considering the Van White station, don’t forget about the existing industrial area to the north, which has already shown signs of redevelopment and is a likely target for future city efforts.

    I don’t know why there aren’t plans to reroute the 19 to serve the Penn station – that would serve the northside – and it could easily continue west from there to terminate in the park place area, or somewhere on 394 and further improve northside connections.

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