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.
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?