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Today the Northstar Commuter Rail line opens from Target Field  to Big Lake, with an extension to St. Cloud coming soon.  It’s a commuter rail line, meaning that it’s a full-blown train operating on existing tracks, costing $320M for the 40 miles that it will run.  It’s expected to carry about 4,000 people per day in a few years at speeds up to 80 MPH, but experts say that ridership may be much higher.  As the hoopla becomes a staple on the news for the next few days, a lot of us in Saint Paul might be wondering when we get our ride – and the answer is that we could have had something just like this by now.  But we don’t.

There are other commuter rail lines in various stages of study, but as a Saint Paulite I tend to focus on the Red Rock line from Hastings through the Union Depot in Downtown Saint Paul to the terminal of the Northstar.  The original study in 2001 said this 40 mile run could be built for about $400M and carry about 5,800 people per day.  It was done by Parsons Group, an engineering firm with a lot of experience in these kinds of systems.  Among other achievements of this Pasedena based company is the “T-Rex” project in Denver, a re-work of I-25 that included 11 miles of LRT costing $1.1B – which was completed in 5 years, design to build, two years ahead of schedule.

What happened to the Red Rock line?  The report was received by the Met Council and immediately subject to their own priority system.  The first response was to commission a study of the projected passengers, which the Met Council decided to base on existing bus ridership in the same corridor.  It found that they could expect no more than 1,800 people per day, about a third of what Parsons estimated based on experience in other cities.  The Red Rock suddenly looked like a pretty low priority in comparison to other big schemes.

The Met Council took the position they did for one simple reason:  a big stretch of the Red Rock followed the Burlington Northern tracks through Saint Paul, meeting the Central Corridor at Union Depot and running no more than a mile north of it the entire length.  It was clearly in competition with the plans that they had for a large, 30,000 passenger system in the same stretch of the city for $950M.  The decision was made to assign riders to the Central Corridor, moving at less than half the speed, and that was the end of that.  The Red Rock plan has gathered dust ever since.

What’s remarkable about this is that the Central Corridor, as an LRT project, has serious drawbacks.  If the experience in Portland is any guide, a Streetcar system should cost about 1/3  LRT and take up much less space.  I’ve detailed the many great benefits to the urban layout from this smaller system in previous posts.  If we assume that the University Avenue line could be built for a reasonable 1/2 the cost of an LRT line, we could have built a Streetcar on University AND the Red Rock for about as much money as the current plan – and proceeded on to consider a Streetcar line along the one truly congested street in Saint Paul, Snelling Avenue, that would link tens of thousands of potential riders into the new system.

If that sounds like a huge opportunity missed, there is more.  Ramsey County is trying to launch another study of a potential busway to the airport from Downtown through the West End.  This will be the third such study of transit in the area, and none have considered the possibility of a Streetcar.  The 8 mile stretch would likely quality for money under the Federal Transit Agency’s “Small Start” program, so funding is not an issue.  What we lack is the imagination and will – and the experience we might have had by now if the money we have spent on the oversized LRT system had been put designing a central hub of Commuter rail with Streetcars connecting into it.

If the short sightedness of this has you dazzled, I realize that this is a bit much to digest.  The short version is that systems costing about 1/10 as much per mile as LRT for large lines and smaller systems costing 1/3 as much on city streets were shelved for one highly centralized line that will saw a neighborhood in half.  The net result is that a system with two distinct hubs, one in Saint Paul and one in Minneapolis, has been ignored in favor of a system with one hub in Minneapolis – with not just the blessing, but the active encouragement of the city leaders in Saint Paul.

More to the point, much of this could have been in place today as we celebrate the opening of the Northstar line.  Instead, we have lawyers arguing just how much damage will be done by one central line that will block streets through the campus of the University.

A transit system that starts with the needs of people and works outward may seem like a difficult thing to design.  It’s not.  It starts with what we know and gathers information, such as a complete Origin and Destination Study in the Mac-Groveland neighborhood to find out how people could be better served.  A system for the people is also flexible and scalable, as Commuter Rail has proven to be in communities around the US.  It is not based on backward looking centralized planning and strategies for Urban Removal that were proven to have terrible consequences 40 years ago.  But that is what we have here in Saint Paul.

Here’s to the Northstar Line on it’s first day of operation – may it be a great success!  My hopes for your future are tempered only by my knowledge that we could have had the same thing here, too.

8 thoughts on “Northstar

  1. So this is what happened? It’ just amazing. Tell us more about the Red Rock line, it looks like a great idea!

  2. Thanks, everyone. I expect to get a lot of incoming fire over this one. But it’s the truth. I didn’t bother to get too far into the Red Rock because the reports are online, but follow the links. The Parsons Group did an excellent job, but they were out-of-town experts that were too easy to dismiss. Very sad. But they have a history of getting projects done on time and under budget.

  3. What I don’t understand are the numbers. You have 5,800 per day on the Red Rock, but 30k on the Central Corridor? It may be more expensive, but there’s more need for it, right?

  4. Annalise:

    Northstar and Red Rock are trains that operate on existing rail lines, so they can only run a few hours a day. That’s why they are called “Commuter Rail”. I listed them as scalable experiments because in many cases they can be used to put in something cheap that proves the basic idea, and then expanded on their own track to run all day. This happens a lot. As it stands now, it would roughly replace the 94 bus that has about 9k people per day commute only – the 5800 seems pretty conservative.

    There is plenty of room in the BN corridor to expand the Red Rock to an all-day service, but I like the idea of proving its worth first. If we can justify the stations, etc with just the commuter traffic, the expansion becomes easy. There’s also usually a lot of political will formed by grassroots movements once this happens, so it’ gets around the politics nicely.

    Why is the Central Corridor number so large? Right now, about 25k people per day ride the 16 and 50 on University. The idea is to replace roughly 1/3 of the 16, all of the 50, and all of the 94 express with LRT. That’s how they get the numbers up – by reducing overall service, especially on the express commuter bus.

    What I am advocating is a system that is based on understanding the needs of people, not any particular line here or there. The Red Rock works in that framework, so I use it as an example. I would never say, “This line over another” until we know where the real needs are – and where people are advocating for real improvements. I mentioned Snelling because we need to understand the needs much better than we do.

  5. Can’t we practice artful politics? It’s worth noting that the St Cloud Chamber of Commerce did not endorse Pawlenty in 2006 (or was it 2002?) because of his opposition to Northstar. A very conservative group took a stand in favor of expanding transit their way because they knew they needed it. The line was built.

    Washington County, which would be served by Red Rock, also wants to be part of the transit world, but they are being ignored – I say the first party to stand up for them gets the edge in an otherwise very competitive part of the Metro. How’s that for politics?

  6. I think the Northstar was built first because of the tremendous bottlenecks near the 694/494/94 junction. Plus the area is primed for growth, land aplenty and the St. Cloud region.

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