As February winds down, a deadline may be passing for the Central Corridor LRT line in Saint Paul. It’s unclear if earlier statements that the lawsuits this plan has generated still have to be settled in order to proceed to final design now that the Federal Government has given the project $45 million through a back door. What we can be sure is that the project is in some trouble. This, along with the Legislative bonding session, has generated some new cheerleading to advance the project. Some of it is far more enlightening than the writers intended.
A recent article by MN2020, a local progressive organization, explains the need for rail in great detail by inviting comparison with another metro area, Charlotte North Carolina. It’s a comparison worth making for reasons the author never intended. This includes the author’s assertion:
The star of this show is the new light-rail line, similar to the one found in the Twin Cities.
To be fair, the article is centered on the many benefits of public transportation, including health, safety, and reduced commuting time – none of which I’ll refute. The successful LRT line in Charlotte, the Blue Line, is being compared only to our own Hiawatha line. But to understand the way that success was created can be found by digging just a bit deeper into the details. The following table is a brief summary of the aforementioned project along with our own Central Corridor, the Hiawatha line, and Portland’s first Streetcar line.
|Top speed (mph)||35||50||50||35|
|Net speed (mph)||18||23||20||13|
|M$ per mile||91||48||59||15|
The first thing anyone should notice regarding our Central Corridor is the cost, roughly twice the tab in Charlotte per mile. The reason for this is that Charlotte placed LRT generally along an existing railroad right of way. They have additional LRT lines planned on similar routes, but for city streets they are planning a 10 mile expanse of streetcar, similar to the Portland line that opened in 2001.
This is important because our planning has always been hampered by the Cost Effectiveness Guidelines, the mysterious Federal formula that determines if Federal money will come our way. While that pressure has been somewhat lifted recently, it’s important to note that other cities that we compete with for that same pot of money are not having the same trouble we do meeting these guidelines. The reason is that they place the appropriate technologies in appropriate locations.
This gets us back to the Central Corridor, currently stalled by lawsuits at both ends and the middle of the run. These suits center on noise, vibration, and the elimination of other city amenities like sidewalks and parking. All of them are the product of insisting that the project be built using the heavier and generally larger LRT systems. Lawsuits of this kind were not filed over the Charlotte LRT or the Portland streetcar systems. Using technologies that suited the locations avoided the need for lawyers to be involved.
Taking 20 years to get where we have in this corridor has been incredibly long in comparison to the experience of other cities as well. It is clear that the top-down approach taken by our Metropolitan Council has not only produced an inferior product to the cities we compete with, it is also very slow. While this extended process has produced many extremely large documents, other cities have successfully put steel in the street.
After having been part of the painfully slow and dictatorial process that produces these inferior results, I have to say that there is only one solution that makes any sense. The Met Council has to be taken off of these projects and a new organization with clear authority and resources in-house to design, build, and operate rail in the same organization. That is, after all, the way it is done in all of the cities that have shown much greater success than we have had. They must be strategic in focus but grassroots in operation, engaging the public far more effectively.
A comparison to Charlotte and other cities is a very good exercise. All of the benefits of rail systems stand as the author intended, but a closer look shows where we are lacking. Advocates for transit in Minneapolis and Saint Paul should look at our competition and how they do things. Constantly making excuses for our inferior processes and results only hampers our ability to move forward in the long run because we are, indeed, competing for resources at the same time we need to build coalitions around the desperate need for better transit. Neither of those goals are helped by a shoddy job.
It’s about steel in the street. Other cities can do it. We can, too.