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Steel in the Street

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.

City St Paul Charlotte Minneapolis Portland
Line Central Blue Line Hiawatha Streetcar
Length (miles) 10.8 9.6 12.1 3.9
Stops 23 15 19 33
Time (minutes) 37 25 37 18
Top speed (mph) 35 50 50 35
Net speed (mph) 18 23 20 13
Cost (M$) 980 462 715 57
M$ per mile 91 48 59 15
Planning (years) 20+ 5 15 2
Year open 2014 2007 2004 2001

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.

28 thoughts on “Steel in the Street

  1. Steel in the street – I love it! I never understood how this project got to be so bloated in the first place. Now that I see that other places don’t have this problem I really have to wonder what’s wrong with us.

  2. Right on, Erik! Your comparison of the Central Corridor LRT proposal to the Charlotte Blue Line is a perfect illustration of the bloated mess that the the CC project has become. My favorite item you state here is: “Using technologies that suited the locations avoided the need for lawyers to be involved.”

    Personally, as a regular 94 Express Bus rider, I am not looking forward to having that route eliminated and substituting a much slower option for getting between the cities. When will our public officials understand that we need to think of the wider network and broader transit connections rather than one single misplaced line?

  3. Extremely important point about the cost efficiency index. A look at how often it has hampered decision-making in other metro area would be revealing. How many have hit the max and had to scale back? Steel in the street is a great way to think about it.

  4. I followed the link to Charlotte’s planning department, and it just made me sick. They are going to beat us out every time for money. They have so many things in the works at once and we get excited about two.

    I can see why we are behind. You have made it very obvious. Something is wrong here.

  5. Thanks, everyone. I just want to get the word out. Having been on top of this for 20 years I still cannot believe that we’ve gotten where we are today, an EIS that is horribly inadequate and about to have to stand up to 3 full lawsuits in court. It makes me sick, too.

    Bob, I can’t answer as to how many places run up against the CEI like we do because we don’t hear all that discussion. Informally, I was told that it’s pretty rare that the CEI really drives the design as much as it has here.

    What I can tell you is that our process has consistently been about chasing the money, looking at just what the Feds will fund and carefully designing everything around that process. When Portland put in their first streetcar in 2001, they got zip from the Feds because it wasn’t supported by the FTA. They did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.

    Now, streetcars *are* supported by the FTA and Portland is expanding theirs. Many other cities are moving ahead on their lines, too.

    If we’ve learned one thing through this process, I believe it is this: Do not chase the money, solve the problems. The money will find a way if you have a solution that people are willing to get on board.

  6. The Met Council does have a master plan they are working off of, yes? Isn’t the problem more that they aren’t listening to people? I don’t know what takes them so long compared to other cities though.

  7. I love me a good table, and yours is certainly nice.

    I’ve only been working on this Central Corridor stuff for two years, but there’s a few things I would toss out.

    Firstly, did you adjust your dollars over time? Not that we’ve had hard inflation, but your dollar comparisons are a big part of your argument.

    Also, that the Central Corridor is 23 stations is only the case if you count the five already built in downtown Minneapolis. That’s the running line, but the construction project is only for 18 stations.

    I read the Lynx in Charlotte stuff, and went to the Blue Line Northeast Expansion page. There is an 11 mile line, looking to cost between 930 to 1.1 billion. Could you add that to the table?


    That route follows existing right of way for a while too.

    Also – saying there is planning for 20+ years is disingenuous, I think. It is when Peter Bell says that MPR shoulda known they’d have light rail, and it is in your chart, I think. Because the serious political forces to line this up haven’t been in slow planning for 20 years. Drawing boards do not equal actual projects, in my humble opinion.

  8. The goal of the project has never been to improve public transit, neighborhoods or business opportunities. For more than 25 years, since the early 1980’s, when Ramsey County, MNDOT and the other agencies involved began planning to resurface University Avenue and replace the underground pipes, the goal of the project has been to get and spend as much money as possible. The original idea, was in fact, to replace the local 16A bus service with a streetcar. Unfortunately, the original streetcar idea got lost when the tunnel-visioned government agencies that serve the road construction and affiliated industries discovered that a highway project with an LRT attachment (i.e. Highway 55) costs a lot more than a streetcar line or an LRT line that’s not attached to a highway project.

  9. John, you’re right about the stations. I included those ones already built because I took that from a spreadsheet I have on the amount of time it takes to get from one place to another. I should have noted that – but I sometimes don’t have good notes on my old data.

    Everyone, meet Sheldon Gitis (Sheldon, meet everyone, how are ya?). Sheldon has been more on top of this since the very beginning than everyone – and as a result is sometimes a bit more angry than anyone else. Who can blame him?

    Seriously, you’re right as always, Sheldon, and I was thinking this through today. I say that the reason this LRT was put on University Ave is that the late John Finley insisted on it back in about 1989-1991. But yes, this was taken over by the roadbuilders of the world and given cover by transit advocates who haven’t been asking too many questions.

    I’m trying to get people to ask a few questions. Those of us who have been around a while know that the great “experts” of this project won’t answer them. Once you understand how this all works the whole project becomes pretty despicable – and quickly.

    It does appear to be about money more than anything else. How else could we run up a tab of a billion bucks?

  10. Charlotte is a great comparison. MPR is basically asking for the same floating slab that the Charlotte Convention Center got (since the LRT runs through the building) without all the lawsuits and blowing budgets. There are other vibration/noise mitigation efforts along the line, similar to what the U is asking for. Again, no lawsuits in Charlotte. It can be done!

    • I think the recently completed project in Seattle may be more similar than the line in Charlotte. Like the Central Corridor project, the Seattle line runs in the middle the street through a low-income immigrant neighborhood. It also tunnels through the University of Washington.

      The $2.5 billion Seattle line ended up costing more than double the original cost estimate. After lawsuits are settled, businesses losses are mitigated, and new road construction and other foreseeable costs are tallied, I suspect the Central Corridor project will end up costing more than double the originally projected $840,000,000.

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  13. Sorry to post this in two places, but the two discussions are ongoing.

    I just realized that not everyone understands the difference between LRT and a Streetcar. There has been a tremendous amount of confusion here, the two terms being used interchangeably at times. I believe that some of this confusion has been intention on the part of advocates and/or the Met Council.

    Here is the best summary I’ve seen yet of the distinction, prepared for Denver (in pdf format):

    Streetcar and Lightrail Characteristics

    The meaty table is on page 6, but I recommend the whole document. It shows the wide range of options that other cities consider when they compete with us for Federal money and decide how to fit a transit system into an urban landscape.

  14. Cost efficiency comparisons between Charlotte and the Twin Cities should also consider labor cost differences and the fact that tracks here are exposed to freezing and thawing six months out of the year. They can’t be built the same way. According to the U.S. Census avg. monthly earnings in Charlotte in the 4th quarter of 2008 were $3,156.75. In our metro area the avg. monthly earnings number was $3,937.25 – roughly 25% higher.

  15. All fair statements, IMHO. There are a lot of other factors unique to University Ave as well, no matter what we do. I’d also like to point out that when looking at the Hiawatha Line there was an expensive ($80M, if I remember well) tunnel that pretty much had to be there, which is to say that the rest of it came in pretty much in line with Charlotte’s experience.

    We can’t be exact on any of this without a careful study. However, we do know that a lot of the expense of the Central Corridor is based on utility relocations which are not needed for a streetcar, and that experience suggests that a streetcar is about 1/3 the cost of LRT. I believe very strongly that not only can we build a better system on University Avenue, but we can build it for less than $400 million (and possibly a lot less, but not likely less than $200M).

    If I didn’t think there were alternatives to the LRT plan, I probably wouldn’t bother to say a thing. I think it’s incumbent on those who complain to have an alternative, and you’ve seen mine. More to the point, the plan in place is so fatally flawed that it probably cannot be built, at least without a ton more money (as Sheldon points out). Peter Bell himself confessed on MPR that the odds of the plan being built are now “50-75%”, which is to say far from “inevitable”.

    I hope you can see the many reasons – based on personal needs, planning, transportation, and development – why a “Plan B” is a good idea.

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  17. I wish there was more in the MSM that explained the situation as clearly as you do. I do not get how this project got where it is without people asking some tough questions along the way. It is obviously a lot more than just a rail line at this point!

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