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Transit in the Twin Cities

Since I started serving on the Technical Advisory Committee for the Riverview Corridor transit project, I’ve had a front row seat from which to view the planning process here in St Paul. This isn’t the first time I’ve served on a group like this, but it is the most intensive and serious effort so far.

As a built urban environment, this is not an easy place to plan transit. Traversing the West Seventh neighborhood is only one problem – it has to cross the Mississippi eventually, which will be expensive.

I would like to tell you what I think is the ideal place for transit from Downtown St Paul to the airport and beyond, but it would be inappropriate. The process that we are moving through seems so deeply flawed that jumping to a “solution” is simply not what is needed. Whatever comes out of this is likely to be inadequate and jumbled.

The Riverview Logo.  Yes, it's a train.

The Riverview Logo. Yes, it’s a train.

Like many government processes that seem strange or inadequate transit planning in the Twin Cities evolved gradually for important historical reasons that are not entirely valid today. The Hiawatha Line, now the Blue Line, was more or less crammed through in the mid 1990s by Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin because the agency best suited to do it, the Metropolitan Council, constantly dragged their feet. By setting up the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority the line was finally built.

That process was duplicated at the County level through the Twin Cities. The Central Corridor, now known as the Green Line, was a joint project of Hennepin and Ramsey County.

A pleasant urban street.

A pleasant urban street.

The inadequacies of the latter project have been discussed here at length. A substandard sidewalk only ten feet wide with no on-street parking to shield pedestrians has created an environment that cannot possibly be called “pedestrian friendly”.

How did that happen? The process selected a mode (LRT) and then an alignment (University Avenue) and then proceeded to find a way to make it fit. Nevermind that a streetcar system could have served the street for less money and left more room for a real pedestrian realm that is safe and attractive. This was an LRT project that had to be justified.

Justifying such a project is done on two major criteria – ridership and redevelopment potential. Given the need to evaluate each line as an individual “object project” there is no room to evaluate it against the needs of an entire system. In the case of University Avenue both key criteria pushed the line off of an alignment that would permit high speeds, either on I-94 or in the Burlington Northern tracks, and into the built urban environment of University Avenue.

green-line

The Green Line, both local and through train – and ultimately neither.

Nevermind that people already lived there and were redeveloping University Avenue to suit their needs. Grand plans were being made. Besides, the residents along University Avenue were primarily Black and Asian, which is to say people whose needs and efforts were far too easily dismissed.

The Riverview Corridor does not have the same situation, but the process is similar. An alignment and an appropriate mode will be selected by the committees as the data is brought to bear. But the process is going down the same paths because it is driven by the same impetus.

There is little doubt that LRT down West Seventh is the preferred alignment in the minds of Ramsey County Regional Rail staff. And that’s just plain silly. There are two key differences in this corridor:

  1. The redevelopment potential is not on West Seventh, but rather in underutilized industrial land located along railroad tracks closer to the Mississippi.
  2. Ridership now versus ridership once an interconnected system is built are two very different things.
The CP line and railyard are dominant features in St Paul.

The CP line and railyard are dominant features in St Paul.

The inability to consider the railroad alignments comes in part from a necessity. Existing railroad right-of-way is not usable for transit because the freight lines, owned by the Canadian Pacific and Union Pacific, require a separation of at least 50 feet for safety reasons. There does not appear to be enough room without buying up all of the railroad lines and consolidating them elsewhere in the city, likely on the BNSF right of way.

But that is indeed the problem. The project has to be immediate, not truly long term and visionary. An interconnected system of buses or streetcars on Seventh that meets a fast train in the rail corridors in a few appropriate places with a seamless transition would obviously serve the needs of riders and developers the most over the next fifty years and beyond. Yet those considerations cannot be part of the process.

Cramming LRT down Seventh is essentially impossible. A fixed guideway of any kind would not leave room for the 23k plus cars per day that travel this street, Minnesota Highway 5, and handle the very large crowd that already spill out beyond the fourteen foot wide sidewalks between the Xcel Center and the night life of Seventh Street. At only 80 feet wide, the street is far too narrow – and at 120 wide the crunch on University seems positively spacious.

On Seventh there are more cars, more pedestrians, and fewer feet to put it all in.

RV-Map-9-25-14-21-REVISEDThe Technical Advisory Committee will consider putting LRT in the middle of traffic without a fixed lane, among other considerations. Where I’m supposed to keep an open mind I cannot possibly see this working. The long trains will be inherently less safe operating in traffic than they are on University, which saw three deaths just last year.

There is in place right now a “Safe Streets Initiative” directed by the Fort Road Federation to make West Seventh safer. Crossing Seventh as a pedestrian is difficult enough and the horrific accidents at Victoria and Lexington are not acceptable. The street needs far more attention than this particular project can possibly give it.

The need for these “innovations” that put a heavy load on Seventh are all driven by a process that cannot look at the long term by design. And that is what needs to change.

The group has spent about $2 million so far simply gathering public input and data for this project. It is, essentially, re-inventing the wheel one more time for a new object project that doesn’t really get us to a coherent system that actually meets the stated criteria for serving riders and encouraging appropriate redevelopment.

What all transit needs is someone obviously in charge.

What all transit needs is someone obviously in charge.

What process would? The Twin Cities are poorly served by transit because there is not one agency that has complete control over the process. One agency that has authority over design, build, maintenance, and operation would be able to make the appropriate trade-offs between bus and rail transit in various corridors. Combining it with an established urban design center that is charged with implementing best practices of aesthetics, safety, and convenience would give us the ability to develop transit more coherently.

For example, the rail lines that exist may not go away tomorrow. The CP spur to the old Ford Plant is an easy buy, but what about the UP line to the great redevelopment site by the ADM elevators – now small and obsolete by any modern standard? Why does the CP need the Short Line when they can’t run double-stack containers through it with the short bridge clearance?

Only an agency that’s in it for the long haul could possible make those decisions that benefit an entire system. And it would be best for riders, too.

Such an agency would require a visible public face – a director who is charged with increasing ridership anyway they can. I imagine someone wearing a conductor’s hat, like the late Corbin Kidder sometimes did, and showing up on buses to ask people what they need to make their journey better.

Ultimately, the problem is accountability. Right now, we have almost none at all. That is what has to change.

The Ford Site is the big redevelopment prize, but serving it will be hard.  So how will it be done well?

The Ford Site is the big redevelopment prize, but serving it will be hard. So how will it be done well?

Where do I see the Riverview Corridor running? What mode would work best? I honestly don’t care that much because anything we come up with will be a compromise – yet another “object project” that is inadequate in one or more ways. The worst mistake we can make would be to duplicate the Blue Line, where an attempt to be all things for all considerations ultimately served none of them particularly well.

The problems we face are not a matter of will to make transit happen. They are a matter of accountability and vision. We aren’t going to get that with the system we have now, necessary as it was to get the Hiawatha Line built in the first place.

We need to rethink what we are doing. It’s not about rethinking transit, it’s about rethinking the need to get something done that serves the next generations.

16 thoughts on “Transit in the Twin Cities

  1. Thanks Erik for these comments. I think this is a very fair analysis of where we are at in the process. It is obvious that the Met Council doesn’t and will not have complete control of the process. Otherwise Ramsey County wouldn’t be bucking their 2040 Regional Transit Plan that does not show anything more than planned improvements to the 54 bus on W. 7th Street. I am not going to try defend those planners, but it does show the lack of coordinated approach you mention or, a “Corbin Kidder” approach if I understand you correctly.

    I prefer the messy democratic process that Ramsey County has brought to the table, not that I like their thinking along the way or even some of their tactics which are inefficient and not exactly honest with the neighborhood. The West End is, at minimum, a pawn in the big money interests of the Chamber of Commerce (their share is bigger than ours thinking) and the big picture transit planners too. In the end, I also will probably accuse Ramsey County of being wrong, but I hope not and the West End, in particular, still has something to say about this.

    I do have a preference and the process will require all of those interested enough to make their case too. I have heard calls for a better transit offering in the West End and I think it is Arterial BRT. (Look for more of my comments on this in the Community Reporter Feb 1.) Arterial BRT can be implemented on W7th which is where the riders are now. It likely will improve transit, it will improve cross walks at stops, and it may be interim until we see what comes along in those development areas along the rail spurs and Shepard Rd you mention. Given it’s relatively low costs, it also probably will not be viewed as a mistake, although, the success of arterial BRT is not a slam dunk as the Red line struggles a bit and Snelling A line is just finishing construction. Maybe some will say we didn’t go far enough in 2016, as we might someday have that density that can justify another look. I believe it has been studied maybe four times with this current study, so this in not likely to be the last either.

    What we need is a cogent and non destructive to the neighborhood solution for the next, oh lets say until 2040 the Met Council’s date. That is what is required in 2016.

    By the way, thanks for your efforts at the TAC. It is appreciated here and in the neighborhood as we all try to understand this important issue.

    • Thanks, Kent. You’ve been on top of this all the way and you know what’s going on. It’s getting more than a little crazy.
      My point is that we can’t just say “We need a project here” and put something down that will work effectively. We need a long-term commitment and accountability all the way through. The system we have just isn’t designed for that. We have to get there somehow.

      • Thanks Erik, I share your concern about the process. Advisories have become particularly abusive of process in my opinion. Between the requirements of open meeting law, busy neighbors that have to rely on staff information and advice and the fact that staff holds not only the information but the means of distribution of it make for at this point a fairly dysfunctional process. As a veteran of several of these, I’ve watched with concern the manipulation of our neighbors toward staff decisions and sometimes a sense of wonder at how it is done. Knowing all this, we do need from the PAC as you say, to put something down that will work effectively. Wish we had more votes in the neighborhood. If the Advisory staff gets crazy in what I assume is their desire to interpret opinion as wanting LRT, it may take a lawsuit.

      • It’s all so terribly frustrating. Redesigning a city takes a much bigger effort than this – it’s a commitment that has to stretch far beyond one project. Ultimately, when we talk redevelopment, it’s about what kind of redevelopment and where. Big box apartments all along Seventh? No, I don’t think so.
        To talk about redevelopment without a clear vision is suicide for a city, in my opinion.

  2. So, Eric, I take it you are essentially saying that the political and administrative systems that are in place do not allow correct analysis and good decision-making. I’m not up on the details of the transit controversies–other than observing the obvious floundering–but this incapacity is evident in the areas I do follow a bit more, such as energy policy, garbage policy, mining, environmental law enforcement, feedlots, etc.

    My sense of Peter M., and probably many other pols including Governor Dayton, is that their career formula is delivering high-capital projects–the higher the better–that deliver the maximum pork to bankers, construction trades, contractors, vendors, and so on. Whether these projects actually make sense is beside the point; who really cares outside of a few do-gooders? Thus, the reality that BRT might make a lot better sense than rail is a shrug to them….

    All too often, token citizens on advisory committees are coopted, confused, and become part of the problem. It appears that this is not happening to you!

    • Thank you! I didn’t get into the cronyism which has been a feature because I want to fix the problem more than anything. I want accountability first and foremost. That will solve everything.

      • Fixing problems usually requires a correct analysis of what is causing the problems. People are very reluctant to recognize that systems are deeply, profoundly broken. I suppose it feels too disloyal, too discouraging.

      • Our system for creating transit here is indeed profoundly broken. It has to be the reason why a streetcar is listed at $50M per mile when everywhere else it has been installed at $25M per mile. And the Green Line at $100M per mile is inexcusable.

  3. We are so crazy far behind in getting transit in the cities that it is absolutely frustrating. Everyone has a pet project and no one wants it in their backyard it seems. Very little seems to happen. The green line is really slow and awful I don’t know what the point of that was. Who is it supposed to serve? Is it really all about development?

    • That is one problem, but I think the main problems are the cost of what we put in (usually double what they would be anywhere else) and the time it takes to get anything in place. Both of these are related to the ad hoc nature of the system we use for development.
      However, part of me doesn’t want to speed anything up at all because bad decisions will be made. An agency that can make longer term decisions is needed first and foremost to me.

  4. Wouldn’t a big agency like you propose be even worse for communities that already feel these projects are being shoved down their throats? I see a rise in lawsuits, not fewer.

    • It might be in some ways. But at least they would know who is in charge to complain to.
      They would also know up front more information that people care about – stops, schedules, etc.
      I imagine such an agency being more gradual about improvements – installing a bus line first and then as it grows in popularity proposing an upgrade. That would almost certainly be more popular than what is done now.

  5. Pingback: Visions for West Seventh | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

  6. Pingback: Some Visions for West Seventh Transit | streets.mn

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