Three Complaints and Three Ideas for Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Future METRO System

Originally posted on Streets.MN

It’s busy times for the Metro Transit system in the Twin Cities. Although the roadblocks seem endless, the Southwest Green Line light rail extension is agonizingly inching towards construction next year. The Bottineau Blue Line extension is seemingly on pace to start construction sometime a year or two after that. The Orange and Gold Line bus rapid transit projects are also deep in the pipeline.

All of this comes at the same time that the transit funding process for the Twin Cities has been upended by the dissolution of the Counties Transit Improvement Board and the decision by Hennepin and Ramsey Counties to double their transit taxes to raise additional funds. This is a blow against the regionalism that has (often successfully) characterized the MSP metro’s approach to a myriad of issues, but it had become a troublesome arrangement for transit, which is of considerably less importance to the five suburban counties than to the two urban ones.

The imminent construction of two light rail lines and two highway BRT routes, and a major change in funding structure gives us an opportunity to take a step back and look at what has been accomplished in expanding transit in MSP, and consider strongly what ought to come next. The finish line set by the 2030 Transit Vision (authored in 2010) for the region is not near, but it is in sight. The first of many scheduled four year updates to the 2040 metro transit vision is also due next year. The arc of a transit project in MSP is long. The Central Corridor took decades in wrangling to get built. The Southwest and Bottineau projects have been planned for nearly a decade and a half. The coming few years will determine the next set of METRO priorities after the current wave of projects.

 

What Has Worked and What Hasn’t

To date, the METRO system consists of two light rail lines, one commuter rail line, and one commuter BRT line. It’s not homerism to say that despite a tortured history, the blue and green line light rail routes have been among the most successful light rail projects ever constructed in the United States. Consider that the MSP system serves the fourth highest number of riders per route mile (3,344) in the country. The three ahead of it; one in Boston and two in San Francisco, all connect to underlying heavy rail systems, and have all been operating since 1912. The METRO Green Line continues to break its own ridership records while large areas along its track are only just beginning to develop. As American cities west of the Appalachians have increasingly turned back to rail transit in the last two decades, almost nowhere has built as successfully as the Twin Cities.

But few places have also failed as spectacularly. The Northstar Commuter Rail line and Red Line BRT have been abject disasters. Of nearly thirty commuter rail systems in the country, the Northstar Line ranks sixth from the bottom in terms of ridership, attracting just 2,400 riders a day, at a subsidy of $18.31 per ride. More people ride daily on the Railrunner Express between Santa Fe and Alburqurque, NM than on the Northstar Line. The Red Line has performed even worse, struggling to pull even 800 weekday riders, and inspiring a near morbid fascination with riding the void on this website. Combined, the Northstar and Red Line projects cost about $495 million (in 2017 dollars) to construct, and today carry less than a fifth of the weekday riders of Metro Transit’s #5 local bus, whose aBRT upgrade into the D-Line is not yet funded.

With two wildly successful routes and two sour lemons, the present day METRO high frequency, high capacity, congestion-free system shows both the promise and peril of transit investments. What should concern anyone who cares about transit in MSP is that it’s the lemon model that’s being more closely hewed to in the next wave of projects. The Green and Blue Line LRT extensions and the Orange and Gold Line BRT projects are all commuter-focused routes to the suburbs, which use the right-of-way of least resistance, not the one closest to its customers. The properties of the two successful LRT routes, which serve inner-city routes and cut through existing and developing neighborhoods, are not readily apparent in the current slate of projects.

In full fairness, it’s highly likely that these current projects will be much more successful as their predecessors. Some lessons have certainly been learned. These routes make plenty of urban stops on their way out to the prairie, serve more job and population heavy areas, and all should offer a higher quality, more reliable service than the oft-delayed Northstar or the MOA-terminating Red Line (which would get a big boost from using the Orange Line stations on I-35W once complete, finally offering a straight shot to downtown Minneapolis). But the transit vision that has promoted these projects is incomplete, and the expected revenue system outlined in the current 2040 vision does not represent a satisfactory or transit system. As the region’s transit decision makers and planners turn toward plotting the next set of long-range priorities, they ought to recognize and correct three central limitations of the current approach.

#1. The Current Projects are Overly Focused on Suburban Commuter Trips

The unifying theme of the Green and Blue LRT extensions, the Northstar Line, and the Red, Orange, and Gold BRT routes, is their target audience. All six projects are dedicated towards the commuter, whether commuting from or to the suburbs. This is no small matter—increasing numbers of low wage jobs are found in suburban areas, which present real transportation challenges. The strongest argument for the Green Line LRT and Orange Line BRT projects is the connections they make between downtown Minneapolis and major job centers in the south and southwest metro.

But designing a transportation system around job sites has two issues. The first is that it does not necessarily serve places where workers actually live. The Green and Blue Line extensions in particular, avoid the densest areas of Minneapolis. In fact, the planning process for both routes expressly eliminated alternatives that would’ve routed the trains directly through some of the densest areas of South and North Minneapolis. The density of census tracts within a quarter mile of planned Green Line extension stations is 5.26 people per acre (2015 ACS 5-Year estimates). The density of census tracts within a quarter mile of planned Blue Line extension stations is 5.27 people per acre. In contrast, the current Green Line serves areas with a density of 11.51 per acre, and the current Blue Line serves an area with a density of 11.73 people per acre (ignoring tract 9800, which is the airport).

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Block Group Population Density Per Acre (2010 Census), with Planned METRO Projects. Lighter is denser.

The second issue is that focusing on trips to and from works relies on a narrow conception of travel and results in a system that does not serve other kinds of trips well. In larger cities with more fully developed transit systems, people do not just take transit to work, but to shop, to visit friends, to attend events, and every other conceivable reason to travel.

Systems that serve all kind of trips are systems that allow people to live car-free. Systems that serve just one kind of trip are systems that allow people to cover only a portion of their trips without a car.

When I was born in New York City, my parents did not own a car. After we moved to a commuter suburb, my Dad took the train to work every day. But my parents bought a car, and eventually a second, because it was not possible to make any other trip besides commuting to Manhattan on the train.

A cautionary and contemporary example for Minneapolis-St. Paul can be found down I-35 in Dallas, Texas, which has the largest light rail system in the country, and quite possibly the most ineffective. The DART system was opened in 1996 and is supported by a coalition of Dallas and suburban municipalities. The result is a hub-and-spoke system that is exclusively useful for commuting.

The consequences for ridership have been significant. DART has spent roughly $5 billion dollars to build a 93 mile system that serves just over 100,000 weekday riders—just barely over 1,000 riders per route mile. To put in local terms, Dallas has spent over 250% what Minneapolis-Saint Paul has spent on light rail, for just 140% of the ridership.

What’s extraordinary is that despite significant expansion of its system, DART’s ridership has increased arithmetically, not exponentially. When a new line has opened, ridership on other routes have not changed. That’s a consequence of the commuter-focused system design, which precludes any kind of network effects. Despite reaching more places than ever, none of these new places are where potential riders in already-covered places want to travel to. By virtue of the system design, the Green and Blue Line extensions are unlikely to add much to the value of the METRO system for people already along it—except if they need to commute to a job site along the new route.

#2. Local Decision Makers Are Too Focused on Using Transit to Spark New Development

Among the major drivers of the expansion of transit in the United States has been the prospect of Transit-Oriented Development (TOD). The formulation is simple; high quality transit is a unique amenity, and it makes high density urbanism more possible. As a result, development of transit, especially rail transit, has been ascribed almost mystical properties to call into being intense new development (subsidies often play a less heralded role). The Twin Cities are no different, and there’s a certain amount of sense to this strategy. Growing cities should be encouraging development that makes use of land more efficiently, requires less car use, and strengthens neighborhood economies.

But there’s an increasing risk here of confusing the cherry for the sundae. The primary focus of transit investments should be to improve the quality of transit. Whatever else comes as a by-product of that is a bonus, not the aim. While still a candidate, Minneapolis Mayor-Elect Jacob Frey appeared on a local conservative podcast and was asked to defend the expensive policy of light rail expansion. His first justification was to trumpet light rail’s development-causing properties. But he’s wrong. The justification for better transit is better transit.

To put the emphasis on the reverse, on Development-Oriented Transit, is as useful as to put your pants on backward. When transit is planned around development, instead of development planned around transit, it creates incentives that actively harm the quality of the transit. Consider two alternatives for a light rail route: one that traverses a number of pre-war neighborhoods with a mix of single family homes, smaller multi-family buildings and commercial nodes, or the other, which runs past a stretch of greenfield plots and light industrial plots. The former option is preferable for serving existing residents today and supporting trips types other than commuting, but the latter option is much more conducive to development. Decision makers in MSP have twice now preferred the latter. These political leaders are not blind, but they are putting in significant amounts of faith in future development to fill in the gaps and build developments that will create denser neighborhoods than the older ones that were passed up. While there has been plenty of development around light rail lines in the Twin Cities, much of it has been subsidized, and what hasn’t has not been evenly spread—suggesting development drivers other than transit.

Preferring DOT to TOD also requires ignoring and under-serving the existing transit-oriented development in the Twin Cities. That not-so hypothetical pre-war neighborhood, for instance, is OG TOD. The streetcar network that once criss-crossed the Twin Cities supported neighborhoods built at a density meant for walking and transit service. That hasn’t changed, and the potential for infill development in existing neighborhoods is extremely untapped and also extremely important for the Twin Cities to realize. To do that, transit decision makers must better value existing TOD and not allow a belief in DOT to dilute the utility of proposed projects.

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A map of transit-oriented development in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Source.

To some extent, virtually every American city which has built rail or BRT transit in the US has made entreaties at the altar of development. But the apex of this approach has come in the mass of modern streetcar projects pursued in recent years, a ‘Desire Named Streetcar’ that would’ve shocked even Don Pickrell. The goal of these projects, from Kansas City, MO, to Tucson, AZ, is development along their route by virtue of the magical properties of rail in the street. But in pursuing the lower-cost streetcar mode, cities have sacrificed the usefulness of the project as transit. The best example can be found in Atlanta, where the city’s less than three mile streetcar is slower than walking, and ridership evaporated the moment that a $1 fare was introduced. This is an amusement ride, not a transit investment. To what benefit does living alongside the streetcar provide, besides its aesthetic properties, that would lead to development along its route? Local residents would’ve been better served if the city had installed a roller coaster along the route instead.

In a useful contrast made by former University of Minnesota transit planning professor David Levinson (now at the University of Sydney), BRT, which provides useful high frequency, high capacity, congestion free travel, does actually seem to encourage some development. Simply put, development is a secondary objective for a transit project, behind the primary purpose of providing better transit. If a project fails at its primary purpose, it’s not likely to succeed at its secondary one.

#3. The Cost Savings and Political Ease of Using Legacy Freight Railroad Right-of-Way (and Interstate Highways) aRE Being Preferred to Better Transit

The two most consequential decisions for the Green and Blue Line extensions were to eliminate the 3C alignment through Uptown and the 2L alignment on Penn Avenue. The preferred alternatives will essentially take both routes through the woods, instead of through the densely populated neighborhoods their routes could possibly have served. There’s nothing particularly complex to understand about these decisions. They were taken because the cost in dollars and political capital of building light rail under or through Nicollet and Penn Avenues dwarfed the cost of using existing right-of-way.  Despite all the bizarre headachescaused by the Southwest LRT route, that calculation was still almost certainly correct.  But that doesn’t mean the cost wouldn’t have been worth it.

The point here isn’t to re-litigate these decisions which have been made, and would only be revisited if these projects completely collapse. But it’s important that we fully account for the issues that accompany taking the easy way out. Station location matters a great deal, and transit works best when it is embedded in the heart of areas with dense populations, attractions, and activity. These places are not always co-located with the existence of legacy freight railroad rights-of-way.

Nor are they co-located with interstate highways, which often destroyed them when they were built. The Orange and Gold Line BRT projects do directly serve inner city neighborhoods, with median stations accessible from local street bridges above the highway or underpasses below it. But the Twin Cities do not have BRT that uses dedicated lanes on local streets, which would marry the mode with the development pattern best suited for it, but would also be a great deal more politically costly than even bike lanes, the usual bête noire of reactionary Twin Citizens. The resulting compromise, aBRT, is something to celebrate, support, and expand like crazy, but it’s still a compromise.

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Two different approaches toward transit routes. On the left, Denver’s Alameda Station, opened in 1994, served by five lines, which is part TOD, part Park N’Ride. On the right, St. Paul’s Dale St. Station, opened in 2014, served by one line, which has some TOD, but is embedded in an existing neighborhood. Both are reasonably successful (2306 boardings at Alameda1385 boardings at Dale (in its second week of operation, is there more recent data?)), but demonstrate stark differences in priorities.

Few cities have gambled more on using existing right-of-way than Denver. The Mile High City became a darling of transit advocates nationwide after voters approved an ambitious plan for transit expansion. The result has been a system that has expanded enormously quickly, with six LRT lines and two commuter lines completed in the past fifteen years, but a single trunk legacy freight corridor carries most of the load out of downtown. That has forced Denver’s LRT planners to build the system to serve TOD and Park N’ Ride lots, which are often only feasible on one side of the station. It’s a limiting long term arrangement, and it doesn’t encourage walkable urbanism, car-free living, or any of the commonly described ancillary benefits of transit. The reliance on freight rail corridors has also left much of town unserved, and has resulted in a hub-and-spoke system, but with just a single spoke. Ridership across the whole system, both rail and bus, has struggled, and hasn’t come close to meeting the hoped-for goals of the original planners and politicians.  Despite Denver’s RTD TheRide system having seven lines, 62 stations, and more than double the rail miles of the Twin Cities’ METRO system, both carry almost the exact same number of riders.

MSP shows no risk of going down quite the same extreme route as Denver, but the issues with substandard station locations are important to consider, and have already limited the potential of several local projects. If costs for better stations and routes are prohibitive, METRO decision makers need to establish alternative ways to serve these most transit-friendly places.

 

Pivot Back To The Core City With Future Projects

The ongoing Green, Blue, Orange, and Gold projects aren’t bad projects. They’re not being shepherded by dumb people. Almost 150,000 people live in census tracts served by Green and Blue Line extension stations. Over a quarter of the region’s jobs will be reachable by light rail after their completion. The completion of the next phase of transit projects in MSP will be a benefit to the region.

But the work is incomplete. The Green and Blue LRT lines and Red, Orange, and Gold BRT lines have drawn the outlines of the Twin Cities’ transit system. But like a coloring book, the spaces need to be filled in. aBRT will carry some of the load, and local bus service already pulls its weight. But the METRO system could do much more—add over 125,000 more people to the LRT catchment area (population estimates are the sum of census tracts within a quarter mile of LRT stations), make new connections between existing routes that make car-free living possible, and serve the fastest growing and densest areas of the state. Best of all, the Twin Cities can compromise in one key aspect: much of this vision is can be accomplished while continuing to rely on legacy freight railroad right-of-way routes.

The key component is political will. Projects that serve smaller geographic areas but more people are not necessarily political winners. Political leaders, especially at the county level, may be harder to get on board to support core-city transit projects. But transit systems are networks, where no piece operates in isolation. When the network is strengthened, all users win. When transit reaches new destinations in the core city, it benefits everyone in the suburbs who has transit access. When transit reaches new neighborhoods in the core city, it benefits jobs in suburban locations. After a wave of projects focusing on coverage, which will dramatically increase the geographic footprint of transit in the MSP metro, the next set of priorities calls for a pivot back to the core and a new focus on ridership.

There are two projects which have already survived initial planning studies that merit more support in the first update of the 2040 transit plan and beyond. There’s also one route that has not been studied, but recent trends suggest it deserves consideration. Here are those three routes.

Riverview

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The Riverview Corridor transit study, which is just now winding down, puts forward what may be the final alternative for one of the longest-debated transit corridors in the Twin Cities. While goodness knows I have major problems with the study’s recommendation of a modern streetcar line running from downtown St. Paul to the airport, the project still has a good deal of merit. Requiring about 6.5 miles of new track and a new bridge over the Mississippi, the Riverview Line would close the “transit triangle” between the region’s three major nodes: downtown Minneapolis, downtown St. Paul, and the Airport/MOA/downtown Bloomington.

The project is also superior to a straight-forward streetcar project. The area of mixed traffic is small, and most of the route would have its own dedicated lane. The necessary tie ins with the Green and Blue Lines at either end also mean that the technical specifications of the rolling stock couldn’t differ dramatically from the current quality of the LRT vehicles. Perhaps, in the future, when our collective fixation with cheap street parking is broken down, the route could be retrofitted to have fully exclusive right-of-way.

One difficulty with the project is that the Riverview route doesn’t serve the densest areas of the metro, at least in between the major nodes at either end. Just under 18,000 people live in the census tracts served by the Riverview route. But the density of 10.17 people per acre is conducive to transit service. The West 7th area also scratches both TOD itches. There’s area developing already near United Hospital just outside of downtown. But there’s also a lot of developable land in the middle of the route, running from the area around the expanding Victoria St. Apartments all the way to the snake-bitten Sibley Plaza.

Above all, political considerations may push Riverview to the front of the line. After two light rail expansions in Hennepin County, Ramsey County will be anxious to see a return for their patience. The proposed route will serve downtown St. Paul with the prestige of rail transit, over two decades after Minneapolis received that benefit. But with the full study complete, the politics and circumstance line up for Minnesota’s capital city.

Midtown — Ford

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With its own alternatives analysis completed in 2014, the Midtown Corridor has been officially on the agenda of regional transit planners for a while. But the line has always been somewhat contingent on the completion of the Green Line extension. With that slowly coming to fruition, the Midtown Corridor should come to the fore.

On the merits, there may be no better transit project in the Twin Cities than a potential Midtown rail line. Just consult the map of population density earlier in the article to see why. The most populated neighborhoods in the entire metro region are in South Minneapolis, between the lakes and I-35. These neighborhoods also use transit at some of the highest rates of anywhere in the Twin Cities, and are car-free at higher rates than almost anywhere else. Uptown is a major shopping and entertainment center, and a minor job center with new hotel and office construction. Neighborhoods to the east of the corridor are also among the region’s greatest concentrations unemployment.

The Midtown Corridor alone, running from the Green Line extension’s West Lake Station to the Blue Line’s Lake St. Station, would travel just four miles, making five stops. In that short stretch, it would serve a massive number of people. Within a quarter mile of the Midtown trench are census tracts holding almost 50,000 people who are not currently within that distance of existing light rail, at a density of 22.60 people per acre—nearly double that of the existing Green and Blue Lines. This is an area that, purely on its own merits, demands better transit.

But the Midtown route’s tie-ins with the Green Line extension and existing Blue Line would also allow it to serve more people than the 3C alignment would’ve, and to create new advantages for existing and potential riders of both older lines. People living along the Green Line extension would have a new and more direct route to reaching the airport. People living along the Blue Line extension would have new access to Uptown’s stores, entertainment, and lakes.

Attention so far has been primarily focused on the Midtown segment. But the unique challenges of connecting two existing lines also suggests opportunities at either end. Imagine a Midtown route that emerges from the future Shady Oak Operations and Maintenance facility, and makes its first stop at the Downtown Hopkins Station. This western route would double up service on the densest, most active, and most TOD-friendly segments of the Green Line extension, and bring fresh attention and more customers to Hopkins, one of the best suburban main streets in the metro.  At the Midtown Corridor’s eastern confluence with the Blue Line, consider Midtown trains running along the same route for two stops, hitting the developing station areas at 38th and 46th Street Stations. There, it would peel off and travel down 46th Street, across the river to St. Paul, serving Highland and the future Ford Site development along the old Canadian Pacific tracks, before merging with the Riverview Corridor at Sibley Plaza and connecting to downtown St. Paul.

This imagined alignment, which would require just around 7.25 miles of new track (and two bridges), 80% of which would be along abandoned freight railroad right-of-way, would provide rail service to nearly 63,000 new people not already near existing lines, and directly serve 167,500 people in total (living in three Hennepin County districts). That’s nearly double the amount of people currently served by the Green Line, over 20,000 more than the current LRT system serves, and none of these estimates factor in any growth along the route, whether in Uptown or the Ford Site.

The sheer numbers of people who stand to benefit from a Midtown rail route is reason enough to push the line forward. Add to that the growth of population, jobs, and attractions in Uptown, the potential network effects from trying together two major routes, the simplified right-of-way, and potential phasing and expansion to serve St. Paul and the Ford Site should push this route to the top of the agenda.

St. Anthony — Ayd Mill

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In the coming five years, no area of Minneapolis-St. Paul is likely to develop as quickly as the old town of St. Anthony, just across the river from downtown Minneapolis. The 2015 ACS estimated the area’s population at just over 2,000. But it’s also seen recent proposals for apartments that would cumulatively add over 1,000 units. Assuming full occupancy and an average of two people per unit, the neighborhood formally associated with polka bars and scofflaw wine and cheese stores will soon double in population, becoming a second skyline and one of the city’s densest areas.

I’m unaware of any serious effort to serve the area with transit, beyond the Nicollet-Central streetcar, which is of dubious benefit. But the streetcar would also miss serving the fast-developing areas around the University, which, to the south, have been the most responsive to the Green Line.

Consider a different (and certainly more fanciful) alternative. This route starts at Robbinsdale, along the Blue Line extension, and (like Hopkins) one of the only suburban main streets properly served by light rail. The route follows the Blue Line extension route as it tortuously tiptoes around North Minneapolis, before breaking off just before Target Field, and slipping underneath Target Field Station, where the Northstar Commuter Rail station currently sits. The route would then add a second stop in the still-developing North Loop, around N 2nd or N 1st St. before crossing the river and Nicollet Island.

Here, there are two options. The cheap option is to negotiate with the freight railroad to run trains through the existing right-of-way that loops St. Anthony, runs past the Bunge Elevator and Van Cleve Park, and eventually merge the route with the Green Line near Prospect Park Station. The bolder and better alternative would be to route the train out of the railroad trench earlier, and through a short, shallow tunnel under 2nd St. SE or University Ave SE, with a stop serving the new district of towers. The train would surface on 2nd St. SE, just past Central Avenue, and run at grade. It would at 6th St. SE, serving Marcy Holmes and the Stone Arch Bridge, then merge with the existing freight rail lines underneath the 10th Avenue Bridge. Using these tracks, the route would stop at Dinkytown and stop again near TCF Bank Stadium and the University’s biomedical campus, before merging with the Green Line at Prospect Park Station.

The second unique stage of this route would branch off at Raymond Avenue Station and make its way to the freight rail tracks of the Ayd Mill Corridor, where it would serve the denser-than-you-think neighborhoods of center-west St. Paul. As a final twist, the line would connect with the Midtown and Riverview routes at St. Clair, but would continue past them (because four different routes all serving downtown St. Paul with ten minute frequencies seemed like too much), to serve the baffling Upper Landing development, and cross the river to serve the hopefully-developing West Side flats, before terminating at the airport, because there’s really nowhere else.

Without factoring any of the future development in St. Anthony, near the University, or on the West Side, this route would put 42,500 new people within a short distance of the light rail system, and would serve 114,000 people in total. It would provide new access into the heart of St. Paul, to the fastest growing neighborhoods in the entire metro, and to the Stone Arch Bridge. Like the Midtown-Ford Corridor proposal, it could also be built in two clear phases. This proposal is the longest shot of the bunch, but it’s predicated on two real concerns: a lack of transit access in St. Anthony, and a vacuum of leadership and vision for the awful Ayd Mill corridor. Why not talk about it?

A True Network of High Frequency, High Capacity, Congestion-Free Routes, Serving MSP’s Major Destinations, Population and Job Centers

That’s the goal. The framework is being built now, but beyond the existing projects, the vision for transit in the Twin Cities is limited to hypothetical increased funding scenarios. That makes it seem like core-city, connecting routes are a luxury. But they’re not, they’re essential to creating the kind of transit system that is useful for riders, conducive to better development, and an efficient use of public money. In the upcoming 2040 MSP Transit Vision update, and in the years beyond as the current slate of projects move toward construction and completion, here’s to hoping the attention of local decision makers turns back towards the gaps left in the core cities, and political leaders and citizens work to build a world-class transit system that exists on more than just fantasy maps.

 

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