The Riverview Transit Study Prioritizes Everything Except Good Transit

Originally posted on Streets.MN

The Riverview Corridor study made news last week, after planners revealed the six alternatives that have survived the study’s analysis from which a final recommendation will be chosen. At the Pioneer Press, Frederick Melo has a good summary of what remains, and the paper ran a separate article on the absence of light rail from consideration. In short, the study group is facing two major choices; the mode of transit (aBRT or streetcar), and the route it should take (direct across the river, or a diversion to serve the Ford site). To anyone who has been following this process from the beginning, the natures of the choices have been abundantly clear from the start, but the value of this process has been to quantify the different options, putting dollar amounts to different vehicles and times to different routes. The numbers came in earlier this year, and the options were narrowed accordingly.

But numbers themselves do not determine the outcome, because it’s left to the study group to determine the weights of the competing interests. The recent results from the study have made it clear that virtually every concern, from neighbor’s parking complaints to the blessings of the TOD fairy have been prioritized over what ought to matter most: the actual quality of the transit being built.

The study’s course has led to the bizarre outcome in which the best possible alternative that the study could choose will be an admission that several years and millions of dollars have been wasted.

Short Term Concerns Have Overridden Guaranteed Short, Middle, and Long Term Modal Benefits

When the Riverview Corridor study was first put into motion, many assumed the study was cover for the implementation of rail down the corridor. Politically, a route from Saint Paul to the airport makes tremendous sense. While Minneapolis has enjoyed the direct-to-downtown service of the blue line for over a decade, the capital city has only had that route served by the 54 local bus. The lack of prestige that comes from a lack of a direct airport connection has to sting St. Paul leaders, especially when companies move from downtownto the Mall of America. The completion of such a line would additionally close the “transit triangle,” giving MSP a very satisfying mass transit map, and help spur further development along St. Paul’s West 7th corridor, which offers the best opportunity for an expansion of the density and energy (such as it is) of downtown.

But for city leaders enamored with a rail connection to the airport, it appears that a streetcar will serve much the same benefits as light rail, and without a lot of the heavy political lifting. In the Riverview presentation for May 11th, the researchers recommend dismissing the LRT option (Slide 22) for the following reasons:

  • Greater traffic impact due to dedicated lanes
  • Greater parking and/or sidewalk impacts due to dedicated lanes
  • Greater construction impacts due to dedicated lanes

These negative impacts are undoubtedly accurate, and yet this reasoning is astonishing (Slide A-46, to the left, shows by omission the misshapen political priorities guiding this analysis). Transit projects of this nature are an at least a 50 year investment. The downsides to LRT listed here will be felt for two years post completion, at most. Traffic will adapt to the loss of lanes. Businesses and the neighborhood will get over the loss of parking, or additional parking could be built off of West 7th. Construction impacts will be felt at any given location for only part of the initial project. To list these three extremely temporary reasons for torpedoing the LRT option is inexplicable, its like refusing a flu shot for fear of the initial prick of the needle.

[A better reason for killing off the LRT option would be the high cost of dedicated rail transit, but the study planners do’t seem concerned. “The base price is slightly higher for light-rail cars over streetcars,” Melo explains in the Press, “but other projected impacts — such as traffic, street parking and right-of-way use — were significantly greater.”]

Left completely unsaid are the benefits to LRT, and they ought to be considerable. A streetcar runs in mixed traffic, while light rail trains run along their own, exclusive right-of-way. Streetcars are at the mercy of heavy car traffic and a car crash or breakdown on streetcar tracks can shut down the entire system. Even MSP’s light rail lines are frequently delayed because driving a car is hard, and they run mostly free of traffic. Exposing rail vehicles to the whims of bad drivers by running them both in mixed traffic is a recipe for slow transit. Streetcars from Atlanta to Portland are often slower than walking. It is precisely at the most narrow and congested parts of the Riverview route where dedicated right-of-way for transit is most essential, to avoid delays and provide the best possible transit experience. Otherwise there is no reason to build on fixed rail tracks, when a bus could at least drive around obstructions.

The issue of time is critical to the transit experience. Minneapolis-Saint Paul has occasionally excelled in this area, so there’s really not excuse for missing this lesson. The Riverview study somehow elides this issue altogether by assuming that the light rail and streetcar options will have the same travel times (Slides A11-A12, A-18-A19). This is a weird finding, akin to expecting a runner to finish the 100 yard dash at the same time as a hurdler. It’s really the crux of the entire issue and what allows this study to so confidently pin its bets on streetcars.

It’s also a finding that, if we take it seriously, actually calls into question the necessity of the study in the first place. How can the West 7th corridor be both be so lightly trafficked that a streetcar cannot assume to encounter more delays than a light rail car, yet also be busy enough to be deserving of high-capacity rapid transit (not to mention subject to “greater traffic impact” if car lanes are removed)?

In dismissing the LRT option and keeping the streetcar choice, the Riverview study relies on extremely suspicious projections about travel time, ignores a wealth of concerning experience regarding streetcars, and ultimately prioritizes the availability of convenient street parking and congestion-free driving over the benefits that would be enjoyed by tens of thousands of daily transit riders for decades.

Long Term Hypothesized Benefits Have Overridden Guaranteed Short, Middle, and Long Term Route Benefits

The flip side to the Riverview study’s modal assumptions is the fact that transit service to the Ford site is still among the alternatives. This fact stems from very different, yet still questionable priorities, and still the loser is the same; the convenience of everyday transit riders.

Serving the Ford Site with high quality transit is, in and of itself, a laudable goal. With the superblock in the southwest corner of St. Paul, the city has the chance to facilitate the creation of a “twenty-first century development,” that is dense, walkable, affordable, and filled with all kinds of environmentally friendly gizmos. Transit connections to facilitate true transit oriented development are a critical part of that. But the good news is that the site is already served by the A-Line aBRT. If planners want to build an option for future rail transit into the site, they should ensure that the existing Canadian Pacific rail spur to the site is preserved and extended to Ford Parkway. That way, as the site is built out, a seperate line traveling south along the Blue Line right-of-way could branch off, cross the river, and serve the Ford Site, and meet the Riverview route.

But sending the Riverview route up to the Ford Site itself is a mistake, and the fact that it is still being considered is hard to understand. The study’s own findings suggest that serving the Ford Site with a Riverview line would add eleven to twelve minutes onto the end-to-end streetcar trip (Slides A-12, A-14, and A-31), turning a 44 minute trip from downtown Saint Paul to the Mall of America into a 56 minute one. When the Green Line’s initial opening was criticized as being too slow, adjustments cut the travel time down three to five minutes and it was heralded as a big improvement. Seriously considering a Riverview route that would be twelve minutes longer than necessary only makes sense if you again assume that the experience of everyday transit riders is a minor concern to this study.

The habit of emphasizing the development effects of transit is a common theme in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and it’s how we get glowing press releases from the Met Council touting $4 billion in TOD along the Green Line, at the same time as trains (carrying many people) are still routinely delayed for up to a minute at Snelling Avenue while single occupancy vehicles (containing less people) drive through north to south with green lights. TOD is fantastic, but it is enhanced when the transit itself is high quality and worthy of development. A slow, meandering streetcar is not transit, it’s a theme ride.

The Theme Is That Daily Transit Riders Are Not Part Of The Conversation

The Riverview Study has done a lot of excellent work overall,  and there’s some great detailed analysis done on a ton of other topics, like potential bus route connections. But the study’s thoroughness shouldn’t escape the problems laid bare by its conclusions. When it comes to modes, the study is willing to sacrifice quality transit to short-term NIMBY concerns. When it comes to routes, the study appears unwilling to eliminate options that obviously will destroy the quality of the transit because of long term development concerns. The reasons are different, but the losers are the same. Everyday riders of the Riverview line appear to be the bottom priority of this study’s decision makers.

This is not a new issue. We know most of the decision makers at the Metropolitan Councildo not actually use the transit that they plan. The same may well be true of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority, which is running this study. In fact, it’s worth remembering that the mere occasion of this study was used to delay implementation of the planned B-Line aBRT project. That bus would literally be up and running by now, had it not been halted. Everyday riders along the West 7th corridor would be benefiting as we speak.

It’s perverse then that one of the final alternatives of the Riverview Study is to build the aBRT, despite delaying it and diverting the money. What’s more incredible is that this is obviously the best option remaining on the table. The aBRT project would cost an estimated $75 million and take 39 minutes end to end. The best of the streetcar options would cost $1 billion in 44 minutes. For an astonishing $925 million, St. Paul could build a train that (if we even accept the time estimates of the streetcar) on a good day would run five minutes slower than a bus and basically would improve upon the bus only by additionally serving Fort Snelling. Even accounting for an increase in riders due to rail bias, the aBRT option is far and away the most cost-efficient and useful. When the best result to hope for from a study is that the study itself concludes that it was a mistake and a waste of time and money, than you know something has gone wrong.

All of the analysis in this study has not changed several key facts. This route is not exceptionally dense, but it is of political importance. For these reasons, it is a fringe contender for rail transit. If you care about providing the best possible transit down this route, (because the earth is warming really fast, because you want to save downtown St. Paul, whatever the reason) the option is to build light rail. If you care about providing cost-effective transit down this route, the choice is aBRT. The streetcar flirtation and the Ford Site routes are diversions that undermine the credibility and usefulness of this entire process, and possibly its final outcome many years down the road. This is a transit investment that will serve the citizens of St. Paul for decades. It’s crucial to get it right, not just for 2025, but for 2075 as well.