» The Central Corridor will connect two downtowns, a rare feat for a rail system in the U.S. Peaking should be less of a problem here.
The Twin Cities pioneered a model for regional decision-making with the formation of the Metropolitan Council in 1967, creating one of the country’s only truly empowered
elected regional bodies. Though the group invested in transportation improvements throughout the area, focusing specifically on connecting a network of express buses into downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, it was only in 2004 that the area opened its first light rail corridor, the Hiawatha Line.
Connecting central Minneapolis with the airport and the Mall of America in a suburb to the south, that project proved to be far more popular with riders than originally expected, with more people using it on a daily basis just two years after opening than had been predicted for 2020.
Yet the real challenge for the Twin Cities was connecting Minneapolis and St. Paul into a unified unit. With downtowns just a dozen miles apart, the two towns merge together, but transit riders have never been able to take full advantage of this proximity, nor the presence of the University of Minnesota campus just between the two. With federal approval yesterday of a Full Funding Grant Agreement to pay 50% of its costs, however, the Central Corridor light rail line‘s completion is guaranteed, and that will mean frequent, relatively fast, and reliable connections between the cities in just three years.
With a central business district at both ends of the line and a huge university at the center (more than 50,000 students), the Central Corridor route offers a number of advantages that most new rail lines constructed in the United States do not: Peak service demand in both directions. A typical suburb-to-central city line acquires most of its ridership from work trips — from the suburbs to the downtown in the mornings, and from the downtown to the suburbs in the afternoons. If there is enough demand to run 10 trains per hour in one direction, however, the transit agency generally has to run (and pay for) 10 trains per hour in the other direction just to keep up — even if there’s only enough demand for 5. This means too many vehicles running mostly empty in the opposite direction from peak.
In Minneapolis, for example, there are relatively few people riding the Hiawatha line from the southern suburbs towards downtown during the afternoon peak, yet services in both directions see seven trains per hour during the 4-to-5 PM peak hour. Though this is less of a problem at other points in the day when the loads are more evenly distributed, this situation during the peak hours costs the transit agency millions of dollars a year in operating too many trains for the number of passengers who want to ride.
Here, on the other hand, though downtown Minneapolis (146,5000 jobs) will be the most significant destination, it will not overwhelm the other terminus at St. Paul, which has a significant business district of its own (47,500 jobs) and of course the state capitol. This design decision — to plan the Central Corridor with a major destination at each of its termini — will reduce the problem of peak-period inefficiencies and ensure that the operator is able to attract a sufficient number of riders on all of its trains, increasing the average passenger count per vehicle in use.
The 11-mile project will cost a total of $957 million and result in a radical restructuring of the areas through which it runs, including the two downtowns, the University, St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, and the state capitol complex. The installation of a reserved right-of-way for the light rail, the elimination of several hundred street parking spaces, the construction of 18 stations, and the guarantee of on-time transit services between the two cities every 7.5 minutes will be enough to attract more than 40,000 riders (of which 6,000 will be new to transit) by 2030, according to current estimates.
At first glance, the line’s importance may seem overstated: Compared to the existing Route 94 bus that provides express service every five to ten minutes at rush hour between the two downtowns, the light rail line will be significantly slower, taking 40 minutes to complete the journey compared to 26-30 for the bus line. Yet that bus does not provide local service since it is confined to the I-94 freeway for most of its length. The Route 16 bus, which follows the same route as the Central Corridor along University and Washington Avenues, can in typical traffic take an hour or more to complete its trip. In essence, the light rail line will replace both routes (though not the 94 at rush hours) and split the difference in terms of travel times.
For the average user in the corridor (even those who currently take express buses), that is likely to mean a reduction in trip times overall, since more people will be within walking distance of the stations positioned half a mile apart and better connections will be offered to perpendicular north-south bus services. And Metro Transit, which has planned and will run the line, has made an effort to prevent the trains from being slowed down by the hurdles of being placed in an active street right-of-way.
Unlike in Austin, whose new plan for rail service involves running trains in shared automobile lanes throughout the downtown, the Twin Cities will get a dedicated transitway down the street median, guaranteeing running times and preventing problems that could result from being stuck in car congestion.
The construction of the project was by no means certain; though it has been the Twin Cities’ top transit priority for decades, the cost of building the line was significant and the potential opposition from neighbors strong. Former Minnesota Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty (now likely running for president) attempted to veto state funding for the project in 2008, an effort that was overruled by the Democrats in the State Assembly. The University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio both expressed concerns that the line would disrupt their work and tried to move the corridor away from the job centers in which they are located, moves that were fortunately rebuked by Metro Transit.
More significantly, neighborhood groups complained that the planned reduction of parallel parking spaces from 1,150 along University Avenue to 175 was simply too much to bear. Planners responded by pointing out that 15,300 off-street parking spaces were available within one block of the line and then offered a million dollars to shore up support for affected small businesses.
In addition, three new stops were added along University Avenue — a decision that will cost trains a few minutes along the route between the two downtowns but one that will likely raise ridership by ensuring that everyone along the corridor is within roughly a 1/4 mile walk of a station. The lack of easily accessible parking will be relieved by the constant presence of a close light rail stop, a deal that should be recognized as a fair compromise to emulate in other cities considering light rail service in the street.
The most exciting aspect of this project, though, remains the connection between two downtowns that it will provide: If the Twin Cities can ensure that passenger counts heading in both directions are sufficient to guarantee high average vehicle occupancy and less of a peaking problem, Metro Transit will be able to operate an efficient line with fewer operating expenditures per passenger overall.
Image above: A light rail train at Minneapolis’ Target Field Station, from Flickr user Jerry Huddleston (cc)