Light Rail Minneapolis

Southwest Minneapolis’ Transit Route Selection Process May Rule Out Light Rail to Uptown

The most advantageous route isn’t the cheapest, and the federal cost-effectiveness process may therefore prevent it from being built.

The Twin Cities’ Metro Council regional planning authority is in the midst of evaluating route alternatives for a new transit line extending southwest from downtown Minneapolis. The Southwest Transitway will be the region’s third light rail line after the Hiawatha line, which linked downtown Minneapolis and the airport in 2004, and the Central Corridor, which will connect downtown Minneapolis and the capital complex in St. Paul by 2014. In a series of meetings beginning today, citizens will have the chance to discuss the exact route of the Southwest line — and their input could be essential, because planners are currently angling to make the wrong decision about where trains should run. Their endorsement of a route through low-density neighborhoods in place of a more expensive line through Minneapolis’ lively Uptown is symptomatic of the failure of government transportation policy in addressing the needs of inhabitants of dense inner city communities.

After years of study, Minneapolis is almost ready to submit its locally preferred alternative (LPA) corridor to the Federal Transit Administration, which will distribute up to 60% of total funds to the project through the New Starts major capital grant program. In order to receive money from Washington, Metro will have to show that the proposed route meets national cost-effectiveness guidelines, which are stringent enough to sieve out a large percentage of proposed new transit lines.

This requirement puts elected officials in a quandary: should they work to build the most effective transit network possible, or should they limit their ambitions for fear that the federal government will rule out any funding at all?

Effectively, this is where Minneapolis finds itself, and the region is coming dangerously close to eliminating its best route option because of cost-effectiveness concerns. Of the three routes being considered for the Southwest Transitway’s alignment, one (#1A) has been dismissed by suburban officials because it won’t serve the city of Eden Prairie as effectively as the others, even though it would be cheaper to build. Another (#3C) is too expensive because it would require a tunnel under a section of Nicollet Avenue, but it would serve the city of Minneapolis best because it would provide several stations in the dense and active Uptown district. 3C would operate on the Midtown Greenway parallel to Lake Street in that section of the city. The last (#3A) is the only route, according to local planners, that could meet federal cost guidelines — but its effect on the commutes of people who live in Minneapolis would be marginal. 3A would skim the side of the Kenilworth trail and lounge the edge of two lakes, running through neighborhoods of single-family housing.

All routes would operate from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie, through St. Louis Park, Hopkins, and Minnetonka. The cost of the corridors ranges from less than $1 billion for 1A to about $1.5 billion for 3C — and operating costs would similarly be higher on the latter route because of its slightly longer distance. Trains could be operating by 2015 or 2017 at the latest if the FTA endorses project financing. Both 3A and 3C would be expected to attract 30,000 daily riders, 8,000 of whom would be new to transit.

In the neighborhood meetings coming up over the next month, planners will endorse the construction of route 3A and then listen to the concerns of community members. Elected officials on the Metro Council will decide later this year whether to follow the recommendations of the planners. Federal rules make it difficult to imagine that any decision in favor of route 3C is possible.

That’s too bad, however, because route 3C would be far more effective in encouraging transit use in Minneapolis.

Here’s a comparison of the density of the neighborhoods within a half-mile of the two principal alternatives through Minneapolis, as well as an indication of the walk score of the areas around the proposed stations. 3A is shown in green and 3C in blue. The Southwest Transitway would continue out of the city towards Eden Prairie (the black arrow on the map’s bottom left); the existing Hiawatha Line to the airport is shown by the black arrow on the right side of the map.

Density along Southwest Minneapolis Light Rail Alternative Routes

As demonstrated in the above map, alternative 3C (blue) would serve areas of significantly higher density than alternative 3A. Whereas the western routing is almost uniformly low-density single family residential in use (as indicated by the low walk scores at station locations), the eastern route has a diversity of built forms, with apartment buildings interspersed with tightly packed houses. The Uptown route is already mixed-use, with hundreds of shops and restaurants within walking distance of proposed light rail stops.

The construction of a light rail line along alignment 3C, in other words, would provide far better access downtown for a much larger percentage of the city’s population than would a route along alignment 3A, encouraging infill construction. That kind of inner city investment would be virtually impossible along most of 3A’s route in Minneapolis proper, since surrounding land uses are not conforming with higher densities and a diversity of uses.

Uptown is an important attraction for people in the Twin Cities, and a connection to light rail would enforce that popularity; there is little chance that the neighborhoods around 3A’s proposed 21st St, Penn, and Van White stations will ever develop a similar character. Building light rail along 3A instead of 3C is almost an invitation to drive Uptown rather than take transit there.

Poverty Rates along Southwest Minneapolis Light Rail Alternative Routes

The Uptown route would serve a far higher number of people in poverty. Good transit services should aim to improve the commutes of the least well-off, and the 3A route would serve few people of lower incomes in Minneapolis. 3C, meanwhile, would not only give the poor a faster trip into downtown Minneapolis but also a quicker route to the growing Southwest suburbs, where retail and office employment opportunities are plentiful. A 3A route would require an additional transfer for the thousands of low-income people without cars who need to get to those jobs.

Mode Share along Southwest Minneapolis Light Rail Alternative Routes

Unsurprisingly considering the area’s density and population of impoverished people, the Uptown 3C route would also serve a far more transit-dependent population. While average transit mode share for commutes along the 3C route are between 25-50% for the Minneapolis sections of the line, they are for the most part lower than 10% along 3A. The wealth and car-dependence of the people living along route 3A makes it seem unlikely that we’ll see a significant increase in transit use for them. The 3C route would make car-free living for people in Uptown and neighborhoods along Nicollet Avenue a realistic possibility.

Based on this information, can we trust the ridership estimates that suggest similar numbers of daily users for routes 3A and 3C? In Minneapolis, compared to 3A, 3C serves far more people in a more walkable environment; those people, meanwhile, are far more likely to be impoverished and transit-dependent. Outside of Minneapolis, the two routes are identical. What gives? What’s wrong with Metro Council’s ridership estimates?

A few explanations reveal a lot about the way the FTA calculates the value of new transit investments. FTA, after all, provides the basic rules that organizations like Metro Council use to determine the potential benefits and expected ridership of new light rail systems.

  • One, the cost-benefit analysis is heavily biased towards the number of annual hours commuters will save by using the new transit system. This means that people who already have longer commutes are seen as more valuable for the FTA than those who choose to live in in-town locations with shorter distances between their residences and workplaces. As a result, transit networks are encouraged to extend out into the suburbs, rather than be densified and reinforced downtown. This policy encourages sprawl; though more suburbanites may find themselves taking transit to work, they won’t be using it to go shopping or out on the weekend. European policies, which generally encourage densification of transit networks in dense, inner-city locations, have produced transit systems that are far better-used per mile compared to American lines.
  • Two, similarly, the FTA likes speed. As a result, the slightly shorter 3A route is better for commuters in the far-out suburbs hoping to get to jobs downtown. The tunnel planned for route 3C, which ramps up costs exponentially, is only necessary because a surface route would be too slow and make the commutes of people from Eden Prairie slightly longer. Note that a 3C route without the tunnel would have a significantly lower construction cost, but it still wouldn’t meet FTA cost-effectiveness criteria because fewer outer-suburban people would ride it because their trip would be longer.
  • Three, the formula used by the FTA prefers new riders to old ones. In other words, a person moving from a car to a train is considered more important than a person moving from a bus to a train. This means that people already using transit are disadvantaged and are unlikely to receive upgrades to their transit service. Circuitously, the fact that fewer people use transit in the areas along route 3A (because of their wealth, car-dependence, and sprawling neighborhoods) means that they’re more likely to be considered for funding by the federal government.

These three structural problems make the 3A route the defacto choice for Metro Council decision makers, even though it is quite clearly inferior to the 3C route in terms of its benefits for the inhabitants of Minneapolis. The elimination of the 1A route, which would have been cheaper than 3A but serve fewer people living on the edge of the metropolitan area, is indicative of this fact; suburban preferences are prioritized in the FTA alternatives analysis process. Otherwise, why not save money for the tunnel downtown by choosing the less expensive route out of town? A month of community meetings is unlikely to change the political reality that the 3A corridor is the only one that will get money from Washington.

At the moment, then, there is little Twin Cities inhabitants can do to push for the Uptown 3C corridor. Members of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, convinced that it will take decades to build any light rail to the southwest at all, are arguing for a quicker-to-build streetcar route along the Uptown corridor between the Hiawatha Line and the 3A route.

Nonetheless, in the longer term, the FTA has a responsibility to revise the methods by which it determines the relative merits of a new transit corridor. Rather than focusing on the commuting needs of suburbanites, planners and politicians should be concentrating their transit funds on encouraging a car-free lifestyle for people who live in inner-city areas. People who live in already existing, dense, mixed-use neighborhoods are most likely to be those who choose to take transit, walk, and bike, and we should be working for their benefit. Yet the almost inevitable choice of the 3A alignment indicates that government today, even in its transit policy, isn’t doing so.

Note: data from Census 2000 SF-1 and SF-3.

Light Rail Minneapolis

University of Minnesota Wants More Mitigation for Central Corridor LRT

Twin Cities Central CorridorProposed “floating slab” is claimed necessary to protect lab space.

When it’s completed in five years, the Central Corridor will connect downtown Minneapolis with the state capital 11 miles down the road in St. Paul, and it’s expected to become the Twin Cities’ most popular transit line. But opposition from prominent landholders along the route — including the University of Minnesota and Minnesota Public Radio — continues to challenge the project proponents’ contention that they will be able to maintain reasonable completion costs.

A little more than five years ago, Minneapolis opened its Hiawatha Light Rail line to great acclaim, and the project has been very successful. So much so, in fact, that the Metro Council, which directs transportation expenditures in the Twin Cities and the surrounding region, is currently extending station platforms along the line to support three-car trains.

You would think, then, that the completion of the area’s next major transit project couldn’t come soon enough. Indeed, the Central Corridor will be one of the most exciting new public transportation lines in the country when it opens in 2014, as long as the Federal Transit Administration commits to federal aid this year or next. It’s expected to attract more than 40,000 riders a day by 2030. At a cost of $914 million for the line, the program is at the middle of the pack in construction costs.

Yet the Central Corridor has been mired in controversy since serious planning began in 2001. For years, the University of Minnesota argued that it wouldn’t allow trains down Washington Avenue through the center of campus unless they were placed in a tunnel. Problem is, that would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the project’s cost and the University wasn’t willing to chip in. Alternative routings were cumbersome and would poorly serve the student population.

Homeowners and business groups along University Avenue, the principal section of the line, complained that it would increase noise, reduce parking spaces, and hamper retail activity. They argued that the system wouldn’t have enough stops to serve the community adequately.

Meanwhile, in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota Public Radio and other groups along Cedar Street claimed that light rail operations will cause vibrations that make work there impossible. Note that MPR moved into its offices after planning had begun on the project.

These, among others, are some of the hurdles typically faced by transit planners, who find that providing better transportation to a community isn’t as simple as building the line. In some cases, staff at the Met Council have agreed to changes — they’re planning to install what’s known as a “floating slab track” on Cedar Street to make sure that MPR’s nationally-syndicated broadcasts aren’t negatively affected. They’ve committed to adding more stops on University Avenues if they can find the funds. And the area of Washington Avenue in the midst of campus activities at the University will be transformed into a pedestrian-friendly transit mall.

Still, some want more. The University now suggests that the floating slab should be installed on Washington Avenue as well, since it has research facilities there. But the Met Council hadn’t planned on the technology and therefore would have to commit millions more to design and implementation. More importantly, light rail running on tracks without the expensive floating slab would produce less vibration than some existing construction activities on campus. If the sensitive research can be performed with that going on, what difference would a light rail system make?

Central Corridor will eventually be built, and the University of Minnesota will likely come to see the line as an integral part of campus life. The same will probably be said of the people living along University Avenue and those working on Cedar. But the Met Council has to survive months more of these relatively serious demands for mitigation before it will be able to start construction. It will probably have to agree to pay for some improvements, which will either mean a reduced ability to compete for competitive federal New Start funds or decreased quality of stations and services along the rest of the line.

The Twin Cities aren’t alone in facing the community demands placed on public sector infrastructure projects. Since the devastating consequences of urban renewal and inner-city highway construction became all too clear, neighborhoods have been ensuring that their best interests are being represented. That usually means strong opposition to projects such as this, even though the benefits likely to arise from improved public transportation are manifold. It also means that when a project can’t be stopped, people expect some form of payback, usually in the form of expensive compensation. Ultimately, that increases construction costs and lower trust in the ability of government to get estimates right the first time. Such are the costs of infrastructure creation today.

Image above: Central Corridor map, from Metro Council

Congress DOT Finance Light Rail Minneapolis

Clues on the Next Transportation Bill – from the Twin Cities

Obama Administration May Loosen or Eliminate Cost-Effectiveness Index for New Start Projects; Twin Cities are hopeful that money will flow a bit more easily for the Central Corridor

SAFETEA-LU (The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users), the national transportation law, will expire on September 30th, four years after it was put into effect. As a result, the U.S. Congress will spend much of the next few months debating and rewriting the transportation bill in order to pay for highway and transit projects around the country. The new law will be in effect until 2013, so congressional decisions on the issue – especially in determining the percentage of funds dedicated by transportation mode – matter quite a bit.

SAFETEA-LU was a $284 billion law; its replacement is likely to be far bigger because of inflation and today’s widespread desire to improve the nation’s infrastructure, a goal of Republicans and Democrats alike. Under transit-friendly Democratic control, Congress and President Obama may choose to take advantage of the renewal of this legislation to decrease highways’ relative share of the bill, and increase that of rail and transit. A full discussion of SAFETEA-LU and the implications of the renewal of the transportation legislation will be here on the transport politic in the coming days.

But a story by Minnesota Public Radio last week describes one issue that is likely to change, perhaps even before the transportation law is renewed: the ease of receiving funds from the New Start program, which distributes funds to transit agencies for the construction of new fixed-guideway rail or bus lines.

There is increasing evidence that James Oberstar (D-MN), the chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure committee (which will be shepherding the new bill through one side of Congress) will be attempting to reduce the current cost-effectiveness measures that act as an obstruction to building new transit projects in the United States. Currently, the Federal Transit Administration uses a set metric – mostly based on expected ridership increases and project costs – to determine which transit projects deserve a federal contribution. Basically, transit agencies have to meet a target of $24.41 in capital costs for every new projected rider for a specific project if they want federal funding.

There are a couple problems with this system: one, it doesn’t take into much account other issues such as economic development, preference for rail over existing bus services, and environmental improvements; and two, highways do not have to go through this tough standards process at all. Yet, the cost-effectiveness formula allows the FTA to weed out lower-performing projects and provides it a relatively objective measure by which to decide how to distribute its relatively limited funds. So it plays a not-negligible role.

In the MPR story, Mr. Oberstar is quoted in reference to the cost-effectiveness index, which is currently limiting the full development of the Central Corridor, which is a proposed light rail line from Minneapolis to St. Paul (map shown below):

As soon as there is a Federal Transit Administrator I will encourage that person to, by executive order, erase it from the books. And if they don’t we’ll do that in legislation.”

Twin Cities Central Corridor

The limitations of the cost-effectiveness index have been known for years; it did a lot to hold up the development of the Dulles Metrorail project, whose tunnel element through Tysons Corner was slashed once the FTA decided that it was too expensive to merit being built. The rather obvious improvements – notably in the form of pedestrian-friendly urbanism – that would have come to the areas around stations were they built underground, rather than on an elevated guideway as is now planned, were not considered by the FTA because of its single-minded obsession with “cost-effectiveness.”

The cost-effectiveness metric is not defined in the transportation law, but its use could be altered by the renewed legislation.

Mr. Oberstar’s seemingly persistent desire to remove the cost-effectiveness guidelines makes some sense, but only in the context of vastly increased funding for transit overall. For the most part, highway funds are distributed using a population-based formula to states, and then states decide how to allocate the funding to specific projects. Because most transit agencies operate apart from state budgets, this couldn’t be the solution for resolving how New Start transit projects are funded.

A new system would have to be put into place to arbitrate between the huge demand for funds for new transit systems and the limited resources of the federal government. If the FTA were to no longer make decisions based on cost-effectiveness, how would it determine what systems to fund? Mr. Oberstar should think this over thoroughly before he unilaterally eliminates the cost-effectiveness formula.

Image above: Central Corridor route, from Metropolitan Council

Chicago Minneapolis Montréal New York Philadelphia Toronto Washington DC

Big News Day: DC, NYC, Chicago, Philly, Minnesota, and Canada

Chicago Bus Rapid Transit Corridors» Today’s Big News Day Update, from Washington, New York, Chicago, Rochester, Philadelphia, and Ottawa

  • The Overhead Wire brings us news we’ve been expecting for a while: the Dulles Rail Project, extending Washington‘s Metro system from East Falls Church to Wiehle Avenue, via Tysons Corner, is approved and will start construction soon. This project has been the subject of manipulation, deception, and outright lies by the Bush Administration over the past several years. Here’s the WaPo article.
  • But the Bush administration, whether we like it or not, will remain in office for the next week and a half, and so it continues to wreak havok. Chicago‘s $153 million plan for bus rapid transit lines across the city has been cancelled by Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters after the city council failed to enact downtown congestion reduction fees on parking and deliveries by the deadline of December 31st. No extension was given – the funds were simply forfitted by the city’s mayor, Richard Daley. This makes the city’s Summer Olympic bid for 2016 seem a bit shaky, especially considering that transportation problems in the Windy City already had the bid on the rocks. By the way, this money (as well as $300 million more) was once designated for New York City before its congestion reduction plan failed.
  • Ben over at Second Avenue Sagas describes the State of the State Address given by David Paterson, Governor of New York. Though the state is facing a giant budgetary mess, the Governor pushed the Ravitch Report recommendations, the Second Avenue Subway, and the reconstruction of the Tappen Zee Bridge as part of a “brighter future.” Here’s the NYT interpretation.
  • Rochester, Minnesota‘s Mayor is interested in developing a high-speed rail link from Chicago to Minneapolis, via his city. Meanwhile, Canadian Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro is pushing for a link between Toronto, Ottawa, and Montréal, which would shorten travel times between the cities by half. Both are good plans – we’ll be coming out with a high-speed rail plan for North America as a whole, including these links, next week.
  • Montréal-based Bombardier, a train (and airplane)-making company, is considering how it might expand in the wake of the upcoming economic stimulus in the United States. The company is banking on the stimulus paying for new rail cars in Chicago, San Francisco, and New Jersey, all of which are in the process of refreshing their fleets. Meanwhile, Amtrak, whose funding has recently shot up, has already signed Bombardier for the renovation of its Acela Express trains, and replacements for the decades-old fleet of rail cars in the next few years is likely. Though the company currently has factories in New York and Pennsylvania, it may need to build new ones in the U.S. to handle the extra business.
  • The Delaware River Port Authority’s plan to expand the PATCO Hi-Speed Line from Downtown Philadelphia to Southern New Jersey has advanced a bit, with a locally preferred alternative being selected. The project, which may also involve the creation of a new LRT line instead of a simple expansion of the existing heavy rail PATCO, will follow the Conrail Right-of-way from Camden to Glassboro. The expected $3 billion cost of the project, however, is a real limitation: the project has received a $500 million commitment from the State of New Jersey, but that’s about it so far.
  • The Washington Post, finally, reports that light rail is overwhelmingly the preference for the Purple Line from Bethesda to New Carrollton, via Silver Spring, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. Though LRT will cost more to construct than the BRT alternative being considered, it will likely attract more riders and more transit-oriented development. Prince George’s and Montogmery Counties – on the poorer, eastern side of the line, and on the rich, western side, respectively, will vote individually on the matter in February or March. If one voted for LRT and the other BRT, trouble could ensue, but an LRT preference is looking increasingly universal.

Above: scuttled plans for the Chicago Bus Rapid Transit Program, from the Chicago Transit Authority.

Charlotte Finance Minneapolis Seattle

Fares in Minneapolis, Seattle, and Charlotte

With the nation confronting economic problems as a whole, and with tax revenues down dramatically, transit agencies are finding themselves in need of more money, and fare increases are on the calender all over the country. We’ve talked about the potential extreme fare hikes in New York City, where a base fare may increase from $2 today to $2.50 or even $3 in the next few months, but today there’s discussion to increase rider revenue in Minneapolis and Seattle, and a new strategy for fare collection in Charlotte.

Fare Increases in Minneapolis

The Star-Tribune reports today that Minneapolis’ Metro Council has called to increase fares by 50% because of increasing numbers of riders, slower revenues, and high energy costs. The most fundamental problem is that the majority of revenue designated for transit operations comes from a motor vehicle sales tax, and as we’ve seen over the past few months, the number of new cars being sold in the United States has plummeted incredibly quickly. In 2001, the Metro Council decided to change to this revenue source (from a former regional property tax), convinced that revenue growth would be quicker from the motor vehicle tax. Unfortunately, that prediction has proven disastrous.

Currently a separate tax approved by the state legislature provides money to transitways, such as the Hiawatha Light Rail line, but that does nothing for the mainstay of the system’s operation: buses running in regular streets. The Council cannot cut service on those lines because of fears that such a reduction in operations would make getting federal money for the planned Central Corridor light rail line from Minneapolis to St. Paul more difficult. So few options remain other than increasing rider-based revenue.

Seattle Link Light Rail – Zone-Based Fares?

Seattle is considering how it will pay for operations along its Link Light Rail line, which will open this year. Sound Transit is currently discussing a zone-based fare structure, which would mean increasing costs for the rider depending on the length of his or her ride. The Seattle Transit Blog reports that fares would start at $1.75 or $2 and increase to up to $2.75 for the full ride from Downtown to SeaTac Airport. If the base fare were $2, the transit tunnel downtown would be free to ride through, as it is today, otherwise, with a $1.75 base fare, it would cost some money to ride downtown.

The question of zone-based riders seems important in Seattle’s case, which is evaluating a wide number of extensions to the light rail under construction. With such a spread out system, short rides within Seattle perhaps should not cost as much as a long-distance ride from Everett to Northgate. Washington’s Metro operates with such a fare system, while New York’s subway trips cost the same no matter how long the ride takes.

One major disadvantage of a zone system is that it makes the development of weekly or monthly passes difficult. New York’s subway experienced significantly expanded ridership after the development of the 30-day MetroCard in 1997 – would other systems expand their riderships similarly if they too implemented monthly passes?

Fare Zones in Charlotte

Charlotte, which has had some problems with overcrowding at its stations, especially after major sporting events, will have fare zones set up at high-ridership stations. This will alow ticket-checkers to look at tickets before entry onto trains in specified areas of the system downtown and at the southern terminus. The transit agency hopes that the development of such fare zones would make overcrowding less of a a problem and make ticket inspection more simple.

This is somewhat of a deviation from the typical “honor system” that operates in Charlotte and in most light rail cities, where one is only expected to have to present one’s ticket inside of the train, rather than at stations. By creating “fare zones,” Charlotte is basically implementing invisible turnstiles, which are used by most Metro systems to contol entry into stations, which are for fare-holders only.

One wonders, though, whether Charlotte and other light rail cities ought instead simply put in turnstiles outside of their stations, so that ticket-checkers wouldn’t be needed at all. Los Angeles voted for the implementation at the end of 2007 of such devices at high-use stations along its Metro Red Line and Light Rail Blue and Green Lines, but the construction was delayed indefinately in late January 2008 because of threat of a lawsuit. Those lines previously all the honor system. The city argued that the $30 million cost necessary to put in the turnstils would be worth it as an estimated $7 million is lost every year to fare evaders.

That said, L.A.’s decision – even if it had been implemented – seems a bit half-hearted, considering that it would only have applied to certain stations and ticket-checkers would still be necessary throughout the rest of the line. Should all rail systems use turnstiles to control access? Do too many people ride for free? Or is the honor system ultimately cheaper to implement and therefore a better deal for cities, even though it results in some lost revenue?