The Central Corridor light-rail transit (LRT) project took what Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell called “a quantum leap forward” February 27, when the Met Council voted nearly unanimously to approve a $909 million scope for the project — half of which must be paid for by a full-funding grant through the Federal Transportation Administration’s (FTA) “New Start” program.
The decision sets design and cost parameters around which Central Corridor planners can finalize their preliminary engineering as they prepare to apply in September for federal permission to enter into final design, and eventually, for the FTA grant.
Central Corridor planners and the Met Council believe the scenario fits the FTA’s notoriously strict criteria for cost-effectiveness and constitutes a well-defined project that the feds will deem worthy of matching funds. Robert McFarlin, representing the Minnesota Department of Transportation on a Central Corridor advisory committee, put this point clearly before the February 27 vote: “If [the FTA thinks] we’re not ready, and we’re still thinking about it, they can [say], ‘You’re not ready to apply… and we will not accept the application.’”
The decision is a major step in moving the project forward, and it leaves aspects of the project to be fine-tuned before the final design stage. That said, the approved scenario does set some aspects more firmly — if not in stone — and it includes compromises, and some disappointment for some constituents.
The University of Minnesota approved the project scenario “with reservations,” but it has undertaken its own study of an alternative to at-grade LRT on a car-less Washington Avenue. Meanwhile, St. Paul residents who want to see three extra stations built with the current project rather than later held “stops for us” signs at the February 27 meeting but went away disappointed.
While the project pursues the federal grant, the other half of the funding— more than $450 million — is expected to be covered by commitments from the State of Minnesota and Met Council ($300 million), the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority ($105 million) and the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority ($45 million). Of those committed funds, approximately $37 million is currently in place.
The approved scenario falls below the FTA’s cost-effectiveness index (CEI) ceiling of $23.99, according to the Met Council. That formula, which weighs the costs versus benefits of the project, is based mainly on three factors: cost, ridership and travel time. The fnal proposal cut roughly $80 million from the project. The previous working figure, $990 million, was based on an April 2006 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) completed for the project.
Cost decreases came largely from the elimination of a tunnel under the university campus — a savings of $147.6 million — while other aspects added costs, based on the DEIS figures. In recent months, the Met Council has stated that the cost to include all the aspects desired by various constituencies would have pushed the price tag to $1.25 billion.
At consecutive meetings in Met Council chambers in Downtown St. Paul, Central Corridor Project Manager Mark Fuhrmann presented the details of the scenario, first to the project’s Central Corridor Management Committee (CCMC) — an advisory group that includes Bell, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, commissioners from Ramsey and Hennepin Counties, and representatives from the University of Minnesota, businesses and the community — and finally to the full Met Council.
The approved $909 million project scope includes:
Fifteen new LRT stations along 11 miles of track. From St. Paul, the line would begin in front of the St. Paul Union Depot, 214 E. Fourth St. in Lowertown, and end at the new Minnesota Twins ballpark in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. The Central Corridor will share five Downtown Minneapolis stations already in use for the Hiawatha LRT line.
An at-grade route on Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota from the Mississippi River to Oak Street on a transit mall, with non-emergency traffic rerouted. Whether buses would remain on Washington is yet to be resolved. This aspect — replacing the DEIS option of a tunnel beneath the area — decreases project costs by $147.6 million.
Modifications to the Washington Avenue Bridge, on which the line would cross the Mississippi River. The estimated $30 million cost is based on a preliminary cost estimate of $25–$30 million in a study in 2007 by engineering firm URS. (See Washington Avenue Bridge likely to bear the load of light rail)
Below-grade infrastructure for three additional “infill” stations that could be added later, with separate funding, at Hamline, Victoria and Western avenues. This work adds $4.1 million to the DEIS scenario. With its decision, the Met Council added language that, should it become financially feasible before the September application deadline to add more costs, the first priority would be to build one of the infill stations with the project. Project planners estimate that each station would cost $5.5 million to build.
An east-end terminus in front of the Union Depot, instead of behind it. Although Ramsey County officials would like to extend the line to the back of the building, for possible connection with other future rail projects, the elimination of that option will decrease costs by $32–$58 million.
A vehicle maintenance facility beneath the Lafayette Bridge between Warner Road and Kellogg Boulevard. Double tracks would connect it to the front of the Union Depot. Estimated cost: $43 million, $20 million more than in the DEIS.
A diagonal route between Cedar Street at Fifth Street and Minnesota Street at Fourth Street, through the block with the vacant Bremer Bank building. This aspect combines two stations and saves the project $2.6 million.
Three-car platforms that would allow for three-car trains at some future date, given increased ridership demand. This aspect adds $15 million to the DEIS scenario.
An improved Hiawatha LRT connection that would place the line over 35W and “interline” it with the Hiawatha LRT line south of 11th Avenue South. This increases project costs by $1.7 million over the DEIS scenario.
University Avenue reconstruction, to include the mill and overlay of travel lanes and the reconstruction of 85 percent of the curbs, gutters and sidewalks. Central Corridor planners stated that the City of St. Paul and Ramsey County are considering funding the remaining 15 percent as part of the project. This work will cost $25 million less than expected (in the DEIS scenario), because the roadbed or subsurface is in better shape than expected, according to Central Corridor planners.
Project mitigation costs. The total is $39 million for traffic impact, noise and other mitigation efforts required by the project. Met Council Chair Bell called this “a soft number,” saying the current allocation may be “woefully inadequate.”
Public art. $3.7 million.
Central Corridor planners expect a weekday ridership of 38,000 by the year 2020, and 44,000 a decade later. Under the current plan, the line would begin service at the end 2014. More information on many aspects of the project can be found at the “Central Corridor website”:www.centralcorridor.org.
The ‘northern alignment’
While the at-grade Washington Avenue option is the approved scenario for the Central Corridor to cross the U of M’s East Bank campus, the university considers a different route, north of the campus, as “the alignment of the future,” said said Kathy O’Brien, vice president of university services and the university’s representative on the CCMC. The university has undertaken its own $370,000 study of the route. While that study should be completed by early summer, to include it in the application to the FTA would require a year-long delay for the project that the Met Council estimates would add $40 million to the price tag.
Heading west from St. Paul toward campus on University Avenue, the “northern alignment” could follow one of two routes, which Fuhrman outlined for the Met Council bodies before the February 27 votes.
One option would pass to the north of the new stadium, following existing rail-lines through the “Dinkytown trench,” which runs below-grade between the campus and Dinkytown; then cross Bridge #9, a former railroad bridge now used by pedestrians and bicycles, before connecting to a West Bank station near 19th Avenue.
This option would run the line through an area of future development, namely the university’s “East Gateway District” and bio-sciences corridor, which O’Brien said could bring as many as 5,000–10,000 new jobs to the area in 5–10 years.
The second route option would run trains with traffic west on Southeast Fourth Street and east on University Avenue, crossing the river on the 10th Avenue bridge before connecting to the West bank station.
The university’s Board of Regents has supported this route since 2000, said O’Brien in an interview after the meeting. The Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association, representing the area north and east of campus, also supports a northern alignment. Central Corridor planners eliminated the option from further study in 2002, however, citing the insufficient width of Bridge #9, impact to the river area, and distance from destinations on campus.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, speaking at the CCMC meeting, said that, while the project should not be delayed, the northern alignment is “definitely worth studying.
“I think keeping this alive as Plan B makes a lot of sense,” he said. “This may be a better alternative.”
*Where will Washington Avenue traffic go?
The presently-planned route will cross campus on a Washington Avenue transit and pedestrian mall, which begs the questions not only of where the current car traffic will be rerouted, but also of how much such mitigation will cost, and who will pay for it. Traffic mitigation is not included in the $909 million scenario, and it is unknown at this point how much impact the FTA will consider to be a direct result of the project, and therefore eligible for inclusion in the project’s mitigation funds.
Central Corridor planners presented a study of an at-grade line’s impact on 48 intersections in a 2.9-square-mile area around the East and West banks campuses. That study offers specific mitigation actions in the 48-intersection area — things like new turn lanes, the removal of some parking spots and new or retimed traffic lights.
At the same time, the University of Minnesota, City of Minneapolis and Hennepin County are conducting another study, which O’Brien said she hopes will combine with the Central Corridor study to inform preliminary engineering and final design. This second study may cover a wider area of impact but will not be completed until early summer.
Speaking at the CCMC meeting, Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin noted that the Central Corridor traffic study “doesn’t quite capture the full impact.” Questions remain about traffic flow, both in the heart of campus and in the larger surrounding area.
Surrounding neighborhoods have cautioned the Met Council on “rushing” decisions related to the university crossing, and O’Brien voiced strong concern about campus access, especially to the university’s hospitals and clinics, which she said receive several thousand visitors everyday. “Visitors need to have an easy way in and out of campus,” she said. “The University of Minnesota doesn’t have the arterial and secondary streets to carry this traffic.” It was noted at the meeting that the light-rail line would offer a new access option for campus visitors.
In its public comments to the Met Council on February 6, the University of Minnesota Physicians’ Clinics estimated the Washington Avenue alignment could drive patients away from the university to other clinics, at a cost of $100 million a year.
Other open questions
The East Bank campus is not the only area in which questions of impact remain. Along University Avenue between 29th Avenue Southeast in Minneapolis and Downtown St. Paul, 1,156 curb-side parking spots will be lost, Fuhrman told the Met Council in his February 27 presentation. Newly designed turn lanes will help, but there will still be significant impact to mitigate.
The approved scenario also operates under some assumptions, according to the February 27 presentation, including:
• property donation (of modest sizes such as 1 acre) from the RRCRA, U of M and State of Minnesota;
• no incurring of costs from the “diagonal” block crossing in downtown St. Paul; and
• private utilities, such as District Energy, will shoulder the cost of relocating existing utility infrastructure.
Metro Transit and/or Regional Transit would likely cover costs of two new bus routes in St. Paul — a Route 83 along Lexington Avenue and a Route 60, which would run up and down Hamline Avenue and Victoria Street, and between the two on University and St. Clair. The current Route 50 bus along University would be eliminated, and frequency of Route 16 University bus would be cut.
Extra stations put on the back burner
Of the issues under consideration, the one that drew the most comments at a series of Met Council-sponsored “listening sessions” in the months leading to the decision was whether or not to add three “infill stations” at Hamline Avenue, Victoria Street and Western Avenue. A compromise of sorts was made, as the project will include funds to build underground infrastructure but not the stations themselves; for that, supporters will have to wait for another funding source, and as long as ten years, by some estimates.
Supporters of the extra stations, from the group “Stops for us”: http://stopsforus.com/, held signs and made up a good part of the audience at the February 27 meeting. Early on in the presentations to the CCMC and Met Council, Robin Caufmann, manager of public involvement for the Central Corridor project, reported that the majority of public comments — 126 of 292, nearly half — were in support of the extra stations. (Public comments also included 11 statements against building the stations.)
Ramsey County Commissioners, Met Council Members and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman all acknowledged their constituents’ support for and the potential value of the stations.
“This is the point of contention for people in my community,” said Coleman before his committee’s unanimous vote to support the project scenario. “We should take the opportunity to do what we can. We’ve been asked to give a lot in this process, and I think we have.”
In the end, the Met Council’s decision included in the minutes a commitment to add one of the stations (which one was not specified) should the CEI ceiling be raised or the project’s costs somehow be decreased.
The compromise of funding infrastructure for future station development, the prioritization of adding one station and officials’ impassioned speeches did little to satisfy Anne White, chair of the District Councils Collaborative, which includes 10 St. Paul district councils and five Minneapolis neighborhoods around the project area.
For White, the “infill stations” are not an acceptable compromise. “The people who live close to Western, Victoria and Hamline are the most needy people, in terms of, they rely on transit,” she said soon after the Met Council’s decision. “It’s not an option for them. These are the most economically disadvantaged, a huge majority non-white, 77 percent.”
White believes the estimated 7,600 people who live within a quarter-mile of the three infill stations “will be getting less transit service,” she said. “[They] will have to wait walk a half-mile to a mile, wait a half hour [for] a number-16 bus they’re used to getting every 7–10 minutes,” she said. The new bus routes might make a minimal improvement, she said, but with the details uncertain, it was too soon to say how much.
The intersections lose out in terms of development, as well, she said. “Development follows the light-rail, particularly around light rail stations,” said White, “so the intersections where they need both the transportation and the development potential are losing out.”
White said has very little hope that funds will become available to build one of the stations with the current project scenario.
The “right” rail transit
When the vote was finally taken, only one Met Council Member dissented. Asked the following day about her “nay” vote, Annette Meeks, of Minneapolis, echoed White’s point and questioned the need for and execution of the larger project.
“I just think it’s unconscionable to cut service to people who need it the most,” said Meeks, founder and president of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota. “I pity the small businesses up and down the corridor who are going to lose all their parking,” she said. “There’s no effort to mitigate these things, we’re just going ahead with the plan with no plan on what to do.
“If we’re going to build light rail, it’s going to be around for 50–100 years, we should do it right,” she said, echoing a sentiment offered by others in the build-up to the decision.
Met Council Chair Bell responded to that sentiment in January, writing in his monthly “Chair’s Message” that “we must not let the perfect become the enemy of the pretty darn good,” and noting in Met Council Chambers, not long before the historic vote, that no light-rail line has been built in the country without some compromises.
Met Council Member Tony Pistilli, from Brooklyn Park, put plainly the reality of the project’s restrictions and feasibilities. “This probably isn’t the best line we can build,” he said, “but in reality, it’s probably the best line that can be built.”
Jeremy Stratton is editor of The Bridge newspaper in Minneapolis.