Central Corridor LRT should go where the people are

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When they asked the famous bank robber Willie Sutton, “Why do you rob banks?”—he replied without hesitation, ’Cause that’s where the money is.’ ” There’s a lesson there for all of us as the region makes decisions for generations to come about where to build a very needed LRT line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

So the question is: Why build the line on University Avenue? The answer: ‘Cause that’s where the people are and that’s where the people want to go. We definitely should not invest in a gerry-rigged solution, which is precisely what putting the line a mile from University Avenue on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) tracks would be. Forcing people who ride the train to then get on a shuttle bus to get to University Avenue is hardly a good plan. It would be incredibly expensive to operate and equally inconvenient for people going to and from destinations along the line. Transfers inevitably reduce ridership. Why build something that will dramatically decrease ridership? We’re trying to get people out of their cars!

The University Avenue route will have over 40,000 riders per day in 2030. It will connect directly with the University of Minnesota, Prospect Park, hundred of locations along University Avenue, the Northstar commuter rail line to Big Lake and the downtowns of both Minneapolis and St. Paul. It will connect indirectly to all the locations along the Hiawatha line, including Lake Street and the Midtown Greenway, the VA Hospital, the airport and the Mall of America.

Beyond the big picture, there are a number of corrections that must be made to Mr. Felien’s commentary (“The Great Train Robbery,” 7/6).

He used an outdated study of a commuter rail line linking Minneapolis and St. Paul (as reported by Mr. Felien by email, “Central Corridor Commuter Rail Technical Feasibility Study, Volume II” published by the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority in 2001).

But say we did build an LRT line on the BNSF route north of University Avenue. The fact is, you couldn’t build it for anything close to the figure cited by Mr. Felien. As someone who went through the recent negotiations with BNSF, getting access to their right-of-way will be terribly expensive, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Northstar commuter rail project will pay BNSF $109 million to get 12 trains a day between Minneapolis and Big Lake on the BNSF right-of-way. Would BNSF even talk about 12 TRAINS AN HOUR in Central Corridor? And mixing LRT trains with 100-car coal trains and intermodal freight trains would at best be difficult and, more likely, impossible.

Mr. Felien’s proposal has some merit as a service between downtowns, but most of the Central Corridor would be poorly served by it. Many of the riders on Central Corridor—present and future—are traveling to points along University Avenue, not to the two downtowns. Central Corridor LRT on University Avenue is the best plan to create a high-capacity transit line to serve the corridor, not by-pass it.

Two lanes of traffic will be maintained in each direction on all of University Avenue. Existing parking will also be maintained on both sides of University Avenue except where there are new turning lanes or LRT stations.

LRT will be costlier than a busway, no question. But a busway would run out of capacity and service would begin to deteriorate by 2017. That’s no way to build for the rest of the century.

If you haven’t been on I-94 during rush hour, I don’t recommend it. It’s a mess that’s only going to get worse unless we invest in a real, long-term solution. That’s what the LRT line on University Avenue will be. We can’t afford to put a second-rate solution in place. Let’s put LRT on University Avenue, build on the great success of the Hiawatha LRT line and reconnect Minneapolis and St. Paul to make them truly the Twin Cities once again.

Peter McLaughlin is Hennepin County Commissioner, District 4 and the
Chair, Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority; Chair, Metro Transitways Development, and a Board Member of the Central Corridor Coordinating Committee

Ed Felien Responds
Thank you Commissioner McLaughlin for responding to my essay, “The Great Train Robbery.”

In my article I listed six reasons why the University route was a bad choice for a railroad line: It is dangerous; it will increase congestion; it will contribute to noise pollution; it is the slowest route; it will disrupt and probably destroy businesses on University Avenue; and it is way too expensive.

You do not argue with these points, so I assume you agree with them.

Of all of the above reasons why we should not build down University Avenue, the only criticism you have is of my cost comparison of the construction of the Burlington Northern route for only $115 million versus $930 million for the University option. You say my figures might be out of date. The cost estimate for the BN route was made in 2001, and the University estimate was updated last week. Certainly the $115 million figure would have to be adjusted for inflation, but it would still only be a small fraction of the University figure.

But cost is not the only factor. It is not even the most important factor. Running a train down the middle of University Avenue is inviting a tragic accident. Fast moving trains belong on train tracks, not city streets.

You argue that trains should go down University Avenue because that’s where the people are. My understanding of the route is that the principal destinations of people using the LRT would be downtown Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and downtown St. Paul. The Midway area is really peripheral to that, but, as I pointed out, service to any destination in the Midway would be faster with an LRT train on the BN route and a bus connection that would stop at all cross streets on University Avenue than an LRT train that went down University Avenue. You say that people don’t like to transfer and it cuts down on ridership, but people are transferring every day from the Hiawatha line to buses.

The real purpose of running the line down University Avenue is to spend a billion dollars to enhance the property values of a few developers.

By the way, commissioner, maybe you should talk to someone about this new habit you’ve developed. This is the second time in a month that you’ve given a billion dollars of our tax money away to some rich fat cat. You might have a problem here.

Ed Felien, editor/publisher of Pulse of the Twin Cities.

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