Central Corridor: our transit to nowhere

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About a year ago, Shoreview Green Community decided to look at the Central Corridor LRT proposal, to learn the process of obtaining rapid transit, so we could advance transit in the northeastern part of the metro area. It quickly became apparent that the $900 million Central Corridor will not be a wise transit investment, given the fact that the corridor already is well-served by bus transit, that 75 percent to 90 percent of Central Corridor riders would come from existing bus service and that the Central Corridor LRT would be very slow and not extendable.

Voices: Central Corridor: Our transit to nowhere

Impact on traffic

Central Corridor light rail, as currently planned, will navigate through 40 traffic signals, a 30 mile per hour speed limit, and 20+ transit stations, while sharing the road with approximately 500,000 vehicles per day. The various segments of University Avenue in St. Paul carry approximately 25,000 vehicles per day. Crossing streets have up to 35,000 vehicles per day.

The 500,000 daily drivers will waste millions of hours in congestion, and will pay for millions of gallons of fuel and higher insurance premiums. The planners did not adequately consider the time wasted by riders or the possibility of extending the line to the eastern metropolitan area. The Central Corridor light rail does nothing to relieve the congestion on I-94, the second busiest highway in the metro area.

Plans call for light rail trains to have a 20-second priority to proceed prior to vehicles making left turns on University Avenue. Pedestrian crossings will more than double. Thousands of hours and gallons of fuel will be wasted daily by drivers where a traffic signal is added, priority given, signal time extended and pedestrians cross the street. Businesses will be negatively impacted with the loss of more than 600 street parking spaces. There will be more pedestrian and vehicle accidents. Operating the Central Corridor light rail in the middle of busy streets creates additional problems rather than solving problems.

Bus service in the central corridor is among the best in the Twin Cities. There are fast, frequent I-94 non-stop express buses between the downtowns, and limited stop Route 50 buses along University Avenue. Route 16 buses on University Avenue run every eight to 10 minutes during peak hours, and stop at every block. This route serves about 4.7 million passengers a year, many of whom are taking rides of three miles or less and then transferring to other routes. The LRT line will pick up passengers every half-mile or longer, which will require some riders to walk three to six blocks more to get to a station. Such steps at best would inconvenience some persons and at worst would deter them from riding

A Central Corridor LRT brochure from the Metropolitan Council stated a travel time of 35 minutes between the two downtowns. After looking at details, it is evident to me that the actual ride would take approximately 45 minutes from start to end. Moreover, many express buses that now provide a 30-minute ride on I-94 between the downtowns would be removed from service, with passengers expected to take LRT instead.

Cost factors

Bus riders now have the option of selecting the service that best meets their needs, rather than the less convenient light rail, which would stop approximately every mile outside of the downtowns. Bus service along University Avenue currently is among the most cost-effective in the Twin Cities area with up to 70 percent of operating expenses being recovered from the fare box. Fares yield about 30 percent of such expenses system wide.
Slow LRT vehicles on the Central Corridor means slower travel time for riders, which inevitably increases the cost per rider per trip and the operating costs. Projections of operating expenses on the Central Corridor exceed the bus system.

Washington Avenue Bridge

Closing the Washington Avenue bridge and Washington Avenue will force the estimated 22,500 vehicles that use this roadway to alter their route, which will increase congestion on adjacent bridges, roads and highways. Modifying the 52-year-old Washington Avenue bridge to carry approximately a million pounds at a budgeted thirty million dollars is questionable at best. Accessibility to the Weisman Art Museum, several student dormitories and parking ramps, the University medical facilities and commercial establishments will be very difficult. The commercial establishments on Washington Avenue will suffer financially. The congestion caused by the Central Corridor light rail and the loss of Washington Avenue to vehicles, will leave the 50,000 fans attending University football games spitting tacks for hours getting to and from games. The University is considering adding a road that would greatly improve traffic flow, but would cost approximately $100,000,000.

Toward a different plan for light rail

The Central Corridor group did not consider the negative impact upon others and the short and long-term transit needs of the metro area.

The metro area needs a fast intercity rail transit system. A better route would run through the University of Minnesota, and then adjacent to I-94 to the Union Depot in St. Paul. Reducing the number of transit stations by 25%, tunneling, elevation, bridges and exclusive right-of-ways should be utilized to the maximum extent. These changes to the current plan could yield time savings and reduced equipment and operational costs, as well as attracting riders from I-94 and reducing congestion on roads and highways.

This route would serve the same St. Paul transit customers, and encourage urban development. A rail line adjacent to I-94 could link to other transit, would be extendable, and would offer easy ways to increase capacity. Total transit time between the two downtowns should be 26-28 minutes, in contrast to the 45 minutes projected under current University Avenue light rail plans. This would annually save riders millions of hours and allow fare increases.

Let’s use transit money to improve travel throughout our metropolitan area.

Scott Halstead is a resident of Shoreview, who recently retired from a 27-year federal career in several capacities, including purchasing and contract management, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He is co-chair of the Citizens Forum, a member of Shoreview Green Community, an environmental and transit group, the Shoreview Environmental Quality Committee, and the Citizens League. Material in this article was originally presented to the Civic Caucus. Scott Halstead can be contacted at snhalstead@gmail.com