The great train robbery

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The Metropolitan Council yesterday approved light rail transit for the Midway corridor. Based on the history and politics of this process, the decision was a foregone conclusion.

The Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority (RCRRA) along with The Central Corridor Coordinating Committee (CCCC) sponsored four public hearings in the Twin Cities at the end of May to evaluate options. It was a choice between Bus Rapid Transit and Light Rail. The expanded bus option (larger buses on express routes) was never seriously considered. At the May 24 meeting I attended, no one spoke in favor of buses. Almost everyone was completely enthralled with light rail.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess a certain prejudice: I know the difference between a train and a streetcar. My father worked for the Railway Express Agency all his life. He unloaded boxcars and delivered freight all over the Twin Cities. He was president of his union, the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks. He knew trains. Every summer, our family would go on train trips to Oregon and California to visit relatives because he could get us railway passes. Also, when I was growing up in South Minneapolis, there were still streetcars. Further, when we were discussing mass transit options at Minneapolis City Council meetings, where I served from 1974 to 1976, I held up a map that I had asked the Planning Department to make showing existing railroad right of ways. The first line, I suggested, could be built from downtown to the airport on existing railroad right-of-way. I was horrified when I found out they were building the line across the street from the railroad lines.

Yesterday’s Met Council meeting did not discuss a route. That decision was already made at a CCCC meeting in 2001. The CCCC is a quasi-official group made up of Hennepin and Ramsey County commissioners and members of the St. Paul and Minneapolis City Council whose districts will be most directly affected by the Midway route. In spite of cost, safety and environmental pollution, they decided to run the track down the middle of University Avenue rather than use existing railroad right-of -way on the Burlington Northern route that connects downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul. “How asinine!” my father would have thought.

Here are some reasons why that is a dumb idea:
It will probably kill people. The Hiawatha line killed two people in its first year of operation, and it is operating next to a fast-moving highway on a street with very little foot traffic. If you’re happy with capital punishment for forgetful seniors and irresponsible adolescents, then a 45 m.p.h train running down the middle of a busy street shouldn’t bother you.

It will increase congestion. The train will eliminate two lanes of traffic on University Avenue to provide express LRT stops at Snelling, Lexington and Dale. The service will be pointless for people whose destination or point of departure is anything other than one of those major intersections. Bus service connecting the other points will be diminished. Travel time for all other vehicles will be greatly increased. And an increase in congestion means an increase in air pollution.

It will seriously contribute to noise pollution. According to the draft Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Central Corridor Committee, “Light rail would exceed noise standards at 12 locations in the corridor,” using standards established by the Federal Transit Administration.

It’s the slowest route. According to the latest estimates by the CCCC, the time it will take to get from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul will be 43 minutes, and that’s rigging the traffic lights so LRT has the right of way and all other traffic will have to wait for the train to pass. That’s much slower than the express bus that runs down 94. Ask any motorist trying to cross Hiawatha Avenue if LRT has sped up their traffic. A driver trying to take a left turn on University Avenue will experience a mixture of tedium and terror. So, even if LRT is the fastest way to go down University Avenue, it will make all other traffic much slower. By contrast, according to a Technical Feasibility Study done for the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority in December 2001, it would only take 24 minutes to travel from downtown Minneapolis to downtown St. Paul using existing railroad right of way on the Burlington Northern route. Their figure confirms an earlier study that came to the same conclusion.

It will cause tremendous social and economic disruption, particularly for small businesses. This project will take much longer than a simple paving project, and paving projects are notorious for wiping out small businesses. If they survive the construction, they might not be able to afford the increase in property taxes or rents. The small businesses we have talked to are opposed to the University Avenue option.

It is way too expensive. The capital costs of construction of the University Avenue option are currently estimated at $930 million. Half of that amount will be paid for by the federal government and half will come from state and local taxes. That figure, of course, does not include the tens of millions of dollars lost to small businesses during the construction. By contrast, the estimated costs of the Burlington Northern route would be $115,210,400 and that includes $19,658,000 in contingency funding if anything goes wrong. There would be no disruption of local businesses because there are no existing local businesses along the railroad right -of-way.

Of course, the devil is in the details. The Burlington Northern track crosses Lexington 12 blocks north of University Avenue and 10 blocks north of Snelling. Why do you think the Chicago El makes a loop in front of Marshall Fields? Because Marshall Fields determined where the elevated train should run. The LRT Minneapolis/St. Paul connection is scheduled to run down the middle of University Avenue because property owners and developers at the chosen intersections on University Avenue want an LRT stop on their corner.

They believe it will increase the value of their property, and they seem to have controlled the process.

If the purpose of the design of the LRT was to most efficiently satisfy a growing need for mass transit, then the Burlington Northern route would clearly be the most efficient. A stop at an intersection on Fairview, Lexington, Snelling and Dale could have shuttle buses waiting to transport passengers to University, but (for the property owners) a shuttle bus is not nearly as sexy or as profitable as an LRT stop on your corner. At Lexington and Snelling, two shuttle buses could pick up commuters at the train, and at University, one could travel east and one could travel west in a loop that would take them back to the train. The entire trip would take less than 10 minutes and nine minutes less than if the train ran down University Avenue and stopped at their front door.

But the point of LRT in the Midway has never been about the most efficient, safest and cheapest way to get people from one point to another. The point has always been about LRT stops in front of certain properties on University Avenue to bring up property values. In a June 4, 2006, memorandum to the CCCC, Steve Morris, the project manager for RCRRA, identified “Goal 1 of Project Goals and Objectives: Economic Opportunity and Investment: Objective A: Support investments in infrastructure, business, and community that sustain the heart of the region.” Later in the memorandum he says, “The proposed LRT stations are also in close proximity to proposed development projects.”

At the public meeting I attended, almost all the speakers identified themselves as members of the Midway Chamber of Commerce, property owners in the Midway district, developers, or members of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce. These are the real players in this drama. They’re the ones that have narrowed the options so that the only choice is to run a train down University Avenue. The Met Council has decided that LRT is preferable to increased bus service. In doing so they affirmed the University route. The process has been hijacked by land speculators, and the public has been robbed.

To continue down the path of running a fast-moving train down the middle of University Avenue and pretend it’s a streetcar is to participate in potential manslaughter, waste the public treasury and insult the intelligence and common sense of the public.

It would be far better for the Met Council to assume its proper responsibility and seriously study the Burlington Northern route, the University route and the route down 94. To let such an important decision be made by the CCCC, an advisory group without any governmental authority, seems criminal. We have allowed special interests to determine public policy without proper debate. We have let the foxes guard the chicken house because they seemed to have the most interest in the question

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