The Southwest LRT is frequently touted as making significant improvements to racial and economic equity. I would argue that it does nothing of the sort. In fact, if not done right, this rail line will actually contribute to inequity rather than address it.
Racial and economic equity had little to do with the selection of the South West light rail alignment. In fact, SWLRT was developed under the “Cost Effectiveness Rating” criteria set forth by the George W. Bush administration.
Foremost in those criteria was for rail service to provide time saving, direct, no transferring needed, rides to people living in suburbs and exurbs into downtown. Neither urban communities nor environmental impacts were prioritized in Federal criteria until after President Obama took office, and the alignment had already been selected. As a result, SWLRT is suburban-centric and avoids urban density and economically stressed communities in the city. It will do what it was designed to do, promote suburban development and enter and exit the city quickly. It is not an equity train, far from it.
If the SWLRT were actually an equitable transit project, what would it look like?
If it were an equitable project, the biggest transit project in the state’s history would begin by directly serving parts of the city where congestion is a serious need, where ridership would be highest, and where revitalization most impactful.
The SWLRT project would begin by addressing existing transportation needs in the city. By addressing this congestion ridership would be stronger because density drives ridership. It would also create equity-oriented revitalization and development opportunities in collaboration with the city’s priorities, front and center.
Rather than planning from the suburbs into the city, like South West Light Rail, in search of the quickest path in and out of down town, in this case Target Field, equity focused transit would work within the city to reduce congestion, thus improving air quality and livability. It would improve connections between urban communities to capitalize on the robust businesses already existing in the city.
As population growth is now shifting into Minneapolis, this becomes more urgent. Buses, bikes, walking, and trains should all be elements of this system.
Reverse commuting, often used as the justification for SWLRT, assumes either access to only jobs directly developed near stations or a significant suburban bus system that does not really exist. Suburban riders will drive to the train and park. Urban riders will not have car access upon reaching the suburbs or exurbs to extend their commute. Better to create transit that fosters job growth in the city.
Planning from the perspective of greatest need, from the beginning, would ensure the greatest needs and greatest opportunities for ridership would be served!
Economic and racial inequity is not always the intended goal of actions that result in disparities. But inequities will only be rectified with intentional planning and rejecting policies that perpetuate these social patterns. Will SWLRT benefit some minority citizens? Yes. But is that the same as advancing equity? No.
No, because a rail line that serves a small population in a historically underserved community, but still prioritizes suburban development overall actually fosters and maintains historic patterns of racial and economic disparities. (It also does not address our growing environmental problems by contributing to sprawl.) Because the line was created for ‘regional benefit’, where the line is placed to allow for economic development is critical to setting embedding long-lasting patterns.
The South West light rail takes the metro in the wrong direction for the long haul. It disproportionately benefits exurban and suburban development and residents and further entrenches current economic patterns and structures of privilege for decades to come.
In the Brookings Institute’s study, Mind the Gap, patterns contributing to economic disparities of location were identified. One pattern noted was the economic disparity between exurban/suburban and urban core communities. Minneapolis’ poverty rate of 22.5% is more than double the state poverty rate. The average poverty rate is 8.5% for the suburbs along SWLRT – 5.5% in Eden Prairie, 4.8% in Minnetonka, 15.6 in Hopkins, and 8.7% in St. Louis Park. Another pattern noted in the study was the growth of exurban communities.
Building a rail line, such as the SWLRT, that primarily encourages development out into the exurbs and suburbs, actually contributes to and provides a permanent engine for this sharp and growing regional inequity.
In fact, rail itself, within the infrastructure of transit, is considered a “privileged” mode. When already limited operating funds for transit are reduced, it is typically bus services that are cut to save money, not rail. This pattern has occurred in other cities such as Oakland in the Bay Area and Portland Oregon where rail is built out.
“Funding priorities from the federal government on down shortchange bus riders while favoring drivers and rail passengers.” (https://www.baycitizen.org/news/transportation/ac-transit-riders-bus-service-still/)
If rail is the “privileged” mode within the transit system and is designed, like SWLRT, such that it does not adequately serve core city communities, historically underserved residents reliant on buses, again, are the most vulnerable to recurring budget fluctuations, crises, and funding cuts. The poor and the transit dependent pay first when cuts are made or costs increase, because bus service is then reduced.
The SWLRT plan of providing urban feeder buses to hub light rail stations that head to the suburbs fits a pattern of suburban commuter lifestyle that assumes the ownership of a car for other transportation needs: the store, school, church, socialization, recreation. In communities that are actually transit dependent, the buses should primarily focus on providing transit for those needs rather than feeding LRT stations headed to the suburbs. Furthermore, SWRLT does not take transit riders to the center of downtown Minneapolis, but rather to Target Field.
It is known that other core urban needs have already been crowded out by SWLRT in the planning phase. For example, MPR reported this January that in 2012 the Metropolitan Council received a $2 million DEED grant for SWLRT, though it was NOT recommended for DEED funding. At the same time, DEED recommended funding for the same amount was eliminated for a request by the Minneapolis School District #1 to improve 3 athletic facilities on the city’s north side.
Grant money targeted for North Minneapolis school athletic fields was instead spent on SWLRT planning!
But shouldn’t we just cut our losses and be happy for any train? After all it skirts a North-side community, the Feds will pay for half of it, and it will link to other lines. It’s the system, it is said, that really matters. But what system is really being referred to? The transit system isn’t just trains, it’s mostly buses, and trails and walkways within the city as well. How does the SWLRT alignment impact those systems? And once completed, will it add an equitable benefit for its cost to both privileged suburban and exurban communities and persistently underserved urban communities?
The answer is “No”.
“No”, because development patterns that locate jobs out of the city will be benefitted, contributing to, not reducing, economic opportunity gaps between suburban and urban communities. The ridership by 2030 of Van White and Royalston stations COMBINED is less than just one of the numerous stations in the suburbs. The fact that the South West line will skim the outskirts of one North-side, predominantly minority community, does not constitute equity!
In sharp contrast, one of the vibrant equalizers between exurban/suburban areas and Minneapolis is our city’s commitment to public green space. This commitment has distinguished Minneapolis nationally and in the hearts of her residents. The city was founded on the principle of shared benefit by creating an amazing park system for all to enjoy. These are not founding principles of the suburban interests that dominate SWLRT design. Numerous studies document the vast economic and public health benefits, both physical and mental, of parkland. These benefits are in short supply in urban areas, but in Minneapolis create a good place to live for everyone.
A jewel of the parks system is the Chain of Lakes. The Kenilworth channel that connects Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake is an unusually peaceful, beautiful waterway. Literally thousands of canoeists, kayakers, and paddle boarders stream to the channel during the warm months and thousands of skiers during the winter months. It is a public benefit that is accessible and widely used by residents from throughout the city.
The SWLRT route chosen by Hennepin County through Minneapolis is over this channel. Again, exurban and suburban riders will mostly ride SWLRT. Asking Minneapolis to compromise the quality of the lakes with both freight and commuter trains should be considered a tremendous concession from Minneapolis. But instead suburban officials have stated that they are “befuddled” by Minneapolis’ hesitancy to run BOTH freight trains and commuter trains every 3½ minutes over this popular and unique part of our parks.
The Mayor of Edina was “befuddled” with Minneapolis’ hesitancy, yet Edina took steps to make it against state law to even include their city in a study of light rail service. “Befuddled”, yet Eden Prairie refused to have their Hennepin County Rail Road land used for SWLRT because they said it would compromise their bike trails and eliminate development opportunities. As a result, $300 million was added to the cost of the project to buy Eden Prairie and Minnetonka new right-of-way and preserve their quiet trails, taking the then SWLRT budget up 30% from about $900 million to $1.2 billion. Equity?
The suburban communities to our South West have more green space per capita (and are working to increase it) than we do in the city, but are “befuddled” by our desire to preserve green space we know, once lost, will never be regained.
Thoughtfully designed light rail alignments must better serve equity and Minneapolis. Much more could be done with a smarter, more equitable use of 1.6 billion transit dollars. Well designed, equity based light rail should strengthen core city communities and limit the growth of exurban sprawl. The city must insist that rail alignments within its limits serve equity, serve density, and really serve local city needs within this regional project.
The design catastrophe of the Lake Street Kmart will look like a quaint miscalculation compared to the design blunder of the SWLRT project through Minneapolis. It will be a blunder that will entrench patterns of growth much more difficult to correct than moving a big box store, and it be much more detrimental to the city. As currently designed, South West Light Rail will not be a “game changer” for historically underserved communities; rather it will be a game win for the same team that always wins!
Minneapolis City Council must deny municipal consent for the current SWLRT design and maintain municipal control over how Minneapolis’ needs are met within regional transit plans.