On transit in the Twin Cities

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Today, Governor Dayton announced his allocations for $47.5 million in bonding money that the legislature decided to delegate to the executive branch. The inclusion of $2 million for the Southwest LRT line brought praise from two representatives who districts will be affected by the rail line:

Today’s announcement is an incredibly generous show of support for our popular light rail system. I’d like to thank Governor Dayton for understanding the importance of transit to economic development and growth in the metro area. His strong support for the project adds to the ongoing support of our local businesses and communities. It’s important that we keep moving the project forward. [Steve Simon (DFL-St. Louis Park), via press release]

I would like to thank Governor Dayton for recognizing that this region’s economic competitiveness requires a modern, efficient transportation grid that includes mass transit. I would also like to thank the Twin West Chamber of Commerce, Greater Minneapolis Chamber and Greater St. Paul Chamber for supporting Southwest Corridor, and for making the clear statement that rail transit is good for business. [Ryan Winkler (DFL-Golden Valley), via press release]

Personally, I’m less excited about seeing another light-rail line go forward in the Twin Cities. I say that as a big advocate for transit, as well as a daily transit user. In theory, more rail transit is a great thing. In practice, rail transit in the Twin Cities is an absolute joke. Why do I say that? More after the break.

In my mind, there is one simple problem with rail transit in the Twin Cities: We have scrimped and taken shortcuts while building the system, resulting in a system that has made traffic worse, not better.

Light-rail trains run slowly and tie up traffic along the way. Any reader who has to cross Hiawatha Avenue on a regular basis knows what I mean. Nearly 10 years after the Hiawatha Line opened, I still regularly find myself waiting through three light cycles to get a green light, as the light is continually co-opted by passing trains. But as bad as it is for drivers, it’s even worse for passengers. The Hiawatha line positively crawls, maintaining slow speeds along most most of Hiawatha to avoid having to blare its horn. Downtown, it’s even worse, as the train actually has to stop for traffic lights.

What’s the solution for all of this? Grade separation — elevating or burying the tracks so the train doesn’t come into conflict with cars and pedestrians. Elevated lines would be significantly faster, wouldn’t tie up traffic, and would reduce everybody’s travel time. This is especially true for the Central Corridor on University Avenue,, which promises to be a traffic nightmare with trains running at grade.

So why don’t we build grade-separated rail lines? There’s an easy answer for that: It’s more expensive. Unfortunately, skimping on major infrastructure projects is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Sure, we saved money upfront, but the decision costs us every day in the form of slower travel times. And with hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure in place, you can be sure we’re not going to fix things anytime soon.

With the Southwest Corridor, we’re preparing to make a similar mistake. To save money on infrastructure costs, the proposed route will completely bypass Uptown and Midtown in Minneapolis, rendering it useless for everybody but suburban commuters. Once again, we’ll save money upfront, but at the cost of rendering the line more or less ineffective.

I want to be excited about the Southwest LRT moving forward, just like Reps. Simon and Winkler. It pains me to be so critical of building new rail transit in the Twin Cities, since I’m actually a big proponent of transit. Unfortunately, rail transit in the Twin Cities is shaping up to be a major disappointment, thanks to the decision to prioritize the bottom line over the ultimate effectiveness of our transit system. Our number-one priority should be building an effective transit system that improves transportation options for everyone. Our tight-fisted approach to rail transit is holding us back, and it will have major consequences on our region for decades.