More Stadium Stuff

A region of spacetime from which nothing can escape

My Rybak post the other day, though intended to be less about the stadium itself and more about what what we would be better off building instead of a stadium, prompted me to think a bit more than I wanted to about the Metrodome site for a new Vikings stadium.  Specifically a revelation about the plan to capture parking meter revenue prompted me to write a whole new post for this, but there are a couple other pieces I’d like to cover as well, and hopefully this post will prompt a catharsis that will put the whole topic out of my head.  Bear with me, please.

Meter madness

Minnescraper user newsole pointed out that it appears that only parking meter revenue from days with Vikings games would be dedicated to the stadium.  The plan doesn’t explicitly say that, but it does say that in the first year $842,500 would be raised from “1,000 Meters at $25 Plus 1,975 Meters at $30 each”, which newsole mathed out to “1000 meters x $25 + 1975 parking spots x 30 = $84,250 per game.  10 home games = $842,500 the first year.”  Convincing, but it does raise even more issues in my head.

Treasure Map

First, the cost of operating parking meters is not nothing.  Since this plan uses almost half the meters in the system, it presumably would represent almost half the daily cost of running the system.  (We’ll ignore the fact that these should be some of the more expensive meters to operate; since they are some of the highest-demand meters they are the ones that will offer the highest ROI for enforcement, so the city should also be spending more time enforcing them.  I don’t know if it actually does, though.)  However, the plan dedicates all of the revenue from these meters to the stadium, leaving other meters to cover their cost.  This is probably a relatively small cost, but it does remove revenue from other meters that would otherwise go to the general fund, so effectively more meters than the plan states will be going to stadium costs.  Presumably this is omitted from the plan out of laziness more than deceptiveness.  It’s not clear that the meter revenue is an attempt to present a veneer of user tax, and if it is, a bit more thought will show that to be untrue, as my next point may indicate.

Second, if 2,975 meters are dedicated to the stadium, some of them are going to be far enough from the stadium to be unintuitive for use as game parking.  Assuming 14 spaces per block face without curb cuts, the 227 block faces east of Marquette and north of 11th would account for 3,178 spaces, so presumably that’s the approximate area being considered for revenue capture.  But it’s hard to imagine someone cruising past all those ample lots in East Downtown still looking for a meter.  Because of the huge numbers of meters involved, this is going to be true regardless of where the line is drawn.  Many of these areas are nonetheless high-intensity destinations, and thus likely to suck in parkers despite the distance from the stadium.  But is it realistic to expect full occupancy all day?  Which brings me to….

Third, football games seem interminable to me, but my understanding is that in reality they only last 3 hours.  In some cases, people will arrive early and stay downtown all night before driving home.  These party animals may pay for a full day’s worth of parking, although my guess is that it would be rare for them to arrive at 8am, and those football fans that stay past dinner will be the exception.  I don’t know what the specific pricing plan is, but the current max rate of $2 per hour would net $30 per day if it were in use for the longest meter time, 8am to 11pm, currently only applied in the Warehouse District.  To get $30 per day for a more realistic estimate of a typical Vikings fan’s visit, say 6 hours, the rate would have to be $5 per hour, more than double the current highest rate and five times more than current rates around the dome.  Maybe people would pay – I don’t think that’s any higher than event parking in lots, and it would offer the advantage of not having to wait in line to exit the lot.  But it still seems unrealistic to expect the full daily amount at almost 3,000 spaces on every game day.  To get that, we’d probably need a Vikings team that’s a lot better than we’ve seen in a while.

Going with the wind

Will East Downtown get this...

Someone needs to tell Ted Mondale or R.T. Rybak the old proverb about the devil you know, since the vagueness of the East Downtown proposal seems giving birth to monsters in the minds of key stakeholders.*  This problem is compounded by the fact that the Metrodome sit has gone through several cuts of revisions, to the point where it makes up at least 6 mostly contradictory entries on Bill’s Top 19 Renderings list, the most recent of which I think is #19 on this list, summarized by the author as “I have no idea what is going on with this. Are those trees?”

This key stakeholder confusion bubbled over into an even more obfuscatory Star Tribune article about how some local counties’ morgues might merge and how mad Rich Stanek is about it, or something.  Anyway, the story reports the Emperor Mondale offered the county morgue as tribute to the Vikings in the form of a plaza.  If the team magnanimously accepts this offering and Hennepin County’s petty objections can be pushed aside, it would create a plaza of around 6.5 acres.  Apparently added to that would be the balance of the Metrodome’s footprint after the new stadium was built to the east but overlapping it to some unknown degree.

...or this?

For comparison’s sake, Elliot Park is 6.44 acres.  Plazas of that size are usually described as barren and windswept.  The U’s West Bank has been described as such despite having much smaller contiguous open spaces.  Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square, however, is about the same size and has been often praised, but has the benefit of being more park-like, with rows of trees and shrubs breaking up the space.   We don’t have many clues as to what kind of plaza we’ll get, but the existing nothingness of East Downtown’s** streetscape prejudices me into the assumption that it will be more Tienanmen than Millennium.

11th hour for 11th Ave

Reuben discussed the fate of 11th Ave S on streets.mn recently.  The pliability of this street is apparently responsible for the feasibility of the Metrodome plan, as by sacrificing itself it allows the Vikings to avoid playing at the U of M while the new stadium is under construction.  But, as with the possible proposed plaza, details are scarce on just how 11th will be plied.

11th Ave Complete Street Tunnel

Reuben’s discussion pretty much nailed my concerns about the physical result of tussling with 11th – closing it would further isolate the already freeway-carved neighborhoods, there is a danger of severing or rendering less useful the crucial bike route, and decking the new stadium over 11th would probably accomplish those things and create quasi-freeway conditions that would endanger the usability of the street beyond the covered segment.  My concern is more about the process – while 11th Ave doesn’t have metrowide significance, it’s pretty damn important to the neighborhoods it runs through.  If the worst boogiemen are realized about the stadium plan, and 11th ends up tunnelized or severed, this will have been a significant change to local infrastructure that was initiated with almost no public input.  I believe that EISes are usually waived for sports palaces like these, and I’ve heard no sign that the public will even be able to see the plan before it’s finalized, much less comment on it.  Probably the most galling thing about it is that this type of top-down democracy is coming from touchy-feely democrats like Mark Dayton and R.T. Rybak.  (The latter has been quoted as refusing to hold a referendum on the plan, saying “The referendum is when I stand for re-election.”  The Mayor has that right, at least.)    Mark Dayton, of whom I’m a huge fan, keeps rattling on about a “People’s Stadium” but has forgotten to invite the actual people.  It’s amazing the hypocrisy that is exposed when a popular millionaire asks for a handout.

Are you done yet?

Whew.  I hope that’s all I have to say about this stadium for a while.  Hopefully you found something more interesting to read before you got to this part.  If not, I promise not to do this to you again until at least 2016, when we all will start getting Stadium Investment Capture taxes deducted from our paychecks.

*I faintly remember a blissful time in my life before I was aware of the word stakeholder.

http://www.minnpost.com/two-cities/2012/01/council-members-balk-current-minneapolis-stadium-plan-most-are-staying-flexible

Rybak to the Future?

Two quotes from recent Star Tribune articles:

In 2007, the city estimated that a West Broadway streetcar line would cost $154 million.

-Minneapolis considers ways to get North Side rolling

Under the preliminary deal, the city would contribute $150 million in construction costs to the downtown Minneapolis project.

-Tentative Vikings stadium deal is set

Not even the Mayor can make it across Mpls' traffic-choked streets

Mayor may not be good

R.T. Rybak hasn’t been a bad mayor.  I voted for him in 2009, when no one ran against him.  I also voted for him in 2005, because Peter McLaughlin, the better candidate, can do more as a Hennepin County Commissioner than as Mayor of Minneapolis.  I didn’t vote for him in 2001, although in retrospect he may have been the not-baddest candidate.

The problem with calling Rybak a good mayor is that he really hasn’t done anything good.  Looking closely at his accomplishments, you find that they are really more not-failures.  A lesser mayor might have fumbled the city’s finances, as happened to municipalities around the nation.  A lesser mayor might not have won the pension fund fight.  A lesser mayor might not have picked up the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program handed to the City on a silver platter by Jim Oberstar.

Rybak would to have to be high to say no to free money for bikes

Not doing anything good doesn’t mean he’s done anything bad, but neither has there been anything that has noticeably improved quality of life in Minneapolis – nothing Rybak can really take credit for, anyway.  Sure, crime has plummeted, but that has been mirrored by a nationwide decline in crime.  Ok, there has been renewed investment in multifamily housing, but that is also a nationwide trend, and isn’t anything that hasn’t been seen in previous decades.  Cool, new bike lanes, but should Rybak be lauded for not rejecting free money from the Federal government?

Doing good things costs money, and Rybak has clearly chosen a cautious fiscal path over signature projects.  The problem is that not spending money can have a cost also – how much does it cost the city to lose Target IT jobs to Brooklyn Center?  To have flat population growth?  To have no change in the share of residents driving alone to work?  Most Minneapolitans have sat on our concerns, not really interested in arguing against fiscal stability in a time of recession and red ink.

Wintertime for the wise ant

Stop that dog! She's got Mpls' only revenue stream!

But now, it seems, Rybak has admitted that we do have some money to spend, which he is proposing to spend on a playground for millionaires that will be vacant 345 days out of the year.  My disposition is in favor of large public works projects, but after a decade of frugality, there are about a million things I’m ready to splurge on before a stadium.  MPR has the most details I’ve seen about the proposed financing plan, which apparently has a $55m hole.  I have to admit that I’m a bit puzzled by the documents provided by 35W Financial, but I think the hole is in up front costs (the city’s $314m contribution would be $164m in capital costs and the rest in operating, I think).  Still, one detail jumped out at my tiny brain:  around $31m over the 30 year life of the plan would come from parking revenue.  I’ll explain why that sounds familiar.

Around 50 years after the City’s Public Works Department decided that the area’s low-density development patterns did not “warrant the capital investment in a fixed rail rapid transit system”, they’ve decided to study fixed rail after all, albeit not rapid transit.  In Minneapolis streetcars are on the drawing board rather than on the street because the city sat on their preliminary planning efforts in the belief that there were no funds available, thereby missing all the free money that started raining down in 2009, when the federal money in programs like Small Starts, TIGER, and Urban Circulators was awarded to better-prepared cities.

Transit or stadiums?

For the most part, the feds dole out matching grants, so there needs to be a local source as well.  In addition, only capital costs come from Washington, so the City looked into sources of operating funds.  In various funding scenarios, the City looked at capturing $350k-665k per year from parking meter revenues, which the report implies would be 25-75% of a 25% increase in meter revenue.  Meanwhile the stadium plan captures 100% of revenue from 2,975 meters – almost half the City’s 6800 meters – at $25 and $30 a day, a 25-50% increase on the current max rate of $20 a day.  It seems unlikely there would be anything left for streetcars.  (Edit:  Minnescraper user newsole and commenter Brad below have both pointed out that it’s likely that only game-day revenue from the meters would be dedicated to the stadium.  That means there would likely be something left for streetcars.  However, there are still several problems with the plan to capture meter revenue for the stadium, and I’m collecting them into a miscellaneous stadium post that if you’re lucky I’ll never get around to actually posting.)

I’m not necessarily in favor of streetcars.  Although there are certainly some routes that would justify them, it seems likely that a wiser move would be to spread streetcar money out to a wider range of routes using much cheaper Baby BRT improvements.  (All the Minneapolis segments of the proposed Rapid Bus routes could be built for $145.6m, coincidentally close to the West Broadway streetcar estimate and Minneapolis’ contribution to the stadium capital costs.)  In addition, I’m skeptical that a short segment of streetcar would draw many users, or if implemented mostly in the Downtown Fare Zone it would generate as much revenue as a bus.  The point is that transit improvements are much more desperately needed in Minneapolis and would be a much bigger benefit to the city than a stadium would be.  Certainly building a stadium would be a huge and visible reminder of Rybak’s legacy, but he faces a tough job convincing Minneapolis voters that the Minnesota Vikings need to be paid for by Minneapolis.

Trouble, more trouble

Stolen from the NY Times

Besides, there’s another huge and visible reminder of Rybak’s legacy, although it’s one that he’d like to forget.  North Minneapolis was in rough shape before Rybak was first elected, of course, and he has made both visible and holistic efforts at addressing the area’s pervasive and unique problems.  But it was also on Rybak’s watch that the neighborhood lost 10,000 residents, suffered thousands of foreclosures (6,243 from 2006 to 2011, 45% of the city’s 13,842 total in that time frame), and consistently and deeply declined in median income.

I’m not so petty as to blame Rybak for market conditions that created ample credit or lax regulation that allowed mortgage brokers to stoop to new lows of fraud and discrimination.  And I’m not aware of any city that took matters into its own hands by creating its own loan modification program to assist underwater homeowners.  But there’s no question Minneapolis could have created such a program, at least after 2009, when restrictions were lifted on the sales tax that is now being proposed for use on a fancy playground for the Vikings.

Are the stars out tonight?

Minneapolis already dabbles in the mortgage game through the Minneapolis Advantage program, which was created in 2008 to create an incentive to buy homes that are “foreclosed, vacant, or in a high foreclosure-impacted neighborhood”.  This program is now funded by HUD Neighborhood Stabilization Program 2 funds and may be considered a success, in that it’s assisted almost 350 home purchases, presumably some of which wouldn’t have happened without the program.  In that case it would be a small success, notable if you compare those 350 purchases to the total number of foreclosures listed a couple paragraphs up.

A longer-standing program is the City Living program, a more complex program that provides both interest rate subsidy and second mortgages in Minneapolis and St Paul.  It’s hard for me to say for sure without more details than I can find on each of these programs, but it’s likely one or both could have been modified to provide refinancing to homeowners at risk of foreclosure, although probably at greater expense.  Home values in North Minneapolis dropped by at least 50% (probably more), which is a substantial amount for the City to make up.  But almost $30m a year of the sales tax would be diverted to Palazzo Wilf, so even if the City were eating up to $40k per mortgage, more than twice as many homes could be salvaged per year than the Minneapolis Advantage program has affected in its lifespan.

The sense of an ending

Why not let a city that can afford it pay for a stadium? Enter the SouthDome!

A big question with a City-sponsored mortgage modification program is whether the banks would participate; several have resisted a federal-level program with the cowboyish reasoning that modifications would encourage more widespread default.  I mention this to emphasize how many of the forces that have resulted in Rybak’s meh mayoralty were beyond his control.  One thing that is not beyond his control, though, is whether to spend the City’s long-awaited fiscal freedom on a sports facility that at best debatably benefits the city.  As a cynic, I can only assume that he thinks he can get the stadium built against the will of most Minneapolitans, then park in the mayor chair until a statewide office is up for nomination, which he’ll then use his Stadium Builder legacy to win.  He may be right about the third part of that plan, but he shouldn’t assume that he will be mayor by default.  A majority are against using city money on a stadium in the first place.  When they realize what they could have had, it seems likely that most will pass on their fourth chance to vote for him.

Bottineau-no for North, part III

Here is the last of my three-part Bottineau rant, which at this point may be considered a full-fledged tirade.  Somewhat coincidentally, it arrives on the same day the Minneapolis City Council makes its recommendation for a Locally Preferred Alternative, which is more or less required by the FTA for the project to advance.  It looks like the Council has acquiesced to the LRT D1 alternative – Wirth-Olson – but with the clever stipulation that Hennepin County and Metro Transit agree to develop at least one arterial transitway through North Minneapolis along Penn, Emerson/Fremont, or West Broadway.  I’m not aware of any attempt by the city to gather their citizens’ opinions, outside of  the county-led process, but of course you can always provide input to the Bottineau project office.

My last post proposed the consideration of an LRT subway through North Minneapolis, which would do a zillion times better job of serving the heart of the Northside without the impact of a surface route, and based on our history with Hiawatha is unlikely to be as expensive as other recent American below-grade transit projects.  An LRT subway will not be considered in Minnesota – it’s just too “coastal.”  In that case, I think the best alternative for Bottineau would be BRT on West Broadway.  This was actually considered in the AA study, and scored well enough that it just barely missed the arbitrary cutoff to make it to the scoping phase.  Actually it would have probably made the cutoff (unless the cutoff was again raised to exclude it) if the AA study hadn’t penalized all BRT alternatives.  See for yourself- here is the Traveler Time Savings (in regional minutes per day) measure from page 76 of AA study:

Not enough minutes in the day

The study claims that “LRT alternatives outscore BRT alternatives on this measure because they have shorter end-to-end travel times” which is interesting because a) the BRT and LRT alternatives would follow identical alignments, and b) technically buses and trains are capable of the same operating speeds.  Because the chart above is pretty much the most detailed information in the AA study about travel times, I’m not sure how they determined that BRT alternatives would take longer than LRT in the exact same alignment.  The study also projected fewer riders for BRT alternatives, but not nearly enough fewer to explain the missing minutes.  Here is a comparison table I made using data from the AA study:

This chart teases us with a clue:  It may have had something to do with the Interchange, Hennepin County’s platitudinously named train station, which is the only point where some LRT and BRT alternatives diverged.  Specifically, D3 and D4, the former of which does significantly worse on traveler time savings, are assumed to run “on a busway parallel to the I-94 viaduct” then to turn south a block to stop at the Interchange, then proceed eventually a block back north to 4th St.  This is a terrible idea.  If they were actually thinking about how to maximize the benefits of the transportation system, D3 and D4 would have an advantage over the other alternatives because they could use the viaduct itself.

The 4th St Viaduct (should be plural, since there are actually two viaducts) is massively overbuilt.  It is two lanes in each direction, but caters primarily to peak traffic, leaving at least half the roadway underutilized at all times.  If one viaduct were made reversible, the other could be used for a two-way busway, providing a transit advantage into Downtown Minneapolis.  In addition, if the south viaduct were used, it could provide an even better, if more expensive, connection to the Northstar station than LRT would:

Which would you prefer?

The viaduct could connect directly to West Broadway with a little modification of the existing interchanges.  Basically a ramp could just be added from West Broadway to the existing ramp from I-94 to the viaduct, and then another ramp from that ramp over to the other viaduct.  It’s a bit trickier to connect the westbound viaduct to westbound West Broadway.  The Alexandrian way, depicted below, would just build a flyover from the viaduct to the 94 ramp to Washington, at which BRT could have signal priority.  Ideally the BRT viaduct would connect to I-94 so express buses could use it too, which could be done by adding a ramp going straight where the westbound ramp bends to meet Washington.  In addition to a station at the Interchange, there could be one serving the densifying North Loop at 8th or 10th Ave N.

Green is BRT, Yellow is I-94 access, Red is the relocated ramp from I-94 to Lyndale Ave

Another reason the West Broadway BRT (D4 on the chart) scored well in general is that it wasn’t really BRT, at least not east of Penn, where the alternative studied would operate in mixed traffic.  This was done to “eliminat[e] the need to disrupt traffic or remove businesses.”  Of course, disrupting traffic is to some degree the goal of developing transitways; you want to shift traffic from cars to transit vehicles.  But is disrupting traffic or removing businesses necessary to accommodate BRT on West Broadway?

As I mentioned above, West Broadway is 80′ east of Penn, and they cram in four through lanes and parking in many places.  Traffic counts hover around 20,000/day, but drops off steeply west of Emerson/Fremont, so that the counts west of Morgan are around 10k/day.  Assuming west of Girard only two traffic lanes are needed, guideway will fit there without widening even on the 75′ sections – assuming a 28′ guideway and two 11′ through lanes, 25′ are left over for sidewalks or maybe parking in some places.  East of Girard, 28′ will be needed for guideway and at least 40′ for four through lanes (suck it up, Hennepin County and MnDot, 10′ lanes works for much busier streets, even with trucks).  That means the road will need to be widened slightly (mostly 90′, but possibly 100′ at stations.)

Widening this area of West Broadway would not be like widening Penn.  Frankly, there aren’t many buildings left to destroy here.  If the widening was taken from the north side of the street east of Fremont (there should be just enough room on the block west of Fremont for 90′ with tearing down buildings – the bright side of setbacks), then switch to the south side east of Bryant, there should be room for 90-100′ without tearing down anything except the small cluster west of Emerson.

Joe Gladke, Hennepin County’s Manager of Engineering and Transit Planning, mentioned in a presentation to the Minneapolis TPW Committee that LRT and full BRT was dropped from West Broadway because of business owners’ concern over loss of parking.  That’s like being concerned over loss of sand in the Sahara.  I did a quick measurement of parking lots in the West Broadway business district and found that 16 of the 64 acres between Girard and 94, 18th and 21st are parking lots – that’s 25% of the gross area!  (And that’s not counting the 550 space lot that will be built with MPS’ new headquarters.)

Lots of lots (sorry I couldn’t resist)

So it’s possible to build reserved-guideway BRT on West Broadway that won’t disrupt traffic and will remove only a handful of businesses.  This alignment would go through the heart of North Minneapolis, serving thousands more residents, and present ample opportunities for TOD (see vast parking lot fields above).  Based on the cost estimates from the AA – where BRT generally came in at around half the cost of LRT – it would still cost substantially less than the proposed LRT alternatives.  That would allow perks like the conversion of the 4th St Viaduct to a combined reversible roadway and two-way busway, which would serve an additional high-density neighborhood and provide a benefit to the express bus network.

The lower cost of BRT would also allow both Brooklyn Park and Maple Grove to serve as termini for the same price, although the AA study didn’t find benefits commensurate to the costs of serving both branches.  I stubbornly maintain that if we’re going to spend regional money on a development-inducing transitway, it would benefit the region more to serve existing struggling activity centers like Brooklyn Center rather than provide a further incentive to fringe development.  But the other advantage of BRT, apparently unexplored in the Bottineau process, is that multiple routes with vastly different termini can branch out after using the busway, known as Open BRT.  So Maple Grove and Brooklyn Park could both be served, even if the guideway continues to Brooklyn Center, as could Plymouth, New Hope, Crystal or even Rogers.

I hope I’m not focusing on BRT because of the recent flak Hiawatha has taken from anti-transit ideologues, who nonetheless have a valid point about how expensive the line is both to build and to operate.  Central and likely Southwest serve enough high-density areas that they’re likely to better justify their costs, and since Hiawatha serves major regional destinations like the airport and the MOA it will likely benefit significantly from the network effect of three light rail lines.

Bottineau, on the other hand, doesn’t serve a major regional destination outside of Downtown Minneapolis, so it is unlikely to benefit from a network effect outside of the meager one accounted for in the AA study.  The Wirth-Olson alignment serves only one relatively high-density and high-poverty neighborhood – around Van White – and has few potential candidates for redevelopment inside the beltway.  It runs through almost three miles of parkland for chrissakes!  It just doesn’t make sense to spend a billion dollars on a transitway with that little potential.  It’s unlikely my proposal for full BRT on West Broadway will be considered in the DEIS, much less an LRT subway in North Minneapolis, but I hope that BRT stays in the running.  I want to believe in LRT for Bottineau, but it looks like BRT is a better option.

People are already walking to the future Golden Valley Road station

A Typology of Beg Buttons

The mid-august sun is hastening the sweat down your back as you frantically walk-run towards the bus stop where you will catch a bus to your job interview.  Finally the stop comes into sight, and your bus is just pulling into it.  But the stop lies across an intersecting street, and a traffic signal stares back at you with beady demonic eyes.  Finally, a spot of luck – just as you approach the signal turns green, holding the bus at the stop and allowing you passage.  But what’s this?  Instead of the White Man allowing you to cross the street, the Red Hand commands you to halt with the force of law.  You look at the pole and see the hated button that before which you were required to prostrate yourself if you’d wanted to cross with this phase.  Beg button!

Let’s be honest about the purpose of beg buttons.  They don’t exist to make it easier for pedestrians to cross a street.  They don’t exist to accommodate pedestrians with disabilities – even people with impaired vision would be able to cross the street more easily if they didn’t have to push a button first to get an audio signal.  Beg buttons exist so that signals can be timed to pump more cars through.  Here is a field guide to these little monsters:

Double Button

MnDot promotes begging in North Minneapolis

What do you do when a road is too wide for pedestrians to cross in one phase without annoying motorists more than usual?  The Double Button provides a simple answer:  make ‘em cross in two phases.  Whereas a regular beg button guarantees you’ll never make a light, a Double Button smacks you a second time when you get to the median and see the Red Hand still lit up for the second roadway, and so it is the product of a particularly sadistic engineering mind.  Thankfully, they’re mercifully rare in skinny-roaded Minnesota, only popping up in a few spots on Olson Hwy and select other locations.

Snow Buttons

Uphill both ways

These, on the other hand, are cruelly common in Minnesota.  Since “pedestrian amenities” often aren’t high on the priority list, oftentimes a traffic engineer isn’t paying attention to beg button placement, and oftentimes a Snow Button is created.  It’s not uncommon for cities to use sidewalks for snow storage, and sometimes the snow dumps grow until beg buttons are inaccessible.  Hennepin County helpfully added many of these devices, like the one pictured, to Lake Street a few years ago.  In those situations, removing snow from through lanes can also mean removing legal options for crossing the street on foot.

Faux Buttons

Beat up old button

Traffic engineers so love to make pedestrians beg that sometimes they install beg buttons without even connecting them to the signal controller.  You don’t actually have to beg to cross the street in this situation, so they are called Faux Buttons and apparently are just for practice.  Minneapolis doesn’t like idle threats, so unlike Boston, most of our beg buttons are actually functional, although the Faux Button in front of Lee’s at Glenwood and Royalston was only recently connected.

Show Buttons

Just in case you've never seen a walk signal before

So you’ve just finished designing a nice wide four-lane road, with plenty of room to weave in and out of lanes when the car in front of you gets annoying.  You’ve included wide parking lanes on both sides, so the pedestrians will have a buffer from the screeching car traffic.  But parking lanes aren’t the only pedestrian amenity on your road – you’ve also placed beg buttons on every signalized corner.  Unfortunately, due to the generous width of your road, no one can see how ideal for pedestrians the beg buttons make it.  What’s an engineer to do?  Luckily, there are giant reflective signs you can hang above the beg button, that though they’re designed for people who have never seen a walk sign before, are big enough to distract motorists into noticing all your luxurious beg buttons.

No Beg Button

Some pedestrian-actuated signals are meant specifically for visually-impaired people.  For example, the one at Franklin and Lyndale will produce an audio version of whatever the signal cabinet is displaying (either “wait” or “walk sign is on”).  These are not beg buttons, but neither do they seem to be particularly respectful of the people who are visually impaired, in that they represent an extra step that only applies to them.  Also because these features are the exception (there is only the one that I know of), they are of no use to people who haven’t come across this intersection before.  So I would think that if we really want to make our streets less deadly for visually-impaired pedestrians, we would add audio to every signal, as some Japanese cities have done.

Ban Beg Buttons!

Beg buttons don’t criminalize pedestrian activity exactly; they’re more of a fascistic control on it, a permit required for a certain class to travel.    And beg buttons do encourage criminal activity (or rather civil disobedience) by eliminating the possibility of serendipitously approaching a light and being able to cross with the current phase; many people will not wait to cross when the light is in their favor just because of a Red Hand, although many will, giving beg buttons the distinction of simultaneously making it less convenient to walk and also more stressful.  A city that is interested in encouraging pedestrian activity should discourage beg buttons, or ban them if possible.

Cross-posted at streets.mn.

Bottineau-no for North, part II

In my last post, I went through some of the reasons why existing land use is unlikely to support even the medium-capacity transit system provided by LRT or BRT Bottineau alignments.  In the absence of inflated commuter ridership figures, the only compelling reason to build the line is economic development.  But if Bottineau is being built primarily for economic development, why is it avoiding the most economically disadvantaged part of the state?  If Bottineau is supposed to encourage the development of housing and jobs along the line, why not route it to areas in need of redevelopment rather than to the fringe?  Why should we spend a billion dollars to just encourage more development on the edge of town?

If a goal of the line is economic development, there is a better northern terminus:  Brooklyn Center.  According to DEED data compiled by the Met Council, Brooklyn Center lost more than 5,000 jobs between 2000 and 2010, which is no more than a crumb of the Metro area’s total jobs (around 1.5m), but represents almost a third of the jobs once held in this community within easy commuting distance of some of the state’s poorest neighborhoods.  Developing a major job center on the old Brookdale site would have been ideal from a regional planning standpoint:  more so than the sprawling Arbor Lakes area (this is where a pedestrian was recently hit and killed by a car while on the sidewalk), and especially the fringe site of Target Suburban Headquarters, Brooklyn Center is adequately served by existing transportation infrastructure, including an easy (if theoretical) bus ride from the Fridley Northstar station.

Target Suburban HQ on Brookdale's footprint

Right-of-way is readily available in the median of Hwy 100 – at about 25′, it’s not quite wide enough for LRT guideway, so it would likely require some reconstruction of the roadway, probably shrinking the outside shoulders a bit – and alongside Shingle Creek Pkwy further north.  The most expensive elements would be flyovers from the BNSF track north of Robbinsdale onto Hwy 100 and from the freeway onto Shingle Creek, and widening or replacing the bridge over Twin Lakes.  I depicted a station at France, but since that would require a good 45′ of median, the full roadway would need to be reconstructed and the overpass replaced, so the low-density area probably wouldn’t immediately be worth the expense.  Anyway by the time this is built, Surly will probably have moved to their “destination” brewery, so no big loss.

This route may seem indirect, but I think it makes more sense in terms of regional connectivity and suburb-to-suburb travel.  Assuming a network of freeway BRT-ish routes, a more complete grid would be formed by extending a Hwy 100 route along Bottineau Blvd north of Robbinsdale rather than jutting east to Brookdale.

Would a Brookdale route be time-competitive with cars?  Google says that the fastest route from Brooklyn Center Transit Center to 4th & Hennepin is 13 minutes without congestion.  Based on the average speeds of Hiawatha, a light rail version of my proposed route running in a tunnel from the BNSF line to Plymouth and I-94 would take 17 minutes from Bass Lake Road (near Brooklyn Center Transit Center) to the Warehouse District station, about 30% longer than google  (and much less time than the existing express buses, which go through Camden and take about a half hour).  That compares well to Central LRT, which takes about 29% longer than the 94 route (if you believe the dubious claims) and a whopping 89% of google’s drive time.

Approx. route for Bottineau on bedrock map of North Mpls - red is segment in tunnel

Of course, tunneling is expensive, and as I mentioned above, it’s hard to believe the Penn or Wirth-Olson alternatives will deliver the ridership to justify even surface-running light rail.  But we’re not talking about New York or Seattle here – North Minneapolis lies on an excellent surface for deep-bore tunneling, easy-digging sandstone capped with a solid, stable roof of limestone.  Best of all for a Northside route, the portals would both lie in a sandstone layer.  Based on Hiawatha’s tunneling costs, the 5 km required for a Northside LRT subway would cost $300m, about a third of the projected costs for the other LRT alternatives.  Best of all, it would reach the heart of North Minneapolis without destroying existing communities or severing the street grid.  I think it’s worth considering, but the project managers do not.  Here is an email I sent them two years ago and their response:

12/04/2009 01:10 PM

To: bottineau@co.hennepin.mn.us

cc: gail.dorfman@co.hennepin.mn.us

Subject: complete Alternatives Analysis for Bottineau

Hi,

In order to completely evaluate the alternatives for the Bottineau corridor, another alternative should be considered that would be light-rail or bus in a tunnel through North Minneapolis.

Minneapolis and Hennepin County are finally ready for world-class transit and, considering the major overhaul in Federal transportation funding due next year, the Federal government may finally be ready to give Americans the quality in public transit that they deserve (and that has been exclusively bestowed on the motoring public up to now).

North Minneapolis has some of the highest rates of transit ridership in the Twin Cities, and, after a history of public disinvestment in the area, they deserve a high-quality transit line. I am confident that, if projections take into consideration a built-out transit system, the ridership would justify the higher cost. It would also benefit the suburban commuters as a grade-separated direct route would likely offer the quickest travel time into and out of downtown Minneapolis.

I have more ideas about an North Minneapolis subway alternative for the Bottineau Corridor, and, if you’re interested, I’d be happy to expound on them. If not, I thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Alex

From: “bottineau@co.hennepin.mn.us” <bottineau@co.hennepin.mn.us>

To: Alex Bauman

Sent: Friday, December 11, 2009 4:25 PM

Subject: Re: complete Alternatives Analysis for Bottineau

Mr. Bauman,

Thank you for your email regarding the Bottineau Transitway Alternatives Analysis Study and your thoughts regarding a tunnel alignment concept through North Minneapolis.

We share your interests in providing high quality transit services for Twin Cities residents including those who live in North Minneapolis.

As you likely know, our study process is being conducted in collaboration with FTA guidelines as they exist today. Hennepin County is also actively engaged in policy development and FTA proposed rule making regarding transitway investment programs in collaboration with our Minnesota legislative delegation in Washington DC.

Like you, we are also looking forward to potential changes in the Federal Transportation Re-authorization Bill and how this bill may lead to enhance the quality of transit provided in the United States, the Twin Cities Region, and Hennepin County. Should the transportation bill direct transformational changes in the way transit investments are made, Hennepin County and other units of government will be obligated to study the implications of these changes on the Bottineau Corridor.

However, we also think you deserve a sober historical perspective and look to the future regarding the potential to pursue a transitway tunnel design through North Minneapolis. As you’ve indicated, tunnels are costly (often in the range of 10 times the amount of a surface facility) and need substantial user benefits in order to justify their costs. It is instructive to consider that transitway tunnel construction in this country has been implemented through densely populated areas and/or high activity centers. Examples that come to mind include New York City, the Seattle Central Business District, and the San Francisco Central Business District. Relatively short segment tunnels have also been implemented for high activity centers such as San Diego State University Campus, the University of Washington Campus (entering construction at a expected cost of $1.95 Billion), and the Hiawatha LRT tunnel beneath our Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport. It should also be noted that tunnels tend to be implemented with high capacity transit modes such as subway metro lines. These systems provide higher capacity/utility than intermediate capacity BRT or LRT mode systems and can more easily justify tunneling costs.

The most recent local example of transit tunneling investigation/feasibility is for the Central Corridor LRT segment along Washington Avenue through the U of M campus. The cost estimate for a 2,050 foot tunnel was $128 Million above the cost of a surface running facility. This translates to a per mile cost of $329 Million. This estimate assumes no stations in the tunnel segment (stations add substantially to the cost of underground construction). It was determined that this tunnel segment was not feasible and the current Central Corridor LRT project includes a surface transit operations along Washington Avenue.

The approximate distance between 36th Avenue in Robbinsdale and the Minneapolis Transportation Interchange facility near Target Field is approximately 4.7 miles [He appears to be measuring here using the Wirth-Olson alignment, as though I'd suggest putting that already largely grade-separated alignment in a tunnel.  As the crow flies, the distance between 36th & the Interchange is 3.7 miles, and as I mentioned above, I think a tunnel could be limited to about 5 km. - Alex]. Using the $329 Million per mile cost from above to illustrate a rough order of magnitude, the cost of a transit tunnel through North Minneapolis could be in excess of $1.5 Billion without accounting for station facilities. This would more than double the current Bottineau Transitway alternative cost estimates.

North Minneapolis is a mix of single family with some higher density multi-family dwellings. This area does have relatively strong transit ridership now and potential into the future. Considering the growing needs around the country for transit investments one can appreciate how transformational the transportation re-authorization bill and funding program would need to be in order to justify long tunnel segments through lower density neighborhoods like North Minneapolis for intermediate capacity transit service like LRT.

In summary, your input is appreciated and we look forward to assessing how the federal transportation re-authorization bill will affect transitway concepts for the Bottineau Corridor.

Please let me know if you have additional questions or would like more information.

Regards,

Brent Rusco

An LRT subway station in a suburb of Stuttgart mostly characterized by single-family homes

He does a good, and probably justified, job of making me sound crazy.  He also builds his argument around tunneling projects that are entirely unlike those that would be reasonably considered for Bottineau.  I already mentioned that Minneapolis has a much more stable geology for tunneling than Seattle’s Ring of Fire location or New York’s famously hard and unstable schist.  Sandstone is called sand stone for a reason.  The Washington Ave example is more subtly inapplicable – a cut-and-cover tunnel was proposed for an extremely dense environment; even the cut-and-cover tunnel on Nicollet in Whittier studied for Southwest LRT was expected to cost less, and a deep-bored tunnel would certainly be less expensive per mile.  Finally, it’s ludicrous to suggest that LRT systems are rarely in tunnels; there are dozens of counter-examples, including Bergen’s system, which has around half the per km cost of Hiawatha despite running in tunnels for a quarter of its route.

It may seem inconsistent to say that land use doesn’t support the Wirth-Olson LRT proposal, but at the same time to champion an LRT subway.  The difference is a matter of objectives – the existing Bottineau process has the objective of “improving regional mobility” in the context of a transportation-engineering institution that has been slowly evolving over the past few decades until it at last includes factors such as effect on low-income communities.  But Bottineau as proposed runs through low-density areas, serves few job centers and generally avoids low-income communities, so it doesn’t really meet that objective.

A Bottineau process that considered a light-rail tunnel would probably be too expensive to meet traditional quasi-economic standards (though those traditional standards are giving a green light to a $700m roadway to carry 25,000 cars across the St Croix River), so it would need to come out of a more holistic institution, one that considered urban development  (and underdevelopment) and social justice (and injustice) along with transportation.   We do not live in a nation that considers urban development or social justice; instead we are a nation that is beholden to its land speculation industry and ignores centuries of racial discrimination while asserting a veneer of pluralism.   That is the nation we live in, but those of us who spend more time living in an ideal nation in the sky or in our heads will continue dreaming of an ideal transportation system, one that includes an LRT subway for North Minneapolis.

The next and final segment in this series will take us back to reality somewhat.  If reality is more your sort of thing, look for it here next week.

Bottineau-no for North, part I

I’ve always wondered how Central Corridor – running on existing right-of-way and enhancing what has long been an overburdened bus line serving thousands of low-income Minnesotans – can be compared to I-94 – which tore down entire blocks for a dozen miles to serve higher-income motorists.  Still the NAACP has been tenacious in their lawsuit against the project, which may be less of an indication of the staying power of racial issues than the depth of NIMBYism in American culture.

The Penn Alternative

That’s why it’s even more difficult to understand why the Bottineau Transitway project is still considering an alignment that would affect dozens of properties along Penn Ave.  I went to one of the recent open houses and heard the nervous queries of residents whose houses would be taken.  On top of the question of sensitivity towards racial issues in light of the history of racial iniquities perpetrated by the transportation engineering profession, the project mangers should remember that each resident is a prospective plaintiff.

All my streets, Lord, soon be widened

Not that it’s a terrible plan, if you forget that its subject area is a city in the USA with a typically long history of racial injustice.  Certainly the Northside was platted with too narrow streets – the quarter’s central artery, the inaptly name Broadway, is 80′ for only a mile east of Knox, but I believe it’s North’s widest street not counting the frontage road that is Washington Ave.  The Penn Alternative would widen the street to around 90-100′, assuming 20′ for two sidewalk/boulevards, 26′ for guideway, and 44′ for through and parking lanes.  The plan as pdfed includes some superfluous right turn lanes but otherwise is pretty close to what a quality design for an enhanced streetcar line would look like.

The biggest problem is that even the City of Minneapolis acknowledges, in its comments to the Scoping phase, that “it is not known whether [the parcels that would need partial takings for the Penn Alternative] could be redeveloped.”  Of course they could be redeveloped, especially in conjunction with the remainder of their blocks (i.e. the parcels facing Queen), but the question is whether there would be money and will.  The former is self-explanatory, the latter is a cultural issue – after a chunk of the parcels were taken for redevelopment, they wouldn’t meet the city’s “buildable” standard for single family lots.  I would say that only a dysfunctional culture would even want to build single family homes along a light-rail line, but we are still deep in the cult of Nimby, so that is what any community-based plan would likely call for.  Even if by some miracle apartments were proposed, developers would likely find the narrow parcels awkward for building.  Redeveloping the whole block would be expensive, politically difficult, and given the track record of large-scale public redevelopment in this country, potentially ghettoizing.

I guess it’s the Wirth-Olson alignment then

Double beg button on the wrong side of the pole from the walking path

Olson Highway is easily one of the worst roads in the state – an extremely wide ROW littered with beg buttons and broken sidewalks and a median that’s often less a refuge than a corral – so I hope that the city, county and state take this as an opportunity to improve it.  Unfortunately, preliminary concepts for the alignment along Olson put the track in the median.  This despite Olson’s 25k AADT, which easily fits on two lanes in each direction (and does fit on two lanes further west on Olson), especially with Olson’s ample room for turn lanes.

As much as LRT would improve Olson, I’m not sure I can support it on the Wirth-Olson alignment.  It’s a classic Dallas scenario – the line would strategically avoid all of the dense areas that would supply it with riders.  More than a year ago, Yonah Freemark pointed out that Dallas has the longest light rail system in the country, but still manages to skirt its densest neighborhoods.  Unfortunately we are seeing a similar path of least resistance followed in the Twin Cities of the North, where the Olson-Wirth alignment’s densest neighborhood would be Robbinsdale, where the 5.2 households per acre is closer to the standard for intermediate frequency bus service, and a bit more than half of what’s required to support light rail.  Densities are actually lower along Olson in North Minneapolis, where the local Hope VI renewal project replaced the rowhouses of Sumner Field with fewer units than were destroyed.

TLC's awesome employment density map, from their 2008 Transportation Performance Report

Commuter ridership is a dicey proposition as well.  While Downtown Minneapolis has slightly more jobs than Downtown Dallas, the prospects for reverse commuting are much lower on Bottineau than on any LRT line developed or proposed here so far.  Using the job cluster map produced by Reconnecting America, you can see that Hiawatha serves around 45,000 non-CBD jobs, most of which are clustered around the airport and MOA stations (that’s not counting Minneapolis South, which contains 26,000 jobs but stretches far west of Hiawatha).  Central LRT will serve a remarkable 125,000 non-(Minneapolis) CBD jobs, again mostly clustered along the line.  Southwest LRT will hit around 55,000 non-CBD jobs, although they’re less clustered so perhaps less likely to take the train.

Bottineau, in contrast, serves just two non-CBD job clusters:  Osseo, with a respectable 24,235 jobs, but over a sprawling area that stretches up to three miles from the nearest proposed station; and Maple Grove, with a barely noticeable 3,892 jobs but that still manages to be one of the lowest-density clusters on the map.  While both job clusters are likely growing, the growth would have to be spectacular and compact to begin to approach the job density of other transitways.  Target’s Suburban Headquarters, which is sometimes said to “anchor” the B alternative of the northern end of Bottineau, is projected to grow to a mammoth 5,200 jobs by 2014.

So Bottineau will add maybe 30,000 sprawling jobs to the 371,000 already connected by the three other transitways when it comes online.  It will pass through very low density areas.  It will cost almost a billion dollars.  Are we sure we want to do this?  What are some other alternatives?  I’ll explore them in my next couple posts.

How does your light rail go?

For reasons that will become clear before long, I’ve calculated the average speed on each segment of the Hiawatha line (which apparently for the purpose of marginalizing those with color blindness has been renamed after some color, not sure which).

More precisely, I’ve calculated the average scheduled speeds – I used the posted schedule for the line and Google Earth to measure the track length to get the average speed.  Segments are measured from the apparent midpoint of each platform, and where the two tracks deviate or the tracks disappear under an airport or a megamall I guessed a bit or used the rail layer from GE.

In an interesting twist, the scheduled speeds diverge a bit from the official map.  The map shows 2 minutes between Target Field and Warehouse District stations, but 3 minutes are scheduled, perhaps for padding at this terminal, where I believe trains often reverse.  More mystifying is the reversal where the official map shows 2 minutes between Franklin and Lake and 3 between Lake and 38th, but the schedule switches those.  It makes more sense for the segment between Franklin and Lake to take a bit longer, considering the curve on the viaduct over Hiawatha, so maybe it’s a typo?  Regardless it perhaps shows the folly of relying on the scheduled time to determine average speed instead of observing in the field, but who has time to ride back and forth with a stopwatch?

Oops, forgot to mention that distance is in miles

Hiawatha runs through a fairly diverse set of environments, which I’ve broken down into three categories.  While these are probably imprecisely named, they are fairly consistent.  At-grade and Separated at-grade both have grade crossings, but Separated at-grade has far fewer.  Below grade (which I suppose I should have called grade-separated) has no grade crossings.  The At-grade segments have an overall average speed of 12 mph, while Separated at-grade doubles that to 24 mph.  Below grade is the fastest, with an overall average of 29 mph, but you may have noticed that some of the separated at-grade segments exceed this.

Clearly the segments have characteristics that differentiate them from each other more than my simplified categories suggest.  The fastest segment, between 38th and 46th, is straight and has only one grade crossing [Froggie reminded me that this segment actually has two grade crossings - see comments].  Meanwhile the segments that are largely in tunnels have quite a bit of curvature to them, and since both segments have portals grade may be an issue as well.  And of course some segments have subsegments of more than one category – between the VA and Fort Snelling are sections that are at-grade but largely free of crossings and a long above-grade section.

Central may introduce another category, since the body of it will run at-grade, but with far fewer crossings than Downtown Minneapolis or even Bloomington, yet more than Hiawatha between Franklin and the park.  So who knows if anything valuable will come from this exercise – only the fates can tell…