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.
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.
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
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.
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.