More charts about poverty and cities

Here comes more laz-e-boy social science from Alex.  Following up on my response to Steve Berg’s Strib op-ed from a couple weeks ago, I dug up the poverty rate for the 50 metro areas with 1 million population or more.  From that I was able to calculate the spread between central city poverty and metro poverty, which seems like a better measure for concentration of poverty than central city poverty alone.  I then plotted them differentiating by region, to see if any regions bucked national trends.  Actually, I added the regions mostly for a dose of color, as the four regions defined by the census are so broad that they’re almost meaningless.

First up is a chart that also appeared in my last post, but this time it’s spritzed up by some regional color.  It certainly seems to show a trend of central cities with higher poverty rates having lower rates of population growth, although the West may be exempt from this pattern.  Although the trend lines in all of these charts are for all the cities grouped together, it also looks like the trend may be more pronounced in the South.

Central city poverty also appears to correspond with metro area growth, although seemingly more weakly than central city growth, except maybe in the Midwest.  In fact, there are several Western cities on the left end of the chart that had quite low central city poverty rates but also didn’t grow much at all – San Diego, San Francisco, San Jose, and, interestingly for Berg’s thesis, Seattle.  This last town, Berg’s role model for the Twin Cities, had a poverty rate eight points below the national average (which is 21%, Seattle’s rate is 13%) but saw growth exactly at the national average of 13% (beating MSP by only 2.5 points despite our ten point higher central city poverty rate).

If central city poverty correlates with population growth to some degree, is that because of concentration of poverty or just because of poverty in general?  To answer that question I plotted total metro population in poverty against central city population growth.  Lo and behold, the correlation seems to have gotten much weaker.  This is a good time to point out that this is about as lazy a statistical analysis as you can get – technically you’re supposed to do a regression in order to make the variables comparable, but I’m not real clear on how to do that and didn’t want to bother to find out.  Plus I think it’s useful to have the actual numbers on the chart rather than their statistical translations.

The last raspy bark of this fruitless tree of data finds a puffy cloud instead of a relationship between total metro growth and the metro poverty rate.  Or does it?  Does the slight incline of that trendline prove that the capitalist machine thrives on an army of the poor to feed its satanic mills?*

Let’s get back to a more useful line of inquiry.  What does it matter how high the poverty rate is in the central city if it’s also high in the whole metro?  To get at concentration of poverty, we have to look at the difference between central city and metrowide poverty rates.  The above chart seems to show that cities where poverty is concentrated in central cities tend to have a lower growth rate overall, which means that metros should be concerned about their ghettos.  Once again, though, the trend seems to be strongest in the Midwest and South, the latter of which is a bit surprising because so many Southern cities annex their suburbs.  And the West and the Northeast appear to not follow the trend, so I’m not sure I’m convinced.

Comparing concentration of poverty with central city population growth is a bit more convincing.  The trend line is a bit steeper, and the West appears to fall in line, leaving only the stubborn Northeast to buck the trend.  In case you’re wondering, Memphis is where the central city has a lower poverty rate than the metro as a whole – perhaps because Memphis city continues to annex its suburbs and therefore reflects an urbanized population, whereas the metro area includes rural areas as well.  Also, Detroit is the city with a central city poverty rate 20 points higher than the metro rate, which with its -25% population change rate would seem to be Exhibit A for Berg’s thesis.  Hartford may be a prime example for the opposing viewpoint, since it beats Detroit for concentration of poverty, yet managed to grow its central city 3% (amounting to a bit more than 3,000 people).

In Summation

Regardless of whether concentration of poverty has any effect on population growth, I agree with Berg we have a more prerogative to fight poverty, or as he put it, “stabilize poor neighborhoods” for “ethical” reasons.  Unfortunately doing so will require a change in attitudes to the city and citybuilding to basically a polar opposite of what currently exists.  Like Berg I think that expanding transit is a small but important step in that direction – auto-dependence furthers the cycle of poverty because poor people tend to buy less expensive cars which tend to have higher maintenance costs and need to be replaced sooner – and I’d add that it’s more achievable than most of the other options because the only area in which our political system is capable of finding consensus is in the construction of large public works projects.  That’s one of the reasons I started this blog – “working” towards a fairer society by complaining about the auto-orientation of our transportation system – and I was hoping that this series of graphs would have been more help towards this goal, but I don’t seem to have the time or knowledge to really pull it off.  If anyone reading this does, here’s the data I gathered – give it a go.

*No.  No it doesn’t.

Berg is back

“We scratch our heads when we see a Democratic governor and two senators pushing to build a big new bridge over the St. Croix River to encourage more sprawl into Wisconsin,” said [Ethan] Seltzer of Portland State. “That wouldn’t happen here.”

My favorite quote from Steve Berg’s commentary in the Sunday Strib.  I was delighted to see the piece prominently placed on the front page of the Opinion section, having suffered from Berg withdrawal since his hiatus from MinnPost turned into a permanent absence (although Steven Dornfield has been a capable replacement).  Of course I agreed with most of his points and enjoyed the comparative perspectives with Portland, Seattle and Denver, as good role model cities as any in the USA.

(My agreement has two caveats:  in his six-point plan for growing the center cities, he recommends “adopt[ing] form-based zoning codes” and “simplify[ing] bureaucracy.”  Form-based codes would certainly give developers “clear options on height and mass” as he asserts, but the NIMBY problem that he refers to repeatedly makes it uncertain that a form-based code that allows the necessary density to grow the city would be adopted in first place.  And while it’s easy to say that everything would be better if the dang gummint would just get out of the way, I’ve never seen any convincing evidence that it’s any harder to get approvals for development in Minneapolis than anywhere else.  My understanding is that the Mayor that I’m always ripping on has pushed through some reforms at CPED – one of which may be the single-point contact that seems to me about as simple as you can get – and Gary Schiff just got rid of the pointless CUP requirement for buildings with 5 or more units.  I freely admit to having no experience developing real estate in Minneapolis or any other city, however.)

My reproduction of the table that accompanied Berg's commentary

But as much as I enjoyed reading about those three urban success stories, I still think they’re the wrong cities to compare with MSP.  You might be able to make a historical case for comparison with our sibling cities of the Great Northwest, Seattle and Portland, but we took different paths starting in World War II at the latest.  In the post-war era, the Twin Cities have been more in line with other low-industry Midwestern cities, such as Indianapolis, Kansas City, and Columbus.   So on Berg’s metrics, MSP fares much better in the Midwestern conference (at least we have a lot of company in the Zero Club):

Big 10

I certainly don’t blame Steve Berg for aiming high, although there’s something to be said for setting realistic goals.  For example, the Ford plant is probably the biggest single opportunity for development in the Twin Cities, but it’s only 2.5% of the size of the Stapleton Airport site that provided the bulk of Denver’s growth in the last decade.  The city of Portland has over 25 square miles more land area than Minneapolis and St Paul combined (with around 80,000 fewer people living there than MSP) and can still annex land to the northwest and the southeast.

Seattle’s model would seem to be more attainable, since it grew more than any city that didn’t annex or build on greenfields except New York.  But is it really?  I hadn’t looked at poverty data much until Berg included it as a metric along with his commentary and advocated working on reducing concentration of poverty as a means of growing cities (or guarding against shrinking cities).  Seattle really is exceptional here, ranking third-lowest for percent of central city population in poverty, just behind famously gentrified San Francisco and its suburb that for some reason gets its own metro area, San Jose.  And looking at maps, it appears that poverty* really is dispersed throughout the Seattle metro:

From the NY Times 2009 5 year ACS map

And maps also seem to show poverty clustering in the central cities in MSP:

Ditto

Suggesting that the Twin Cities do have the concentration of poverty problem alleged by Berg, a fact that is corroborated by national average central city poverty rate for metro areas of 1m or more, which at 21% is two points below the Minneapolis & St Paul combined rate of 23%.  We’re supposed to all be above-average here, goldarn it, which is reason in and of itself to work on this problem.  But what effect does poverty have on urban growth?  I made some quick graphs on Excel to try to answer that, using the data I collected on metro areas of 1m or more for my post on downtown population growth (or lack thereof).

First, thinking back to the Twin Cities’ underwhelming downtown growth, even compared to other Midwestern towns, I wondered about poverty’s effect on downtown population growth.  My amateur analysis found none:

Comparing poverty rates to central city population growth, however, shows a relationship:

The cities with higher poverty rates tended to grow less or shrink in the decade between 2000 and 2010.  This may be less about developers avoiding cities with high concentrations of poverty and more about the foreclosure crisis hitting cities with high concentrations of poverty harder.  So it’s more about resilience, which I think Berg is after when he recommends “Stabiliz[ing] poor neighborhoods not only for ethical and economic reasons but to stem population loss.”

One more chart, just for fun:

I looked at the relationship between poverty and density expressed as the percent of housing stock in multi-unit dwellings (defined by the Census as any structure with more than one unit within it, so not counting single-family attached units).  This would seem to suggest that denser cities tend to have more people in poverty, but may merely reflect the fact that center cities that are still annexing land are closer to their metropolitan average for both density and poverty than center cities that stopped annexing before World War II.

None of which really explains whether Seattle is a model that can be repeated (although I still suspect that they’ve exported their poverty to Tacoma).  And it doesn’t address other issues, such as retail health, that may affect the ability of central cities to draw developers.  But I had fun looking a bit deeper into the issues that Berg brought up, and I’m glad he started the conversation.

Every post should have a picture, even if you have to steal it

*Actually these maps show households earning less than $30k/year, which is different obviously but I haven’t been able to find maps of metropolitan poverty.

Binge Traveling: Phoenix, or The Worst City

A possible test for the presence of even minute traces of ecological awareness in an individual is to ask whether he or she feels a disconnect when golfing in a desert

A couple months ago when I posted about my plans to travel from Minneapolis to Phoenix to transport my grandmother, I was waaaaaay too easy on Phoenix.  Just because I happen to be a pretentious snob doesn’t mean Phoenix doesn’t deserve the scorn I heap upon it, which I should have known thanks to my having visited the town far too many times.  But wrapped up in my own white middle-class critiques, I also wasn’t aware of just how terrible Phoenix is.

It all came flooding back when we arrived, coming from the east on the enormous Beeline Hwy that mysteriously carries heavy traffic through deserted mountains, and then stopping and starting through 15 miles of thick suburbia on 8-lane Shea Blvd, somehow congested at midday on a Monday.  Sure, Phoenix is one of the most auto-dependent cities in the country, and I took pictures of endless parking lots with views of dessicated peaks, and even worse, the serpentine sidewalks that constantly meander around turn lanes and curb cuts.  But I had no idea how truly bad Phoenix was until I read, upon my return to relatively green Minnesota, Bird On Fire.

I wasn’t expecting much from this book, to be honest.  Being from flyoverland, I get defensive when a guy from NYC writes a book about a city that’s not on the coast without even moving there.  And as someone who has gone to somewhat ridiculous lengths to avoid flying to or from Phoenix, I scoffed at how often he had to commute to Phoenix by plane in order to write a book about how damaging to the environment Phoenix is.

South Phoenix Industrial Hellscape

But to tell the truth, I ate it up.  The guy knows his narrative journalism, and peppers the book with characters that have analogues to Minneapolis:  the urban-pioneering artist, the hippie farmer, the vaguely green mayor.  But things started getting heavy when I read the chapter on environmental injustice in South Phoenix, which is home to 85040 or what the author calls “the nation’s dirtiest zip code.”  I’m going to reproduce a few paragraphs that make me feel a little douchey for complaining that someone refused to yield to me in a crosswalk:

CRSP [a coalition of South Phoenix resident organizations] was formed in 1992 after fire gutted a circuit-board manufacturing facility (Quality Printed Circuits) in a South Phoenix neighborhood not far from the riverbed.  In the aftermath of the 12-hour fire, which burned off several thousand pounds of sulfuric acid and hydrogen fluoride, residents complained of a wide range of illnesses… City Hall, it transpired, had granted the company a permit to rebuild in the same neighborhood after a smaller but similar kind of fire burned down its former facility in 1989, and the new permit actually included an exemption for installing overhead sprinklers.  After the 1992 fire, tests of selected homes conducted by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) found evidence of elevated fluoride and zinc concentrations, but the agency concluded that no adverse health impacts would result.  Several years later, more systematic EPA tests found statistically significant levels of these chemicals that were consistent with the symptoms.  Residents had been living for several years with poisons and toxics circulating through the air ducts of homes that lay downwind from the fire.  Many of the houses were subsequently demolished, but lax, or nonexistent, ADEZ inspections of other facilities in South Phoenix all but guaranteed that other fires would break out.

In August 2000, the area saw one of its worst airborne toxic catastrophes when the main warehouse of Central Garden, the Valley’s largest supplier of pool and lawn chemicals, exploded and caught fire.  “It was like the Fourth of July,” recalled Pops [founder of CRSP].  Firemen, motorists, and residents were captured vomiting in the streets on nightly news footage as the blackened fumes billowed far and wide.  The fire burned for two days, hundredes ended up in the hospital, and many died or suffered debilitating ailments in the years following.  Emergency responders had no idea what chemicals they were dealing with, and to this day, no adequate inventeory of the warehouse contents has been compiled.  ADEZ only tested air quality for standard hydrocarbon releases and, five days after the fire, announced that there was no “public health concern” to the residents of South Phoenix.  Yet, a month later, the agency’s water tests, not announced to the public, showed arsenic at 100 times the maximum level allowable for drinking water.  In the fire’s aftermath, community pressure stepped up to legislate electronic reporting of the hazardous contents of facilities.

Something funny in the water, from Bird on Fire

Inspired by the high degree of citizen involvement after the 1992 fire, Pops’s organization looked to other sites that needed preemptive action.  The area’s hazardous waste management facilities (five of the city’s seven were located in South Phoenix) were an obvious target, and one in particular, operated by Innovative Waste Utilization, stood out as a threat to the entire neighborhood.  The former owner of the site, which had several contaminated areas, including one from a significant arsenic spill, had operated for seventeen years without a permanent permit and had been allowed by the ADEZ to store hazardous waste (including DDT and lead) exported from California.  When the new owner applied for an expansion of the facility in 1999, Pops and other activists responded with a civil rights complaint aimed at the ADEQ’s long-term complicity in allowing toxic waste facilities to cluster in their neighborhoods.  The expansion permit process was arrested, but the agency still approved a permit to store hazardous waste.  The company subsequently contracted with the state of California to accept toxic waste collected in West Coast methampetamine busts.  Pops recalled that “the stench in the neighborhood was so vile that we accused the city and county of burning animals in incinerators.”  Over time, employees took to selling the seized chemicals to local meth labs, and the facility was raided in 2003.  “The odor,” Pops reported, “stopped immediately when the place was busted” and then shut down by the ADEZ.  The state legislature, outraged that the agency had finally found some regulatory teeth, debated whether to abolish it.

A state with leaders so dedicated to free markets that they threaten to shut down an agency that infringes on the community’s narcoentrepreneurs is a good indication of what Phoenix is about:  growth.  But is that so different from the Twin Cities?  Minneapolis’ last comp plan was dedicated in the title to delivering growth, which modified by that adjective ‘sustainable’ may mean that the City wants to sustain growth indefinitely.  St Paul’s last mayor, Randy Kelly, had a focus on population growth that was only matched by his dedication to the reelection of George W. Bush.  And those are just the two cities in the metro area that aren’t actually growing.

The Twin Cities don’t necessarily measure well against Phoenix on “green” living.  Their light rail system is around 7 miles longer, with a bus system that provides much better coverage for local routes, if their frequency is comparatively pathetic.  Minneapolis may out-brag Phoenix when it comes to biking, and I’m not sure of either metro’s total mileage, but Phoenix claims 500 miles of bikeways (including routes, signed or unsigned), and based on maps I’d guess they’re fairly comparable.  Phoenix is a truly terrible place to walk, but the Twin Cities are pretty bad themselves, outside of maybe a few core neighborhoods.

So our superiority complex will have to rest on the damaged lungs and carcinogenic water of South Phoenix.  While not without environmental justice issues, the Twin Cities have nothing on the scale of South Phoenix, the dumping ground for all their heavy industry.  Phoenix is notorious for its sprawling form, but it has the framework for a multimodal paradise:  the bones of transit and cycling systems and, as noted in Bird on Fire, vacant land totaling 40% of the land area on which to add dense infill.  The trickier issue will likely be a history of pervasive environmental injustice that’s poisoned relations between different socioeconomic groups as much as it’s poisoned neighborhoods.

Oh yeah, and their primary water source is a river more than 300 miles away.

The humid desert air

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

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.

Metropolitics

Steven Dornfield recently did an article on the Met Council’s Livable Communities grants.  Since 1996 the Met Council has been granting for developments or planning that encourage location efficiency or affordable housing.  As Dornfield writes:

From 1996 through 2010, the council awarded 633 grants totaling more than $212 million in Livable Communities funds. Of those, 68 awards have been relinquished, for a net of 565 grants totaling $181 million. The net results of these grants are expected to leverage billions of dollars in private and other public investments.

Dornfield does not mention that grants to projects in Minneapolis and St Paul are capped at a combined 40% of the total granting.  He does link to a Met Council staff report that displays all the fury of a bureaucrat politicized.  If your sense of humor is as nerdy as mine, you’ll agree that it’s worth quoting extensively:

Impact of the 40/60 ratio between the central cities and the suburbs

The previous Council instituted guidelines for funding that allow the LCAC to recommend no more than 40% of the available LCDA funding for projects located in the central cities of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. The LCAC may, if it desires, suggest an additional amount to be awarded to the central cities above the 40% threshold. In this funding cycle, the LCAC is recommending 39.13% to the central cities. Between 1996 and 2010 42% of LCDA funds have been granted to the central cities out of the total $98,014,453 awarded, or $40,711,364.

As a result of the requirement to consider the urban/suburban ratio, in some funding cycles higher-scoring projects in the central cities are not funded, while lower-scoring suburban projects receive awards. In the 2011 recommendations, five central cities projects were not recommended for award in whole or in part in order to maintain the required 60% recommendation for suburban projects.

…To make their recommendations for Development awards, the LCAC starts with the highest-scoring projects and works down the list, making funding recommendations for each individual application. During this process, the LCAC monitors the overall percentage of funding being recommended for the central cities. When the percentage equals the 40% limit, the LCAC skips any further recommendations for central cities applications, moving down to the next-highest scoring project from a suburban applicant.

This makes the funding recommendation process somewhat complicated. For example, the top five scoring Development projects are all located in the central cities. However, when the two Pre-Development projects from the central cities are added to the top five Development projects, the amount for the central cities exceeds the 40% threshold. The LCAC therefore withheld their recommendation for the fifth-highest project, Currie Park Lofts, until they could determine how much was available. They then recommended the full funding for The Enclave Trails Apartments. Because the 40% limit had already been exceeded, the LCAC did not recommend any funding for Corcoran Triangle, from Minneapolis, but instead recommended full funding for the next three projects, all from suburban applicants. The Committee then skipped West Side Flats, from Saint Paul, and recommended full funding for Cobblestone Senior Housing and 9805 Highway 55 Apartments. They skipped Minneapolis’ Spirit on Lake, recommended full funding for Woodbury’s City Walk Apartments, skipped Saint Paul’s Beacon Bluff, and fully funded Watertown’s Downtown Redevelopment Phase II. With the available remaining funds, the Committee opted to recommend partial funding to the Mahtomedi request and, skipping back up to the highest-scoring unfunded central city project, they were able to recommend just over 40% of the requested amount for Currie Park Lofts, rounding out the full $9 million available for 2011.

The Met Council, of course, “serves at the pleasure of the Governor”, so it’s not surprising that Pawlenty’s council would cap the amount of money going to an area that never voted for him.  Seems like bad policy, though, to limit grants for multifamily housing in the part of the metro that has the most available land for multifamily housing… and that was hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.  Hopefully this new council will read the frustration in this bureaucratic report and allow merit to be the primary determinant of grant recipients.

Can you find the brown in the suburbs?

Mooneapolis, A.D. 2030

How to cross the street in February

The council voted yesterday on the items that came out of this cycle’s committee, so it’s probably a bit late to report on what went on in the Transportation & Public Works meeting.  On top of that, the Star Tribune, in their fitful effort to cover Minneapolis, scooped me on a few items.  One was the new civil fines proposed for failing to shovel snow, which I’m excited about.  The idea that we’ll be able to walk a block without sinking to your ankles in snow is one more reason to get excited about winter.  Maybe with the proceeds of this fine the city will be able to afford to finish their plow jobs, instead of leaving icy piles of plow debris blocking every crosswalk.

Speaking of the city affording stuff, I’m obstinately writing this post about the 10/25/11 TPW committee despite having been shown up by professionals because of one item:  the Infrastructure Study presentation.  Basically, Public Works looked at four major transportation infrastructure components and compared their condition to their funding level with the goal of coming up with an eye-popping number to report as a shortfall.

It all begins with the Pavement Condition Index (PCI), or Evidence A that engineers’ confidence in the omnipotence of math is why they shouldn’t be trusted with absolute control over our public spaces.  Here is how the presentation describes it:

The Pavement Condition Index (PCI) is a numerical index between 0 and 100 that is used to indicate the condition of a roadway. It is a statistical measure and is based on a visual survey of the pavement. A numerical value between 0 and 100 defines the condition with 100 representing an excellent pavement.

A 101 point scale would be fine if they were using lasers to measure the pavement surface to discern the level of distortion.  Sending Chuck in his Trail Blazer to glance at the road on the way to McDonald’s is not going to result in a reliable measure, and even a careful visual survey will not reliably tell the difference between a PCI of 71 and a PCI of 72.

Road to Mooneapolis

But the PCI is what we have, and in Minneapolis it’s the low end of the index that is seen more and more.  In fact, the presentation contains an apocalyptic chart showing the descent of many of the cities streets into a gravelly moonscapes within 20 years.  The presentation doesn’t clearly describe, however, what we’re sacrificing back to the elements.  It mentions four networks – 206 miles of Municipal State Aid (MSA) streets, 632 miles of Residential streets, 70 miles of Local streets, and 378 miles of Alleys.  The MSA streets, mostly the heavily traveled arterials such as Hennepin or Nicollet and including many Downtown streets, are fed by the state and projected to remain in roughly the same condition.  It’s Residential streets and Alleys that are going to crumble.  Local streets tend to be a)industrial streets, b)leftover bits of MSA streets or c) the slightly more traveled Residential streets that aren’t vital enough to be MSA routes – circa 2030, they will also be a lo0se arrangement of tar chunks, duct tape and car parts, but there are only 70 miles of them.

Chart Fail

The presentation is interesting, but with one exception it doesn’t really explain how we got into this mess.  (The exception being the Pavement life cycle chart reproduced at left, which terrifyingly predicts “Total Failure” after 16 years if pavement isn’t attended to.)  The problem is less one of underfunding today and more one of overfunding several decades ago.  Around 70% of Minneapolis’ residential streets were built in a 15-year binge from 1967 to 1982.  I don’t know for sure how this indulgence was financed, but a 1966 Citizens’ League report suggests that it was paid for with bonding, which of course is ultimately paid for with property taxes.  So more or less, the city just increased its budget for the massive push to pave Residential streets, and once they were paved the total budget just shrunk, or, more likely, went to other things.

Paved with intentions to pave

So now the city would like to double Public Works’ capital budget to address this crisis of crumbling Residential streets.    Residential streets mostly don’t provide corridors for transportation, except as the very beginning and end of trips.   Instead, both in terms of use and area, their primary function is to provide parking for the residences along them.  It’s difficult to justify expending community resources on such a local benefit, and according to the Citizens’ League report, Residential streets used to be financed mostly locally – at the same time the council decided to jack up property taxes to pay for smooth parking on side streets, it reduced assessments on abutting property owners from 2/3rds to 1/4.   (The local share seems to have been reduced to about 5%, if you can trust my math and this document.)

Smooth paving on side streets, like some rural roads, is probably not necessary for our society to function.  But like subsidies for corporate relocation or sports stadiums, localities feel like they need to shell out in order to be competitive.  I’d say it’s reasonable for people to pay for their own parking spaces, but any proposal to use local money to fund local streets is sure to be met with fury, and it certainly wasn’t mentioned in the presentation.  But if we ever start having a grown-up conversation about how to adjust our life-style to our declining economic situation, I hope that free parking is on the table.

Push me to blink

A quick word about another TPW committee item:  authorization for Public Works to spend $4,000 to convert a pedestrian crossing light “from constantly blinking to user activated.”  Apparently neighbors “observed that many drivers, having become accustomed to a continuously flashing pedestrian light, no longer stop for bicyclists and pedestrians at this location.”  They noticed that drivers yield more often a nearby user-actuated crossing light (no numbers were offered in the RCA, so apparently they took neighbors at their word).  Just another example of the expense we go to in order to avoid enforcing motorists’ legal obligation to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Bonus Regulatory, Energy and Environment Committee item

Bicycle Regulations

Minneapolis will amend its traffic code to explicitly define bicycles as vehicles, and therefore include them in the definition of Traffic.  Vague statements in favor of clarity were included in the Request for Council Action rather than an explicit rationale for the revision.  My first thought was that this will now guarantee that cyclists can be charged with violations of the traffic code, although Gary Schiff says the goal is to “make it easier to issue a ticket to someone parked in a bike lane.”  I just hope it won’t settle the Great Crosswalk Debate in favor of requiring cyclists to stop and yield in a crosswalk.

Bonus Community Development Committee item

Minnesota Statewide Historical and Cultural Grants Program (a/k/a Legacy Grants Program)

Warehouse District atmosphere

Staff is recommending that the City apply for a grant from the Minnesota Historical Society to help implement the Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan, which recommends rebuilding several crumbling patchwork streets mostly in the North Loop with brick pavers in an effort to restore their appearance as existed at a certain point in history.  The summary from the Request for Council Action is worth quoting in full:

Funded with a 2010 Legacy Grant, The Warehouse District Heritage Street Plan set out a detailed street-by-street plan for preserving historic infrastructure in the Warehouse Historic District. The Plan provides a practical, forward looking, and historically-sensitive approach preserving and rehabilitating historic streets and loading docks while improving pedestrian accessibility, and enhancing stormwater run-off by increasing sustainable practices within the Warehouse Historic District. The completed document was approved by the HPC in August of 2011. The document is a detailed street-by-street plan with specific trouble-shooting for how to preserve the remaining historic materials and industrial infrastructure, while accommodating the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements and addressing the need for street and sewer repairs. The plan will be used to inform the individual site decisions that property owners, design professionals, and the City will need to make when properties in the District are rehabilitated. It is also being used as the guiding document for the design and development of City capital improvement projects for the reconstruction and repair of specific streets and alleys.

Now that the plan is completed, CPED and Public Works are beginning work toward implementation with a focus on reconstruction of 6th Avenue North. One of the challenges identified in the plan is that original brick material will be deficient to reuse throughout the district due to breakage or removal from past utility cuts. In order to reconstruct 6th Avenue North with full brick replacement, Public Works will need to find similar brick from other city streets under reconstruction. This grant will be used to salvage, palletize, transfer, and store subsurface brick from other City projects where the brick is similar to that in the Warehouse District. One possible removal project will occur in 2012 with the first phase of Nicollet Avenue South reconstruction.

The Plan is worth looking through, especially Chapter 5, or the design concepts for specific streets.  In one sense this is good news, because the sooner Minneapolis has more experience with textured pavement surfaces, the more people will realize their traffic calming effect.  The bad news is, if the first removal project won’t happen till 2012, it could be awhile before these plans are realized – and the North Lo0p badly needs new infrastructure.  I’m looking out my window at a big pile of brick pavers torn up as part of the new Lunds construction at 12th and Hennepin – Public Works, would it help if I gave you the number to Zeman Construction?