A day late, my post about Minnesota being a dollar short in the 2012 round of USDOT TIGER grants. No less than four pie charts – check it out!
It turns out I may have misjudged Mike Beard when I accused him of being a fundamentalist ideologue; instead it seems he’s a energetic, charismatic and persuasive fundamentalist ideologue. That of course makes him a much more dangerous opponent for transit riders; while he has not yet exactly confirmed my accusation that he is trying to destroy transit in the Twin Cities, it seems that even he would admit that he is trying to radically transform it, or at least its financing and governance.
My newfound respect or fear of Mike Beard comes from watching House Transportation Policy and Finance committee meetings. I’ve never taken the drastic step of viewing legislative proceedings before, but the unusually high number of anti-transit bills in this session led me to tape my eyelids and hope for the best. The fruit of my boredom is the following short summary of most of the transit related bills that got a hearing this year. I didn’t view any hearings on their Senate companions (if they have them) because the Senate only offers audio, and apparently I need the eye candy of watching the sausage being made (metaphors have rarely been so disgustingly mixed). As such, my summaries will be skewed from a House perspective. At this point in the session some of these bills appear stalled, but I think they will benefit from wider public awareness, i.e. people googling “sausage” and getting this post in the results.
HF2685 Metro Transit service fare increases required This bill as described in my last Beard-bashing post was killed, but in a twist of the knife has been appropriated as a vehicle for an omnibus transportation bill (but not the omnibus transportation policy bill, which you’ll see is below). The bill contains some other heinous provisions that I’ll describe below, but does not as of writing contain the transit-slashing vindictive fare increase.
HF2852 Distance-based transit fare surcharge pilot program established for replacement service transit providers It’s not necessarily a bad idea to use a distanced-based or “zone” fare system, but the language in this bill only allows an increase in fare for distance, which could be a problem for short-distance express service. This bill has been incorporated into the omnibus transportation bill, so it has a pretty good chance of passing.
HF2473 Transportation public-private partnership pilot program and related regulations established The Legislature is graciously allowing MnDot to propose a public-private partnership with a selected private company, but not to accept a public-private partnership that a private company proposes out of the blue. The bill actually suggests a project for the pilot program, the Mississippi River crossing that would connect I-94 to US-10 near Clearwater, but I mention it here because the bill ignores a potential application to transit, although it doesn’t expressly forbid it.
HF2387 Greater Minnesota transit funding provided, bonds issued, and money appropriated There’s usually some fairly general bond money for Greater Minnesota transit in the bonding bill; this bill would have provided $10m, but that got shrunk to $2.5m in the final House version. The Senate seems to have upped it to $4m, and I’d guess it will end up around there.
HF2321 Metropolitan transit service opt-outs authorized DFLer Bev Scalze makes this session’s transit-wacking bipartisan with her bill to reopen opt-outs for suburban municipalities. She got sympathy from the committee for her dissatisfaction with her community’s transit service, and this bill has been incorporated into the omnibus transportation bill listed above as HF2685. I would like to take this opportunity to conjecture that Rep. Scalze has never taken the bus, or else she perhaps would have not introduced this bill that is guaranteed to make Twin Cities transit more confusing.
HF2271 Minneapolis to Duluth high speed passenger rail funding provided, bonds issued, and money appropriated Alas, ’twas not to be funded, but just about every DFLer with a district along the proposed route signed as an author.
HF2155 Central corridor light rail line property valuation increases limited Here’s a fun one – legislatively limiting the increase in property values caused by Central LRT. Of course, they’re only limiting the increase in taxable value, not sale value. No one wants any pain with their pleasure, I guess. The Senate version actually got referred to the committee on Taxes, but the House version is just sitting there.
HF1284 Omnibus Transportation Policy Bus use of shoulders is expanded by this bill, both in terms of where and how fast. On the where side, authority will be given to counties and cities to allow buses to use shoulder on roads that they own. On the how fast side, MnDot will be able to raise the speed limit for buses on shoulders in specific locations after conducting a study, which would have prevented the bullshit reasoning for restriping a bus shoulder as a general traffic lane and arguing that it will improve bus speed.
HF1943 Metropolitan Council transit funding provisions modified and HF2696 Metropolitan Council; formula changed for assistance to cities and towns with replacement transit service Mike Beard worked tenaciously this year to redistribute funds from Metro Transit to suburban opt-outs; one of his efforts took the form of HF1943, which attempts to restore cuts that the Met Council made to opt-out funding as a method of dealing with their own budget cuts. In the March 7th meeting, Met Council Gov’t Affairs Director Judd Schetnan responded by pointing out that most of the opt-outs had reserves equaling 150% of their annual budgets, implying that they could whether these cuts relatively easily. HF1943 doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, perhaps because Beard found a better way to redistribute money to the suburbs in HF2696. This bill nearly doubles the amount of MVST money that goes to opt-outs, and has been included in HF2685, which looks likely to pass.
This being a bonding year, there were also many transit projects that got their own capital funding bills, including NLX, Bottineau, Southwest, a park-and-ride in Maple Grove, a transit center in Duluth (rehab of the gorgeous Depot maybe?), the Lake Street transit station, and many more. None were included in the bonding bills, which only nodded to transit in the House’s version, which included $1m for upgrades to track between St Paul and Hopkins, potentially for use on Red Rock commuter rail or “HSR” to Chicago. The final bonding bills may change in the conference committee, though, so now’s the time to contact your legislator and ask they listen to the extraordinary popular support for the Southwest Transitway.
Finally, the instrument of Mike Beard’s divine vengeance on Metro Transit is a bill that seems to not yet be introduced, but to which Beard devoted an entire meeting of his committee, and which has gotten some attention at MinnPost and the Strib. His proposal is to create a transportation planning agency separate of the Met Council and to fund it through property taxes (again) instead of the general fund. Since it hasn’t yet been introduced, I doubt it will pass this session, which gives me more time to formulate my thoughts on it. Look for another Beard-bashing post here in the next couple weeks.
Bible-thumping Mike Beard won’t rest until he’s chased every last Minnesotan off of transit. You’ll remember the somber mood last summer when his transportation bill basically eliminated transit, proving once again that the Republican leadership doesn’t pay attention to what their committee chairs are doing. At some point, the suburban contingent of the legislative majority must have explained to their redneck colleagues that middle-class white people take the bus, too, and draconian cuts were avoided.
One piece of last year’s transportation bill (vetoed by Gov Dayton) would have required the Met Council to raise fares by a quarter. Mike Beard won’t let the extra quarter drop, and has brought it up this year as an independent bill. I’m not certain if the state has directly specified the amount of transit fares before; I couldn’t find any by searching the historical statutes but certainly the TCRT co’s fares were regulated, although possibly by municipalities rather than the state. But regardless of whether there’s precedent, a politically-driven fare increase contradicts existing policy, which states that:
Fares and fare collection systems shall be established and administered to accomplish the following purposes: (1) to encourage and increase transit and paratransit ridership with an emphasis on regular ridership
Although Mike Beard – whose occupation is “Business” – and Senate companion bill author and “Home builder/land developer” Joe Gimse are both clearly transit experts, they may need a refresher course on economics. Raising the price of a service typically does not encourage people to buy it, and since operating costs for transit do not increase or decrease by the passenger but rather by the vehicle, fare changes don’t have a direct relationship to operating efficiency. In fact, if a fare increase lowers ridership but not enough to cut frequency, it will worsen Metro Transit’s relatively good farebox recovery rate. In other words, a 25 cent fare increase will probably make transit less efficient.
So although the bill duplicitously titles the fare hike subdivision a “Farebox recovery adjustment”, the real purpose of the bill is to make transit less competitive. Unfortunately, if passed, the real effect of the bill would be to increase transportation costs for people in poverty, who are already disadvantaged by the region’s extreme job sprawl.
The bill hasn’t yet received a hearing – it was just introduced this week in both houses. Hopefully the rational minds that compose our professional legislature will recognize this bill for the destructive politicization of a public utility that it is. Seems unlikely. In fact a legislated fare hike is painless stab at transit for suburban Republicans who are ideologically opposed to transit but who have to deal with the inconvenience of constituents who actually use and support it – the fare hike will damage transit overall but will be less hurtful to relatively affluent riders (although the text currently requires a “proportional” increase for express buses, so the hike will likely be more than a quarter for most suburban riders). We’ll find out on March 12th, when the first hearing in the House is scheduled (the Senate hearing hadn’t been scheduled as of the ranting of this post).
Mike Beard’s persistence in legislating his perverse interpretation of Christian teachings in the form of unrestrained resource extraction and emission of climate-changing gasses has earned him the nickname “Bible-thumping” Mike Beard (by me, anyway). But his tenacious antipathy for public transit suggests a more fitting alliterative epithet: “Bus-bashing” Mike Beard. Eh? Eh?
You shouldn’t be willing to make your opinion public without also being willing to admit you’re wrong every once in a while. Well, I’m willing to admit I was wrong when I said that I wouldn’t write about the stadium again. In addition, certain… facts…. came to light this morning that made much of what I wrote yesterday pointless at best and inaccurate at worst. For starters, a site plan is out:
Very good news for 11th Ave – it seems that the stadium will merely cantilever over the roadway, expelling doomsday scenarios about closure or tunnels. It may actually be an improvement over today’s 11th Ave, gusty with parking-lot reinforced winds. We’ll have to wait for something more detailed to be sure, however.
Potential plaza problems remain, although apparently stealing the morgue from Hennepin County is no longer being considered. The plaza depicted is about the same size as the Morgue Plaza I considered yesterday, but is potentially better enclosed by theoretical buildings. A new worry, however, is this “Open Space Gameday Tailgating” loaded with so many contradictory purposes that the cartoonist just gave up and colored it green. There is no way that a space used for tailgating will be in any way green. Even if they use grow-through pavers, this will still be a parking lot. Anyone who’s been to the Renaissance Festival knows what I’m talking about – what was a pleasant country meadow becomes a muddy pig sty once it’s filled with cars. And speaking of, what the hell are those mysterious gray blobs north of the Armory?
They sure aren’t the Star and Tribune Building, which I guess isn’t historic but sure is classy. If its destruction is inevitable it will be missed by one person at least.
Despite releasing a new summary of financing, no more details have been released, and in fact some have been obscured: parking is not mentioned in this new summary. The ever-wary newsole has pointed out that the summary from 35W Financial uses both the words “meters” and “stalls”, implying a distinction that can be explained by assuming the latter refers to spaces in parking ramps. I haven’t seen anything to confirm this, but if it’s true it would render much of what I said yesterday inaccurate. In the interest of containing further inaccuracy, I’m going to button my lips about this. Um… thanks for reading?!?! This is absolutely definitely the last thing I’m going to say about a stadium forever I promise cross my heart. Probably.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Two quotes from recent Star Tribune articles:
In 2007, the city estimated that a West Broadway streetcar line would cost $154 million.
Under the preliminary deal, the city would contribute $150 million in construction costs to the downtown Minneapolis project.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.)
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.