Burning bright?

Today is a very important day for transit nerds.  Today is the day the USDOT announces its TIGER II grant awards.

We nerds get jazzed up about these grants because they are the embodiment of the transportation system we’ve been whining for:  The criteria for the awards is that projects emphasize livability, sustainability, and safety.

So why did Hennepin County apply for a road-widening project?  That’s what I asked Councilmember Gordon in this email exchange:

— On Tue, 8/31/10, Alex Bauman  wrote:

From: Alex Bauman
Subject: 4th St S ramp to 35W
To: Cam.Gordon@ci.minneapolis.mn.us, cam@camgordon.org
Date: Tuesday, August 31, 2010, 11:05 AM

Hi,

I saw in your newsletter that you are writing a letter of support for Hennepin County’s 35W widening project.  Please pardon my surprise to learn that a Green Party member is supporting a project that primarily benefits the drivers of single-occupancy vehicles.  Would you mind, when you have a moment, elaborating on your support for this project?  Do you have proof that Hennepin County is pursuing improvements to the pedestrian facilities on the Washington and Cedar Ave bridges?  If so, why was there no TIGER grant application for those projects?  Can you explain how this project will benefit transit users?

Thanks,

Alex Bauman

— On Fri, 9/3/10, Gordon, Cam A. <Cam.Gordon@ci.minneapolis.mn.us> wrote:

From: Gordon, Cam A. <Cam.Gordon@ci.minneapolis.mn.us>
Subject: FW: County’s Tiger II grant.
To:
Date: Friday, September 3, 2010, 1:28 PM

Alex,

Thank you for your note.  I want to offer you some more information about this. The staff report that is posted on the City Council website has an out of date and incomplete application and perhaps that is part of the problem.

I think I share your basic belief that we should be realigning our transportation system to make transit, bicycling and walking more attractive choices.  That’s why my office has worked so hard on transit projects like the Central Corridor, and pushed for major projects in the ward to be as bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly as possible.

There are several things to understand about the County’s grant application and the context we’re in with the County right now.  First, the County application included three major components:

- A connection between Washington/3rd Ave eastbound and 35W northbound, including an auxiliary lane which will allow Bus Rapid Transit to be implemented on 35W north of downtown.  The 35W bridge was built to be “BRT ready,” and this project actually helps us take a step in that direction.  This would complement transit improvements made on 35W south of downtown Minneapolis and the Marquette and Second project within downtown.

- A Washington Avenue Bridge Pedestrian and Bicycle Enhancement component, which will widen the existing Washington bridge over 35W by seven feet on each side. This new width would be used to widen the existing sidewalks on each side to 10-feet-wide from the existing 8-feet-wide and introduce a new 5-foot-wide bicycle lane on each side of the bridge.  This would be a major bicycle improvement, because this one bridge is the major obstacle to putting bicycle lanes on all of Washington Ave from Seven Corners to Hennepin.

- A Cedar Avenue Bridge Recondition and Pedestrian Enhancement component, which would widen the existing bridge by two feet on each side, effectively widening the existing sidewalk along the west side of the bridge to 10-feet-wide from the existing 8-feet-wide, and widening the existing sidewalk along the east side of the bridge from 8 feet to 12 feet.  This project component will be crucial to pedestrians using the proposed new access to the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit West Bank Station which will have its main vertical circulation from the east side of the bridge.

I am attaching the first few pages of the lengthy application for you to see as well.

[here it is: Tiger II County Grant up to page 5].

Also, the City of Minneapolis has applied for a similar grant to do a comprehensive study of the streetcar corridor that we’ve decided to move forward with first: Central Ave NE from Columbia Heights into downtown, then following Nicollet Ave to at least 38th Street.  I’m a strong proponent of streetcars, and I very much want to be able to move forward on this corridor.  I think it will be so successful that it will transformational; once we have one complete, the next few will be much easier to build, just like we’ve seen with LRT.

I will also note that even the most auto-oriented aspect of their application – the ramp from 3rd onto 35 – will, in my opinion, help nonmotorized transportation elsewhere.  The Washington Ave bridge over 35W is an unpleasant place to be a pedestrian or cyclist during the afternoon/evening peak hours, in large part because most of the people trying to leave downtown in cars onto 35W northbound take the ramp on the northeast side of that bridge.  If we can make a better option for northbound drivers that puts more traffic into a space that is currently off-limits to pedestrians and cyclists (the Washington trench) and takes traffic out of a space that we want to be more pedestrian and bicyclist friendly (Washington through downtown, to Seven Corners) it seems like a good thing to do.  That and the major improvements for peds, bikes and transit – the widened sidewalks and bike lanes on Washington, the really significant widening of the sidewalk connection to the West Bank station on Cedar – make this worth supporting.

I hope this is helpful and that you have been able to read through any and all typos.

Please let me know if you have any further questions or concerns. It is helpful for me to hear from you, so please keep it up.
In peace and cooperation,

Cam Gordon

— On Thu, 9/9/10, Alex Bauman  wrote:

From: Alex Bauman
Subject: Re: FW: County’s Tiger II grant.
To: “Cam A.Gordon” <Cam.Gordon@ci.minneapolis.mn.us>
Date: Thursday, September 9, 2010, 9:20 AM

Hi Cam,

Thanks for the additional information.  I was relieved to hear that the pedestrian elements are a part of the TIGER grant application, as I had feared that they would be put off to a vague future date (as with the 26th Ave S bike lanes, for example).  You are completely correct when you describe the Washington Ave bridge as an unpleasant place for pedestrians, and I would add that it and the Cedar Ave bridge also dangerous for pedestrians (in part because crosswalks tend to be the lowest priority for striping).

Unfortunately I cannot share your belief that this project will help non-motorized transportation, as adding capacity has been a discredited method of reducing congestion for decades.  Anthony Downs expressed it best in his theory of triple convergence, and is especially true in areas where growth is expected (such as East Downtown).  The key is what is called “induced demand” or “induced traffic,” the concept that “open roadway encourages existing users to make more car trips, lures drivers away from other routes, and tempts transit riders to return to their automobiles.”  (David Owen, from Green Metropolis)  Most likely both of the ramps to 35W north (from 4th St S and Washington Ave S) will be congested again before long, causing similar dangers and delays for non-motorized traffic as currently exists (although bike lanes will probably help the cyclists).

It is also hard to believe that this project will help public transit – I’m sorry but I was unable to locate anything in the materials you provided indicating BRT would be a component of this project.  BRT has a lot of meanings, but one thing that is almost always included is bus-only lanes, which don’t seem to be a part of this project.  Page 2 of the Grant Application specifies that the “Recommended Project Layout includes a fourth through-lane plus a relocated auxiliary lane” – there is no mention of a bus-only lane, and the document posted by city staff on the council website does not even portray drivable shoulders in this area (the auxiliary lane mentioned is an existing lane between the 4th St SE and Hennepin Ave ramps).  As explained in the paragraph above, induced demand will fill this lane with congestion by SOVs, netting no advantage for transit.  Can you explain how exactly this project would be a step towards BRT?

There are, of course, ways to improve the transit infrastructure in this area in ways that would improve commuting times.  The third lane on Washington Ave, in which parking is banned at peak hours, is much less often congested at peak hours.  It wouldn’t significantly affect capacity to restrict that lane to buses only during the peak hours.  Then the signals on Washington at 35W could be retrofitted to provide a bus-only phase, allowing buses to make a left-hand turn onto 35W, which would create a significant transit advantage.  The buses could use the existing auxiliary lanes and use the University/4th St SE exit, which could be retrofitted to give buses signal priority.  Those buses could stop at this exit, creating an actual BRT system.  The buses could proceed down the auxiliary lane and transfer to the shoulder at 8th St SE, in effect having a continuous lane for the entire trip.  It would cost significantly less than the TIGER proposal and would have a sustainable effect on congestion and commuting patterns.

Sorry for this lengthy email – this is a complex topic.  I really appreciate you taking the time to read and consider my emails and I want to thank you for also providing in-depth responses – that means a lot.  I understand that politics requires sacrifices and I recognize that cyclists and pedestrians will gain something from this project, even if ultimately it will increase the amount of people who drive to downtown Minneapolis and will not help transit (although if I missed something about the BRT, I’d appreciate if you re-explain it).  Thanks again.

-Alex

And now the County’s grant application has been denied.  Frankly, I’m not surprised, as it didn’t meet any of the criteria.  And really, it is a good thing, as this project would have just encouraged automobile dependence for the new denizens of the East Downtown that is yet to be developed.

But it is a sad thing that Minneapolis has missed out on another round of TIGER grants.  If they had gotten their act together and started an Alternatives Analysis on a streetcar line as soon as their streetcar funding study was finished (instead of waiting two years to approve it), we could have been riding the streetcars with Salt Lake City, Atlanta, Tuscon, Dallas and New Orleans, all of whom had streetcar projects funded through the TIGER grants.