How to add lanes without really telling anybody

Can you find the number 25,665,000 anywhere in this article?

Lengthy work coming to I-94

Transit advantage?

25,665,000 is the number of dollars MnDot is spending on their “I-94 Capacity Relief” project – anyone who’s paying attention knows that “capacity relief” is engineer-speak for road widening.  Funny that it’s not mentioned anywhere in the article that the project costs $25m, and that it’s adding a lane in each direction to I-94.

Of course, the lanes being added in this project are already there – they were striped as temporary “capacity relief” after the unquenchable thirst for more lanes caused the 35W bridge to plummet into the Mississippi.  If you have a chance, you should check out the MnDot site for this project, where they posted the documents they have to create to rationalize their decision to widen roads they get interstate money for (i.e alternatives analyses, environmental impact statements, environmental alternative statements, etc).

Inside you’ll find gems like the following:

The Preferred Alternative [widening the freeway] will add auxiliary lanes that will allow buses to achieve speeds up to the posted speed limit compared to the speeds allowed on bus-only shoulders (not more than 15 mph greater than the speed of general purpose traffic in the adjacent thru lane with a maximum speed of 35 mph).

So they’re spending $25m to add a lane that buses can then use to travel the posted speed limit instead of the 35mph that they’re limited to in the shoulders?  Then why not spend $0 to change the law to allow buses to drive the posted speed limit in shoulders?

And do they really think that the “auxiliary lanes” they’re “adding” won’t be congested?  How exactly is a transit advantage an advantage if the lane is clogged by a Geo trying to merge left?  I guess $26m will buy us the answer.

This is Minnesota!

From Mark Dayton’s veto letter for the Transportation bill:

I believe that providing comprehensive and reliable transit services, both in the Metro Area and in Greater Minnesota, are essential components of the transportation system in Minnesota.  Transit services improve labor market efficiency, freeway performance, and air quality in the metro area, while sustaining economic viability in Greater Minnesota.  The draconian cuts to transit in this bill are unacceptable to me.

It’s impossible to know whether Draco would have been on the Governor’s or the Legislature’s side, but the Athenians were generally in favor of public infrastructure, evident in the development of the port of Piraeus and the Long Walls that connected it to Athens (built after Draco’s time).

It appears that Dayton isn’t living up to my fears that he’d compromise on the transit section of the Transportation bill in order to keep more highway funding, but of course the final compromise has not yet waffled out.  We can count on Dayton to back transit to some degree, but he may have to give a little to make common ground with the Legislature’s Republican leadership, whose disdain for any environmental expression of public spirit might be described as Spartan.

There's more than one way to compromise

Driver, take me to my stadium

All images are conceptual

The largest public works project in Minnesota’s history (as long as you don’t combine the segmented construction of any metro-area freeway) recently kicked into high gear, but it’s possible it won’t hold the crown for long.  The Bullet Factory Vikings stadium proposal has a base cost of $884m, plus around $173m for “on-site infrastructure, parking, [and] environmental needs” – and in addition there are $131-240m in highway improvements needed to handle the traffic that would be drawn to the site.  That’s a grand total of $1.2-1.3b for the Bullet Factory site, although there it’s also possible still that the Metrodome site would be reused instead, which apparently isn’t pricey enough to steal Central LRT’s crown of costliness.

Free marketeers like to pretend that it’s just a coincidence that our era is seeing unprecedented wealth simultaneously with unprecedented suffering (while middle-class Americans pretend that neither exists), but we need to recognize that money is a fuel that feeds a firestorm of inequality that spreads a smoke blanket of starvation.  Government may not be the best tool we have to fight this process, but it certainly is the biggest tool we have.  The USA is a nation where Christians decry the spending of their tax dollars on foreign aid, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if we decide to spend a billion dollars on houses for millionaires in tights while thousands of Minnesotans sleep in their cars or under bridges…

…and so on.  I went on a similar rant when the Twins stadium deal went down, but I have to admit that I’m happy with it now that it’s up and running.  Why?  Besides a fondness for monumental public structures, I like to go to the library on Mondays.  The bonuses involved probably got some politicians on board for that project, support it desperately needed.

So why isn’t Ramsey County sweetening the pot with its Bullet Factory plan?  Certainly the plan is ambitious enough, but it’s also missing support from many Ramsey County politicians.  Maybe they’d get on board if the plan included youth sports, libraries, or…. here it comes…. transit!

Mulad recently had a great post about rail lines to the Bullet Factory that could be upgraded to commuter rail for the stadium.  A dedicated rail line to a suburban sports complex isn’t unprecedented in this country, but is certainly unusual.  Given the “uncertainties” surrounding the Twin Cities’ only commuter rail line, that mode seems unlikely.

I'll take all three

But I was intrigued by Mulad’s idea of “a light-rail-sized diesel multiple-unit (DMU) train could run along the Central Corridor and diverge when it hit the UMN Transitway, then do a flyover to get past the heavy rail operations at Union Yard, and then run on heavy rail tracks.”  I hadn’t really considered that corridor for transit upgrades, but it does after Mulad pointed it out, I noticed that it does run between two major employment clusters (Rosedale and Mid-City), and although there isn’t much residential along it, what’s there is pretty dense.

Here is a chart showing how Mulad’s corridor (which I named Hunting Valley after the old name for 280, shown in green on the map) compares with two other nearby possible corridors (I named the Central Ave NE alignment New Boston after a name for the Central & Lowry area that no one has used for almost a century, because unfortunately the name Central Corridor is already taken – why didn’t they call it the Midway Corridor?).  These are totals from TAZ districts that adjoin the lines depicted on the map, and the numbers are from 2000, and have changed a bit (also I only used those TAZes north of the Central Corridor, or the river in the case of the New Boston line).

TAZ stats for 3 corridors

Obviously the Hunting Valley is hurting for population, but it holds its own in terms of employment (although none of these corridors do very well in that measure – the Central Corridor even excluding Downtown Minneapolis reaches 120,000 jobs).  Plus it has the advantage of being much cheaper than New Boston or Snelling, since it is mostly already built on exclusive right-of-way (there is the small matter of buying out the MNNR, but theoretically the track could be rented back to them for night use).  Even though Hunting Valley wouldn’t need as frequent service as Hiawatha or Central, 5th St probably couldn’t handle the additional trains – my understanding is that it can only handle a slight increase in frequency on Hiawatha and/or Central.

St Paul shows the gaps in the Hi-Frequency Network

Anyway I doubt if anyone could handle the pucker-inducing degree of sweetness that adding a light rail line would bring to this deal – even the relatively cheap Hunting Valley line would probably cost too much for belt-tightening times.  A more affordable sweetener for the stadium pot would be an upgrade of bus service in St Paul, including upgrading the 84 possibly to BRT-ish levels.  The western triangle of St Paul has the density for good bus service, but has only a smattering of routes running across it, and those at low frequencies.  My guess is that comes out of the bus routes’ archaic orientation toward Downtown St Paul, and I’ll deal with that issue in a later post.

Fly in for a game

There are a lot of ways to handle a beefed up Snelling BRT, and I’m not going to weigh in on any particular one, except to advocate that it go south to the airport instead of west to the 46th St Hiawatha station. That adds a few miles to the route, but also thousands more jobs, as well as the obvious connections to air routes.  The northern terminus in this scenario would of course be Zygi’s Sprawl City, and it would also hit the job cluster at Hamline & 694, which is amazingly suburban but still might draw some riders.

Though Minneapolis would look with envy at Snelling’s 100 foot width through most of St Paul, it might be politically difficult to create bus lanes here, especially in the parking-desperate Midway.  I’m not sure it would be necessary though – despite heavy volumes, I haven’t seen a lot of congestion on Snelling in St Paul proper.  It would be interesting to see what effect a higher frequency 84 with prominent stations and off-board payment would do to traffic levels on the street.

Fittingly, since the funding for this BRT sweetener would come from an ongoing tax (presumably added onto the sales tax) most of the money could go to operations in the form of higher frequency on the 84 (and the 21, to fill the hi frequency gap).  I’m not even going to guess how much this would cost, but I would think less than the Cedar BRT where $135m is buying 8 park-and-rides and 9 miles of “dedicated” shoulders.  Here is a list of the capital needs I can think of for a Snelling BRT, in the order they arrive to my head:

  • 2 to 4 park-and-rides Possibilities include at 36 (or Cty Rd B), Cty Rd C, Cty Rd E and 694 (or Cty Rd F); these would all be modest park-and-rides since they wouldn’t draw Downtown crowds.
  • Stop consolidation  With routes spaced at every mile, I can’t in good conscience advocate 1/4 mile spacing, although there would still be opportunity for consolidation in some places.  Eventually, there should be bus routes running north and south every half-mile, at which point stops should be consolidated to every 1/4 mile.
  • Enhanced stations  These would primarily serve branding purposes since there probably wouldn’t be enough of them to ensure quality or comfort at every stop.  But at transfer stops, they could include ticket machines and real-time displays, in addition to higher-quality architecture.  At Como and Energy Park there should be stairs and elevators to the below-grade intersecting streets.
  • Signal Preemption  I haven’t heard the results of the route 10 test with signal preemption, but in theory it make the travel time more competitive with cars.

I in no way advocate building a football stadium with taxpayer money – local TV stations are subsidized enough through their undervalued broadcasting permits.  But if it must be done, throw a little sugar in that bowl by improving Ramsey County’s transit along with its sports facilities.  Don’t forget – there are some citizens of Ramsey County who will pay for that stadium with every purchase they make, but won’t be able to even gaze on it without a car.  Every Minnesotan should be able to enjoy the biggest public works project in Minnesota history.

Gotta go to work, gotta have a job

The series of tubes spat out a couple of reports this week about employment and access to transit.  Both of them contain useful specifics about Twin Cities employment patterns, but seem to disagree whether our region is keeping up with other regions in terms of accessing jobs through transit.

The first report was put out by the Center for Transit Oriented Development, which not long ago produced a practical guide to increasing walkability in certain Twin Cities neighborhoods.  Their new white paper has the simple title “Transit-Oriented Development and Employment” and may be most useful as a guide to research detailing the relationship between transit and employment geography for those of us who don’t have the time or money to read the scholarly journals.  The paper also contains a brief case study of 3 metros:  Phoenix, Atlanta and the Twin Cities.

Brookings begs to differ

As this graphic shows, Twin Citians on transit can access a pretty high number of jobs relative to some other American cities.  This even though CTOD rates our transit system as medium, despite the fact that it will be barely longer than Phoenix’s 20 mile “small” system even after Central is finished, at which point its 24 miles will be half the 49 miles of Atlanta’s MARTA, also rated “medium.”  They apparently are counting the 12 Northstar trains a day towards our total, even though they provide less than 1% of the system’s total weekday trips (contrast with Hiawatha, which provides 11%).

But the map shows that the Twin Cities’ soon-to-be light rail system will provide access to 19.6% of the region’s jobs.  While that seems low, it’s higher than Atlanta’s 13% of jobs accessible by MARTA, and comparable to the share of jobs accessible by LA’s patchwork of higher-capacity transit systems.  And it’s a good sign considering Hiawatha and Central barely reach outside of the central cities, and even miss employment clusters inside the central cities.

Anyway, this paper proves that transit advocates have discovered the suburbs, only 20 years after Edge City.  Having grown up in the Southdale area, I can say it’s none too soon.  They don’t go into too much detail, but the clusters CTOD identifies aren’t too different from those that Orfield and Luce identified in Region.  Orfield and Luce described their methodology thusly:

Employment centers were defined as contiguous TAZ’s with greater than average numbers of jobs per square mile and total employment exceeding 1,800 jobs.  Large job agglomerations like those in the centers of Minneapolis and St. Paul were divided into multiple employment centers based on job densities in different parts of the larger clusters.

The cool thing about these employment centers is that they mostly cling to highways, a.k.a available right-of-way.  Of course, that springs out of the shitty thing about them, that they sprawled in response to auto-dependence, as a result of constraints on growth by zoning, and without the guidance of regional planning.  But it’s possible that some day, cooler heads will conquer the capitol, and transit may be expanded.  If that ever happens, it would be a good idea follow the advice of the CTOD and aim for suburban job centers.

Which brings us to the other report, from Brookings, which maintains that transit access to jobs in the Twin Cities is average for the USA.  This report has taken a beating in the blogosphere, which I think is not surprising, considering the report looks at transit a little differently than the average transit rider probably looks at it.  That’s because it’s instead supposed to represent how the average American looks at transit, basically from the viewpoint, “how am I going to get to work?”

According to Brookings’ ranking, the Twin Cities has the 39th best transit access to jobs in the nation.  That might surprise some politicians, who don’t care anyway, but seems about right to me.  It’s when I start looking at the composite rankings that up becomes down for me.  First off, Brookings claims that 67% of working-age residents are near a transit stop.  67%?  How can that be when most bus lines don’t extend outside Minneapolis and St Paul?  Well, the fine print reveals that Brookings looked at bus routes that operate during rush hour, when commuter buses extend the web of transit lines by many times their midday size.

The rush hour focus also explains the next Wonderland metric, median waiting time, which is 11.6 minutes for the Twin Cities, 1.5 minutes more than the national average.  This actually also reflects the size of the commuter bus net in Minneapolis-St Paul – if commuter buses were excluded, the median wait would probably actually be shorter at peak, when several routes have 5-7 minute headways.

The commuter bus focus also explains the dismal but average showing of the Twin Cities in the last metric: percent of jobs that can be reached by transit in 90 minutes.  Because our bus system focuses on the downtowns, and so many commuter buses travel long distances to get there, but skip over jobs that might be along their route, it makes sense that so few jobs are reachable.  So while cities with smaller transit systems may rate the same in this metric, the Twin Cities’ comparatively larger bus system does no better because it is so narrowly focused.  (As a Downtown resident, I ain’t complaining.)

The Brookings reportadd  an economic layer to this already complex cake by considering the income level of the people with access to transit as well as the wage level of the jobs accessible by transit.  I wonder then why they didn’t find a way to factor in the non-peak transit coverage crucial to non-9 to 5ers.  Transit access to jobs is hugely important, and suburban job centers may be the next big transit growth market, but non-peak travel seems more important to transit’s core customers and is also less expensive to provide.

At least it’s something to think about while waiting for the bus.


Cold Omaha, East Dakota

Dire news for the hundred thousand Minnesotans who use transit on an average weekday.  The legislative conference committee passed a bill that would cut $109 million from Metro Transit’s general fund allocation, and $8 million from outstate Minnesota transit.  That’s just under a third of Metro Transit’s entire 2009 operating budget, and could result in a quarter fare increase and huge cuts in service, including eliminating all weekend service.

Bad news, but made worse by the Minnesota Poll released by the Star Tribune today, which found that by far the most favored target for spending cuts is mass transit.  Dayton will probably veto the transportation bill, but ultimately, how much will he prioritize a service that apparently has a narrow base of support?  Chances are that any budget negotiation would result in less draconian cuts to transit, but Dayton himself originally proposed a fairly hefty cut, so I think we can assume at least that will be on the table.

It’s not surprising that the average Minnesotan, struggling with oil addiction, would be least supportive of transit.  But the degree to which people can ignore the future, even when it is becoming more obvious than ever that the era of cheap energy is over, is always amazing to me.  Of course, Americans have a long tradition of hating their fellow Americans, and since transit puts Minnesotans into frequent and close contact with their neighbors, they have a subconscious incentive to bury their heads in the sand and hope that technology will save them from their dependence on disappearing dinosaur bones.

By now, most transit riders are used to service cuts and fare increases.  But there’s only so much you can cut transit before you don’t have any riders left to cut.

51% of Henn Cty car killers stay out of jail

Apparently you have to be a drunk, speeding liar to suffer any real consequences for killing someone with your car.  From the Strib article:

[Judge] Wernick said he considered giving Peterson probation, but three factors swayed him to impose the maximum four years, plus two months, in a vehicular homicide case.

Peterson was speeding and had a blood alcohol level of 0.16 percent when his car hit and killed 23-year-old Kandyce Stoffel in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown neighborhood about 3 a.m. on Oct. 24. Peterson also told police at the scene he wasn’t the driver, Wernick said.

[Defense attorney] Risk told the judge that 51 percent of the people sentenced in criminal vehicular homicide cases in the past 10 years in Hennepin County received probation.

A couple bills were introduced this session to require waiting periods for driver’s licenses for people who have used cars to kill, but neither has passed yet.  If you make such a bad mistake, why should we ever trust you again with the privilege of driving?

Down with the USA Today!

This infographic is sponsored by McDonald's and Immodium A-D

Ever since I was a child, I’ve hated the USA Today.  At first it was because they didn’t have comics, but as I’ve grown older I’ve gotten better at rationalizing my opinions in ways that make sense to adults, and now I just have to say that their stories tend to be extremely superficial.

Take their recent article about increased differentiation between suburban strata as portrayed by the 2010 census, using St Croix county as an example.  The paper gets some credit for at least distinguishing between suburbs, noting that nationwide inner suburbs grew at a greater rate than middle suburbs, though not nearly at the rate of outer suburbs.  This is an obvious statement.  Outer suburbs are starting at smaller populations, so even if a lower number of people move there, it can result in higher percentage growth than larger cities.

Families flock to downtown Hudson

USA Today doesn’t mention the absolute change number for these three types of suburbs, or even really describe how they differentiated between them.  This is problematic for suburbs like Mendota Heights or Maplewood, which are relatively central in the metro area, but had substantial greenfield development through the 1980s.  The paper credits Robert Lang – author of Boomburbs – for the data, but doesn’t link to any more detailed analysis.

But my real beef comes in when they start talking about St Croix county, which in the last decade grew by an astonishing 33.6% (or about 5 times less fast than the North Loop).  This section really betrays their lack of knowledge of the Twin Cities metro.  It claims the county is popular because of its “easy access to the Twin Cities (12 miles), more moderately priced housing, good schools and a quaint downtown in Hudson.”

St Croix county is only 12 miles from the St Paul city limits, but it is much further from the majority of jobs in the Twin Cities.  As Orfield and Luce put it in their study of employment and commute patterns in the book Region, employment clusters in the Twin Cities “are more likely to be in the western and southwestern parts of the region.”  And as the map shows, St Croix doesn’t have a particularly low average commute time, even for collar counties.

Surprisingly, USA Today is also off-base about the housing cost – although ACS 5 year data shows St Croix county’s median housing value of $224k to be a bit lower than the metro area’s median of $240k, it is actually higher than Ramsey County’s median and about the same as Anoka’s.

I’m not even going to look into the schools, because I don’t think there is a quantitative method of ranking schools, so I’ll give USA Today that point.  And they can have one for crediting Hudson’s quaint downtown as a driver of growth, because I agree with them, and because it muddles their point (according to USA Today, Americans prefer to live in fringe suburbs, but only if they’re near a downtown).

Why are people moving to St Croix county?  Because houses are being built there.  But St Croix county isn’t even adding an exceptional number of houses.  In the 13-county metro area, Hennepin County by far added the most housing units, 40,776, four times the 9,709 added in St Croix county.  The foreclosure crisis reduces the increase in occupied housing units to only 2.5 times that of St Croix county.

So why is the USA today writing about St Croix county?  It could be because the county was the only one in the 13 county metro to have a higher rate of growth in 2000-2010 than 1990-2000, and it thereby fits the story’s “stay calm, everything is fine, all growth is still on the fringe” attitude.

On this point, I’m humbled to have to agree with them.  Although locally the suburban fringe grew at a slower rate in the last decade than in the 90s, inner and middle suburbs’ rate of growth decreased even more, meaning the fringe accounted for a greater share of the Twin Cities’ growth in the 00s than it did in the 90s (about 66% in 00s and about 45% in the 90s).  That means that the region needs to work harder to focus growth inward, for example by encouraging more compact development in situations like the Brookdale site.  It also means that this national paper may be more on target than the locals, which both recently posed the possibility of an end to sprawl.  And that means I need to get more creative in rationalizing my hatred of the USA Today.

What have we learned?

Urban Decay

Yet another downside to municipal fragmentation is the loss of institutional memory.  Many are realizing that urban decay is not a process intrinsic only to central cities due to their inability to adapt to the automobile, but rather a byproduct of the American slash-n-burn style of city-building that can strike anywhere, but at a specific time, often about a half-century after greenfield development.  Unfortunately, as urban decay hits the suburbs, these fragments of cities are less able to learn from the experience of their older siblings what will combat and what will hasten the process of decay.

So when I came across the Strib’s article on the impending redevelopment of Brookdale Center I couldn’t help but think of Minneapolis’ earlier efforts to redevelop the commercial district at Lake & Nicollet.  The moribund Brookdale is probably in a more extreme situation than the struggling but alive Lake & Nicollet of the 70s.  The connection in my mind is the use of TIF to subsidize a developer to build a low-intensity, single use development of the sort that, in all likelihood, will be redeveloped in at least the same time frame as the structure it’s replacing, if not sooner.  Here’s a statement from the very study looking at redevelopment options for the mall area, 2003’s Brooklyn Center Opportunity Site:

Modern retail development often becomes obsolescent in the matter of a few decades…

So what do they go and build?  A modern retail development.  You gotta wonder if Brooklyn Center knew who they

Modern retail development

were hiring when they commissioned the study – Calthorpe and Associates is run by one of the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism.  After the completion of the study and a plan a few years later, the city actually included an 8 point refutation of their principles in their comprehensive plan, with the brilliant recommendation of increasing highway-oriented development and reducing open space.

What is likely to be built is the exact opposite of the design principles enumerated in the Opportunity Site Master Plan & Development Guidelines (although the plan actually applied to a site across Bass Lake Road from Brookdale, and I don’t know if there was ever any move to extend it to the Brookdale site).  Not only do we get a big box Wal-Mart, with its auto-dependent acres of parking and low-intensity land use, but accessory retail uses are scattered throughout the site, making future infill much more difficult.  To be fair, it is possible the planned smattering of smaller stores will never come to be, as a local retail real estate consultant notes in the Strib article:

“The challenge for the developers in Brookdale is, what are the stores that would see an opportunity to be at the Brookdale site that don’t already have a location that serves that area?”

In addition, complementary stores would have to stock items that are unavailable at Wal-Mart, or that are appreciably better or cheaper than at the retail giant.

Plans that came to naught

What could Brooklyn Center have done differently?  They already had a policy framework (in the Opportunity Site Master Plan) to encourage mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development, but they followed the old suburban course, waiting for a developer to come along and proposed a PUD along the lines of the Master Plan.  If they had looked at the success of older cities in guiding development with zoning districts or overlays, they could have had zoning in place that would have discouraged the Wal-Mart style of rapidly-obsolete shopping strip.  Maybe Wal-Mart would have just moved up the street to a less restrictive city, but maybe they would have come up with a plan more like their proposal for Washington DC.

Half a page of scribbled plans

I’m writing under the assumption that Brooklyn Center wants to move away from auto-dependent commercial strips.  They have every reason to do so.  From the 2000 census to the 2005-09 ACS data, single-occupancy vehicular travel declined only very slightly and public transportation use increased at a similarly minuscule rate.  But in the same time frame, poverty increased dramatically in the suburb, from 7.4% to 12.9% of individuals.  This suggests that an increasing number of Brooklyn Centrists could benefit from the affordability of transit and improved opportunities for walking.

Brooklyn Center is only one tiny part of the region, and an adjustment of regional priorities would result in better development in inner ring suburbs.  A map from the Calthorpe planning effort shows as a third-tier regional center, while distant Maple Grove ranks as a second-tier center.   Why is our region prioritizing development in distant greenfields over vast acreage closer to the city?  These priorities have consequences, exemplified in the Bottineau Transitway’s decision to bypass existing transit centers, such as Brookdale, in the hopes that new transit centers will spring up on the fringe.

Maple Grove is sitting pretty

Until we agree to focus development in existing areas instead of on the edge of town, the municipal cogs that make up the regional machine will continue to spin freely, leaving minor cogs like Brooklyn Center to make their own mistakes.