Over the river or through the woods?

Still waiting for a train at Rochester

Mulad, that wizard of railroad wisdom, reminded me that January 12th is the last day to send in comments on the Alternatives Selection Report for the Chicago-Twin Cities “High Speed Rail” Corridor.  Here are my hastily assembled comments:

To: “MWRRIPhase7@state.mn.us” <MWRRIPhase7@state.mn.us>
Sent: Wednesday, January 11, 2012 10:25 PM
Subject: Draft Alt Selections Report comments

I have two criticisms of the Draft Alternative Selections Report:
  1. It seems improper to have eliminated from the universe of alternatives those routes with physical constraints due to former right-of-way having been developed for other uses.  Examples are on pages 4-7 through 4-12 of Appendix A.  While the report properly considers the demolition of the existing uses to be an extreme impact, it does not consider the possibility of constructing a greenfield route around these physical constraints.  Several routes included in the universe of alternative require construction of new main tracks with the potential for extreme impact, the most glaring example of which is the BNSF river route, described on pages 3-14 and 3-15 of the Draft Selections Report.  The BNSF river route is stated on pages 3-14 and 3-15 to require the construction of a third track “in the Mississippi River” but it still garners the highest rating for Route Characteristics.  If it is worth considering routes that require major construction in the form of an additional track in a protected waterway, it should be worth considering routes that may require a few miles of greenfield bypasses of existing physical constraints.
  2. It seems likely that using population bands as a proxy for trip generation underestimated the potential of the Rochester and Madison metro areas.  These metros contain major trip generators in the form of a world-famous medical facility, one of the largest universities in the nation, and a state capital.  The bluntness of measuring route population by means of a band along the entire route rather than in a cluster around stations is another weakness of the Market Size metric, and one that may have tipped the scale towards the selected alternative (which has a fairly high but diffuse population density but one that would likely be just as well served by alternatives that serve Rochester).  However, the bigger problem with the Market Size metric was ignoring the trip generation capabilities of the unique land uses in Rochester and Madison.
Aside from these two criticisms, the alternative selections process seemed to me to be as fair as possible for a mostly qualitative process and impressively thorough, to boot.  While the recommended alternative is incapable of meeting international standards for high-speed rail, the capital upgrades described in the report will be a significant improvement to a vital rail transportation facility, and are both welcome and overdue.
On top of that, I think their last minute switcheroo to prioritizing the route that needs the least capital improvement is a bit fishy, and unfortunate because it resulted in selecting the route that is capable of the least improvement.  I don’t see why they didn’t sneak some more Rochester routes in there, and potentially basketed Zip Rail along with “HSR.”  But I only made it about halfway through the Draft Alternatives Selections Report, so I didn’t feel comfortable piping up about it.  Frankly, any news is good news on the rail upgrade front.  Even if in some distant high-speed future, a different route to Chicago is used, it’s likely that the selected route will still be used for more local rail travel so the improvements won’t go to waste.

Where do you park a train?

A TC&W train in St Louis Park, from a web page about hobos

Hennepin County has posted on its B- website the latest salvo in the Great Saint Louis Park Rail Wars.  They’ve created a page called Freight Rail whose sole reason for existence is to compile the cancerous accumulation of studies revolving around the relocation of the former TC&W track that is now known as the Midtown Greenway.

I’m pretty sure the page didn’t exist until the county released their Freight Rail Draft Staff Report on August 16.  That document contains an excellent summary of the controversy/debacle:

The origin of the current freight rail issue in St. Louis Park and Minneapolis was the severing of the freight rail line in the 29th Street/Midtown Corridor in the 1990’s. This action was part of the TH55/Hiawatha Avenue project funded by MnDOT and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).  MnDOT and FHWA made the decision to sever the freight rail line rather than to construct a grade separated crossing. This decision was made due to geometrics, topography, and costs. After the decision was made to sever the rail line, an analysis was conducted to determine the preferred alignment for relocation of the freight rail service. The location preferred by the government agencies and the private freight rail companies was the active Minneapolis, Northfield and Southern (MN&S) line through St Louis Park. Shortly before the TH55/Hiawatha Avenue project was let and the freight rail was to be severed, it was determined that the National Lead/Golden Auto site in St Louis Park where the rail connection would be made was contaminated (and listed as a federal superfund site). MnDOT had approximately two to three months to find an alternate route for the freight rail relocation or the state was at risk of losing the TH55/Hiawatha Avenue federal funds.  The Cedar Lake/Kenilworth Corridor was chosen by MnDOT as the “temporary” (4 to 6 years) reroute for freight rail until such time that the National Lead/Golden Auto site was delisted or another alternative was found. To facilitate the TH 55/Hiawatha Avenue roadway project, the HCRRA agreed to the temporary rerouting of freight rail through the Kenilworth Corridor and entered into a three party agreement with the Canadian Pacific (formerly Soo Line) and Twin Cities and Western (TCW) Railroads.

MnDOT had two to three months to find an alternate route!  That’s gotta be a record.

Anyway, in keeping with Hennepin County’s policy of web profusion, there is also a separate site set up by the county for this whole issue, www.mnsrailstudy.org.  That page has more cool stuff, including some maps, but not the maps that were included in a presentation made to the Southwest Transitway Community Advisory Committe, and that I’ll reproduce here.

Alternatives from 2009 study

This map shows the alternatives for relocation that were explored in a 2009 study – the alternatives were estimated to cost between $60 and 136 million, compared to the $48m cost of the MN&S routing.

A lot to consider

This map shows the various factors in considering an alignment – the CP yards in Camden, congestion in the Target Field area, something called the Iron Triangle.  I think this map (and this process) shows what a questionable idea it was in the first place to sever the rail line.  Much as I enjoy the Midtown Greenway, we are left with a significant population center in South Minneapolis that is very poorly served by rail lines.  This is to some degree a historical situation – I’ve always been amazed at the huge swath of South/Southwest from Cedar to France to Minnehaha Creek to Lake Street that was basically homogeneously suburban residential – but has been made worse by the various severings of Hiawatha and the retrenchment of the Pleasant Ave track segment (not sure of the name).    My point (if I have one) is that after the Era of Cheap Energy is over, it might help to be able to take advantage of very high efficiency transportation modes.   Maybe the area is small enough that it could be effectively served by smaller trucks or freight light rail, but maybe it instead would have been prudent to not scrap the rail infrastructure.

Anyway, St Louis Park has its own side of the story of course, and it sounds like the alignment question may be answered in part by a judge.  If SLP’s appeal is successful, it could cause a significant delay in the Southwest Transitway project, currently hoping for revenue service in 2017 or 18.  So a highway project in Minneapolis caused a rail project in St Louis Park, which may prevent a transit project in Eden Prairie.  How much of this mess could have been prevented by consolidating agencies and municipalities?

One of my favorite bridges

By tearing up I-35 in and around Duluth, MnDOT has given us a great reason to travel the Oliver Bridge, one of my favorite bridges.  When you’re heading to the North Shore, as every good Minnesota should do at least annually, simply exit onto State Hwy 23 east after Sandstone, then after 50 miles or so, after you’ve entered one of those weird old railroad suburbs of Duluth, you’ll see a sign for Superior, WI to your right.  Soon after you take it, you’ll see a train flying over an embankment that seems to simultaneously emerge from the river like Venus and travel directly into the path of the winding road.

What's around that bend, my friend?

Oliver is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town, and the bridge is by far the best thing in or around it.  Not only is the setting spectacular – the valley of the St Louis to your right and Spirit Bay’s expanse on your left, giving you the first inkling of the majesty of Lake Superior – but the bridge itself is just fun.  How often do you get to see the belly of a moving train?

Hold your breath, kids

I never should have read the Wikipedia entry for the Oliver bridge.  Apparently the east end of the bridge swings, but was only used for a ferry (!!!) that’s been defunct since the 30s.  On top of that, according to the article the upper deck used to be double tracked, and was somehow built to accommodate a streetcar line from New Duluth to Superior that never came to be.  Worst of all, there was a pedestrian walkway on the upper deck until recently.  Like everything, one of my favorite bridges used to be even cooler.