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.
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.
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
Subject: complete Alternatives Analysis for Bottineau
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.
From: “firstname.lastname@example.org” <email@example.com>
To: Alex Bauman
Sent: Friday, December 11, 2009 4:25 PM
Subject: Re: complete Alternatives Analysis for Bottineau
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.
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.