Making Choices on the Southwest and Central Corridor LRT Alignments

From Dave Van Hattum, Policy and Advocacy Program Manager

We are happy to see a robust discussion about the best alignment (and number and location of stations) as the region builds a system of transitways, including the Central Corridor and the Southwest light rail lines. It is encouraging to see the debate shift from whether to build a system to the details of building it right.

These are not easy choices. To choose an alignment, decision makers must consider capital and operating costs, short-term ridership, long-term ridership as housing and commercial development changes, who is served by the line (e.g. transit dependent, commuters, etc), integration with the existing bus system and train system, the ability to secure federal funding, and a variety of other factors.

In both the Central and Southwest examples, a compelling alternative alignment –to what TLC chose to support–exists. Both the Northern alignment (Central Corridor) and the Uptown alignment (Southwest Corridor) offer the potential for substantial transit-oriented development. In both cases, however, we believe the cost was prohibitive.

After extensive study, the Northern alignment on the Central Corridor was ruled out due to 1) increased cost 2) slower travel time, and 3) increased environmental concerns. This alignment was studied, at the University of Minnesota’s expense, very extensively (For details, see Appendix G (within Section 1) of the Central Corridor Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement). Further, light rail planners have created a construction plan to ensure safe operation on the Washington Avenue bridge, which is part of the currently proposed alignment.

The Uptown alignment on the Southwest Corridor would have cost at least $500 million more than the Kenilworth alignment. Even if ridership was significantly higher than models predict, it is extremely unlikely that under current rules the Twin Cities would receive federal funding for the Nicollet alignment. Faced with either (a) waiting for possible changes to federal rules (at least a year away) or (b) moving ahead without federal funding, TLC agreed with local decision makers (Met Council, Hennepin County) that we are best served by the Kenilworth alignment (see TLC Southwest LRT statement).

Consider what it means to come up with $850 million (half the capital costs) for the local match in funding for the Southwest Corridor, Uptown alignment – that’s ten years of funding from the quarter-cent regional sales tax dedicated to transitways (light rail, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, etc.). In other words, the region would have to wait at least a decade before moving forward on any other project, and would not have the $25-$30 million per year needed for the operating cost contribution for the Hiawatha LRT, Northstar commuter rail, I-35W and Cedar Ave bus rapid transit and the Central Corridor LRT.

We agree wholeheartedly with the call for more transit service to Uptown, particularly given the current and planned increases in density. That’s why we advocated for removing the Mitchell Street station in order to come up with funding to provide a streetcar connection between the Southwest LRT, Uptown, and Hiawatha LRT. It‘s why we continue to encourage a dialogue about streetcars.
Our position on the Central Corridor also substantially challenged the proposed plan. We advocated for a transit/pedestrian mall on the U of MN campus—allowing the corridor to function well for bus and train riders as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.

TLC continues to work hard to increase overall transit funding, while we recognize that difficult priorities need to be made given current funding realities. Currently, there is not enough local and state funding to build all the transit we need. The bus system has shrunk 10 percent since 2002, the East metro has numerous transitways on the drawing board, and bicycling and walking connections to bus routes and transitways deserve greater attention (link to TLC’s Bike/Walk Twin Cities program). This is not acceptable. We need to both increase current dedicated funding sources to transit and make transit a top priority for overall transportation spending.

Should we move forward with strong (albeit not always perfect) alignments that keep our place in line for matching federal funding? Absolutely. Most important, your continued advocacy is critical to securing increased funding for transit. And when we achieve that victory, we will simultaneously advance a better regional system and stronger local projects.

Rather than simply supporting the Met Council, Mn/DOT, or anyone’s plans, TLC will continue to promote an ambitious vision for transit and the necessary local land use (i.e. density, mixed use, complete streets, fix-it-first) to complement that vision. Watch for our work on the 2010 bonding package, a gubernatorial forum on January 25 2010, and building strong grassroots support for increasing funding for transit. For more detail on our independent thinking, please see the following on our website:

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