Fix the Green Line Slowdown

Given that the average rider's trip on the new light rail Green Line is just 3 miles long, its slower than expected travel times between the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns shouldn't discourage patronage much. In fact, weekday ridership is already 10 percent above projections for next year, even before a likely boost once fall classes start at the University of Minnesota campus bisected by the tracks.

Metro Transit officials have said all along that if you want a quick trip the length of the Green Line's route, take the 94 Flyer bus down the freeway. The light rail is designed more for shorter connections to the many busy nodes between the downtowns.

But one impact of the Green Line slowdown—sometimes clocking well more than 20 minutes over the 40-minute end-to-end timetable originally estimated, according to the Star Tribune—should be a concern. That's the added cost of putting more trains on the line in an effort to keep closer to the posted schedule. According to Frederick Melo in the Pioneer Press, that could inflate the service's $35 million annual gross operating budget, already a sore point with transit-bashing conservatives.

Trains often being forced to wait at 46 traffic signals in St. Paul has been blamed for the delays. City officials have rejected giving the light rail signal preemption such as the Blue Line enjoys along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis. "That is just seriously bad engineering," UofM Prof. David Levinson told the Strib. "If you are serious about transit and encouraging people to take transit, you need to make it as efficient as possible."

Former Metro Transit planner Aaron Issacs has suggested a sensible compromise on—give the trains full signal preemption at 19 intersections along University Avenue where combined car-light rail traffic is 3 to 8 times greater than that on the cross streets. 

"It is hard to rationalize a train with 300 people stopping at an intersection with no cross traffic," Metro Transit chief Brian Lamb said in a statement quoted in the Pioneer Press.

So far, city officials say giving the Green Line the green light anywhere would unduly disadvantage drivers, pedestrians and bicyclists trying to cross the tracks. They contend that fine-tuning a signal system that is supposed to give the trains partial priority can solve the problem. According to Isaacs, however, "There are simply too many traffic lights spaced too close together for conventional signal timing with priority to move the trains along."

I live in the Longfellow neighborhood of Minneapolis and often drive across Hiawatha and the Blue Line tracks. Sometimes I get delayed a few seconds by the trains. Big whoop. If St. Paul leaders want to reap the full benefits of the Green Line's game-changing transit improvement, they should do more to help it operate efficiently and economically.

Photo from Metro Transit, Flikr

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Central Corridor 

Transportation Network Companies Now Licensed in Minneapolis

Last Friday morning, the Minneapolis City Council approved an ordinance legalizing and regulating transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. The new regulatory framework includes licensing fees, insurance standards, and driver qualification requirements. The ordinance also includes measures to significantly lessen the regulatory burden of taxi companies, ensuring a fairer regulatory playing field for decidedly similar businesses.

Transportation network companies are now authorized players in Minneapolis’ transportation landscape. I am pleased with the ordinance. It unobtrusively protects the public interest. Ward 5 Councilmember Blong Yang, however, expressed several reservations meriting attention. For one, taxi companies still bear a weightier regulatory burden. TNC’s can adjust fares, employing demand pricing while taxis cannot.

Yang was also concerned that low-income and high-crime neighborhood residents risked underservice or exclusion if the TNC were to become the dominant model. The use of TNCs requires access to banking services and a smartphone – a barrier for many. Drivers might discriminate against riders, too. The notion of drafting public policy to accommodate illegally operating multibillion-dollar companies that may disadvantage some of Minneapolis’ most vulnerable is unsettling.

Ward 3 Councilmember Jacob Frey, one of the authors of the ordinance, addressed Yang's concerns. Responding to Yang’s fear that the wheelchair surcharge are insufficient financial subsidy incentives for taxi companies and TNCs to provide service to disabled passengers, Frey noted that the city will audit the TNCs and taxi companies to ensure that public interest goals are being met. 

I am not a neutral observant of the TNC regulation debate. I reguarly use Uber. And, I am happy that TNCs are now authorized participants in Minneapolis' rapidly evolving multimodal transportation mix. However, we – the government and innovators – must rigorously ensure that the system is fair. That will be an ongoing effort.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Regulation  Minneapolis / St Paul  Road Safety 

The All-Star Games Gives Us Another Reason to Love Public Transportation

Over and over, transit advocates make the case that areas of density need better public transportation because there is not enough capacity for everyone to drive; the roads would have to be too wide and the parking lots too large. Population growth projections will make today's traffic congestion frustrations a fond memory.

People who live in low density areas dominated by cars often decry the money spent on public transportation. During high capacity events, however, everyone gets on board.

Between the Basilica Block Party and pre-All-Star games festivities this past weekend and game goers on Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people visited Minneapolis. The transit advocate’s description of the capacity problem exists especially for these large events. To have each of these people drive by themselves would take many more highway lanes than possible and enormous parking ramps in a spectacular waste of money and land. Buses, with a capacity of about 40 people, and light rail unit trains with a 200 passenger capacity, efficiently move many more people.

Midnight Friday, the Hennepin Avenue bus was packed with Block Party concert goers. The Met Council estimated 4,500 people took the Green line to the TCF Bank Stadium for the Saturday All-Star Concert, easing parking problems and traffic congestion for those that did drive. For those riding SWTransit to Twins games or the special Metro Transit buses to the State Fair, be thankful you don’t have to drive on an 8 lane highway and then walk a half mile through a sea of parking. Multi-modal transportation systems work for special events just like they work for everyday use.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Minneapolis / St Paul 

Transportation and Health: Modes Matter

Two new scientific studies offer a nice complementary perspective on our transportation choices and their often ignored consequences. 

Start with a Minnesota Department of Health report on geographic concentrations of asthma. As summarized by Minnesota Public Radio, the worst place in the Twin Cities for the breathing disease is along Interstate Hwy. 94 in north Minneapolis.

While fumes from the freeway may not be the main cause of this finding -- dirty rental housing and higher rates of smoking among low-income residents of the area are also implicated -- tens of thousands of motor vehicles roaring by daily a short distance away certainly doesn't help. And for African-Americans and Native Americans, the Minnesotans most afflicted by asthma, claims of environmental racism in the routing of pollution-spewing highways gain strength.

Now consider an unrelated study from Salt Lake City, where concern over periodic choking air inversions along the Wasatch mountain front helped spur rail transit development in a conservative region on a scale that puts the progressive Twin Cities to shame. University of Utah researchers found that the TRAX University light rail line significantly reduced auto traffic, congestion and air emissions along a major city thoroughfare.

These outcomes occurred despite increased development in the corridor since the light rail launched in 1999, the researchers noted. "Without the University TRAX line, there would be at least 9,300 more cars per day ... and possibly as many as 21,700 additional cars," said the study leader, Prof. Reid Ewing. "The line avoids gridlock, as well as saves an additional 13 tons of toxic air pollutants [per day]. This is important knowledge for shaping future transportation policies."

Ewing also warned that his study "cannot guarantee that light rail transit would have the same effect on traffic at other locations." That said, the Utah line resembles the new Twin Cities Green Line in two important respects: serving a major university campus along a busy urban street corridor. Since its June 15 opening, the Green Line is showing strong ridership, increasing by 4,500 a day over the first week, when free rides were offered. Its projected 40,000 daily boardings by 2019 may be reached long before then.

Right now, we can only guess the effect on auto traffic along University and Washington Avenues linking the St. Paul and Minneapolis downtowns. But I'm betting the air beside the tracks is already easier and healthier to breathe.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Clean Air  Public Health  Traffic Congestion 

Transportation Sales Taxes Gain Favor

With Congress still deadlocked over transportation funding as the Highway Trust Fund dips toward empty and the Minnesota Legislature putting off hard decisions on roads and transit until next year at the earliest, counties in the state increasingly are considering local-option sales taxes to pump up declining revenue streams. 

Already, six Greater Minnesota counties have adopted sales taxes of up to one-half percentage point for transportation, Kirsti Marohn reports in the St. Cloud Times. Meanwhile, the Stearns and Brown county boards are looking into it. Most of the new money is likely to go for road work, although 2013 legislation also authorizes the levies for transit or any other transportation project. 

At the same time, the conservative Center of the American Experiment has called for dedicating one-quarter percentage point of the state sales tax toward road and bridge maintenance and expansion. The think tank report authors, Fritz Knaak and Amy Roberts, emphasize, in bold type, that "this is not a recommendation to increase taxes." But typical of right-wing policy prescriptions, they offer no suggestions for plugging the $182 million annual hole the diversion would create in the state general fund, some of which finances transit operations.

A state sales tax for highways would further erode the user-pays principle for the mobility choices of an overwhelming majority of Minnesotans, most of them better off than non-drivers. But that notion seems more and more like a relic of the 20th century as policymakers resist angering folks at the gasoline pump. According to the conservative Tax Foundation, user fees and taxes pay less than 42 percent of Minnesota's state and local road costs. That's not much more than transit riders contribute in fares -- direct, visible costs as opposed to driving's veiled taxes that make it seem free and boost its much greater popularity.

Nonetheless, sales tax support for roads and bridges, honestly imposed and not peddled as a freebie, could be a positive development. It would accompany a similar levy for transit in the Twin Cities, likely reducing criticism of public support for an option that gets too little credit for its lack of the congestion, pollution and accident externalities of private motoring.

For many counties, a sales tax would dwarf the relative pittance 47 of them now collect from a $10-per-vehicle wheelage tax also authorized by the Legislature in 2013. Stearns County could reap up to $11.5 million a year, compared with $1.4 million from the wheelage tax. For regional trade centers outside the Twin Cities, it would spread costs beyond local residents' and businesses' property taxes to shoppers from surrounding counties, nearly all of them driving in.

As my MN2020 colleague Jeff Van Wychen told Marohn, sales taxes are no more regressive than the fuel and property taxes they would augment and would further spread out the costs of transportation's broad social and economic benefits. "For anything that has a regional impact like that, a local-option sales tax makes sense," he said. 

Additionally, as larger units of government keep pushing to devolve vital functions to the county and local levels, sales taxes may be the only way to keep up transportation infrastructure and expand it as needed. For our mobile society, ignoring those duties isn't a responsible option.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Transportation Funding  Sales Tax 


Between Hwy. 53’s Rock and Hard Place

It's been four years since owners of the Thunderbird iron mine near Virginia, Minn., told state officials they will have to move Hwy. 53 out of the way to allow expansion of their taconite extraction operation. The state is supposed to relocate the so-called Main Street of the Iron Range by 2017 under terms of a 1960 easement agreement, but the Department of Transportation announced last week that it almost certainly can't meet the deadline.

Even now, no reroute decision has been made as engineers study options including bridging or filling in a 325-foot deep abandoned open pit as well as closing the highway for good (unlikely), buying out Cliffs Natural Resources' multimillion-dollar mineral rights (less likely) and paving right through existing mine operations (opposed by Cliffs).

John Myers of Forum News Services detailed the latest turns in this strange drama last week. Engineering tests of the bridge plan alone are costing $4 million, and whatever alternative is chosen is likely to exceed the project's $90 million budget, Myers reported. Only three-quarters of a mile of the four-lane highway is affected, but the reroute could stretch out much further. But one idea to skirt the highway far around Eveleth and Virginia was quickly scotched by opposition from roadside businesses. 

Besides whisking general travelers between the Canadian border and Duluth, the highway gives hundreds of miners access to their workplace. Although the state hasn't paid more than a token $1 to the mine operators for use of their land for the past half-century, Cliffs has richly benefitted, too. Now, it says that unless the highway moves to allow access to buried ore, the company will be forced to shut down its taconite plant.

Has there ever been a starker example of the relationship -- part symbiotic, part adversarial -- between private industry and public transportation infrastructure? It's in everyone's interests to find an affordable solution that preserves both the miners' jobs and the travelers' route. Highway 53 needs a path forward, not more posturing and bickering.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways 

Zip Rail Dreams

Planners of a proposed high-speed passenger rail link between the Twin Cities and Rochester, Minn., have narrowed their focus to eight possible routes out of 1,200 combinations originally considered. In general, the surviving options would connect downtown Rochester and the Mayo Clinic with St. Paul's Union Depot or Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, mostly along either U.S. Hwy. 52 or Hwy. 56.

Public meetings are scheduled late this month in Rochester, Inver Grove Heights and Kenyon to update progress on the project, dubbed Zip Rail and touted as offering "a convenient, cost effective, reliable and safe passenger rail transportation alternative that will meet forecasted population and economic growth, mobility demands in the corridor and connect intercity economic centers."

A 53-page "scoping document" issued Monday by the Minnesota Department of Transportation will be open to public comment through Aug. 6. It contains few specifics besides a goal of 45-to-50-minute service at 150 miles per hour or more with at most one intermediate stop in southern Dakota County. There's not even the hint of a cost estimate. The next major step, completion of preliminary engineering and Tier Two environmental studies, isn't expected until 2019.

As noted before in this space, more than a decade after its first feasibility study Zip Rail remains a very long shot for the foreseeable future. Even the project website calls it, "indeed a bold initiative." 

No railroad line has existed between between Minnesota's two largest population centers since the 1960s, meaning that a costly, contentious process of securing a route through a virtual "flyover land" of southern Minnesota would be inevitable. And while there are stirrings of a U.S. renaissance for fast passenger trains, the real action has involved efforts to link much bigger city pairs -- San Francisco-Los Angeles, Dallas-Houston, and Orlando-Miami.

The latter two of those are being promoted by private interests, which has tamped down most ideological opposition from conservatives. The publicly funded California true high-speed project faces continued controversy and steep costs in the tens of billions of dollars. Other federally supported passenger rail improvements have involved shared freight tracks where top speeds can't top 125 m.p.h.

But the best hope for Zip Rail and all the other dreams of a passenger train revival may lie in the fate of All Aboard Florida, the Florida East Coast Industries subsidiary that expects to begin running 32 fast trains a day in 2016 over railbed laid more than a century ago by Henry Flagler. As I reported from sunny Florida last winter, the project has engendered strident anger in small towns along the way where the trains won't stop.

But, as Henry Grabar pointed out in an Atlantic Citylab blog, this bold initiative enjoys significant unique advantages. These include a $215 million state-funded terminal at the Orlando airport, also served by a new commuter rail line, and ownership of 15 acres of property prime for "value capture" development around stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. To boot, Florida tourism, the nation's richest, spurs 500 million trips a year between All Aboard Florida's destination cities.

Even with most of the 240 miles of right-of-way already in place, however, the project's cost is estimated at $2.5 billion, more than half to be financed with a federal loan. So it's easy to see why, according to David Levinson at the University of Minnesota, it's been more than 100 years since the last significant private investment in U.S. intercity passenger rail.

Grabar says a big question remains, "whether All Aboard Florida is the exception to private U.S. passenger rail or the new rule?" Its success or failure will weigh heavily on the prospects of public initiatives like Minnesota's Zip Rail, too.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Passenger Rail  High-Speed Rail 

Give Us a Taste of Car-Free Culture

From record-breaking Nice Ride usage to the brand new Metro Green Line, life without a car in the Twin Cities has become much easier. Still, traffic deaths in the state are rising, air and noise pollution remain serious problems, and street congestion continues to plague commuters. Minneapolis and St. Paul must incentivize car-free culture and motivate its residents to leave the steering wheel for good.

The Twin Cities need a role model. Mexico City is a good candidate with its advocacy for car-free living. 2014 marks the seven-year anniversary for Mexico City’s Car-Free Sundays, when the city closes over 30 miles of its streets to motor vehicles for one day every week.

With the freedom of weekly car-free roads, Mexico City residents are empowered to explore new modes of transportation, culture, and recreation. “The car-free day has expanded from activities such as biking and walking to salsa lessons, urban theater and music, healthcare and social services, political campaigns, specialized stores, and cycling mechanics,” TheCityFix reports

Mexico City’s Car-Free Sundays are not the only occurrence of such forward-thinking programs. The Colombian city of Bogota succeeded in an entire car-free week this year. Legislators in Hamburg, Germany are working to eliminate all cars by 2034.

Car-free living saves money, facilitates active exercise, amplifies interaction with nature, and kindles intimate place relationships. Foot and bike traffic promote local businesses and reduce pollution, unpleasant street congestion, and accident hazards to drivers and pedestrians.

The Twin Cities possess the infrastructure, resources, and popular interest to begin implementing designated car-free areas. Programs like Car-Free Sundays demonstrate the power of active transportation and promote these changes in daily life.

Ultimately, a car-free society builds deeper connections to health, environment, and local culture than a vehicle-centered city. A glimpse into these benefits with specific car-free programs will surely entice Minnesota’s urbanites to advocate for more sustainable car-free reform.

Amid the summer season of fairs, festivals, and parades, the Twin Cities should try out a car-free day. Minnesotans deserve to experience an environment where pedestrians, bike-riders, street entertainers, and local business owners take priority over dangerous, polluting vehicles.

Once we get a taste of it, car-free culture will be too delightful to resist.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Public Transportation  Complete Streets  Light Rail 

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Limits Rising, But Speed Still Kills

Minnesota policymakers signed off this year on a five-year project to reevaluate the 55 miles per hour limit on more than 6,700 miles of two-lane state highways, with a mandate to increase it to 60 where it can be done "reasonably and safely."

The initiative was pressed by state Sen. Torrey Westrom of Elbow Lake, a legally blind non-driver who reflected the wishes of many rural Minnesotans who, he argued, generally drive longer distances than urban dwellers but share their preference for quick connections. "People are driving 60 miles per hour already," he told Brian Bakst of the Associated Press. "It's a comfortable speed."

Maybe so, but safety advocates contend that higher limits only encourage even faster driving. "We're raising the chances of much more severe crashes," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll of Minnesotans for Safe Driving.

Minnesota traffic crash reports for 2013, issued just this week, cite "illegal/unsafe speed" as the single most common contributing factor in the year's 387 road fatalities, accounting for 76 of them as well as 4,649 injuries. In addition, 74 percent of the deaths occurred in Greater Minnesota and 67 percent in rural areas of less than 5,000 population, places where the groundswell for higher posted speeds is strongest.

The state Department of Transportation already has bumped the double-nickel to 60 m.p.h. on 1,541 miles of two-lanes in the past decade, a period during which highway carnage has significantly abated. But this trend doesn't necessarily exonerate higher limits given the many countervailing forces: safer roads, safer cars and tougher laws regulating drunken driving, seat belt use and novice teenage drivers.

With fatality rates dropping, however, many states have boosted speed limits, Beena Rahhavendran reported in the Star Tribune.  Since just 2011, they have included Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas. Meanwhile, Kentucky, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming have authorized engineering studies that could lead to higher speeds.

Under state legislation enacted this year, Idaho was about to begin increasing limits from 75 to 80 this week on portions of its interstate highways. But last week it delayed the move to allow review of public comments. The motoring advocacy group AAA of Idaho cheered the delay "in the interest of public safety," noting that it would push any changes beyond the impending July 4 holiday weekend.

Despite many drivers' desire for greater freedom on the open road, it makes sense to take great care before encouraging lead-footing. State laws may be changing but, as an official of the Institute for Highway Safety told Raghavendran, "the laws of physics don't ... Unfortunately, when going at a higher speed, you're more likely to have a fatality."

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Roads & Highways  Road Safety 

Happy Times on the Green Line Spurs Business, Beer

I crossed University Avenue to get on the Green Line at the Raymond Avenue station with a friend the other day. We were catching a downtown Minneapolis bar's happy hour. During the twenty minute ride to the Warehouse District, we chatted, not worrying about stop lights, reckless drivers or navigation errors.

The Green Line, the first Minneapolis-St Paul inter-city connecting line since the removal of the street car system in the 1950s, runs from Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, around the State Capitol, down University Avenue, through the University of Minnesota campus, into the heart of downtown Minneapolis, and ending near Target Field.

Aside from being a convenient transportation between traffic congested downtowns, the Green Line is spurring economic development for those with more soporific tastes. Surly Brewing Company, Urban Growler Brewing Company, and Bang Brewing Company all have either opened or are planning to open tap rooms and separate breweries since the Green Line was announced.

Although these hoppy creations may have a limited appeal to those outside of the craft beer community, they are a rich example of the kinds of economic development that has become the story around the Green Line. St. Paul Midway, where Urban Growler and Bang are located, is looking to become a hot spot for craft beer enthusiasts.

Likewise, other areas on the new Green Line will show increased development. With greater daily ridership than expected, more and more Minnesotans are not just going from Point A to Point B, but everywhere in between.

Revitalizing the Green Line's adjacent community serves broad public and private interests. Beer-drive growth is just the tip of the iceberg but it reflects what transportation innovation and investment can yield. Pay attention because Minnesota's oldest commercial route is reinventing itself yet again, right before our eyes. That's the best kind of happy hour.

Posted in Transportation | Related Topics: Business Growth  Small Business  Central Corridor 

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