density&diversity: The Transit Dilemma

I've been talking to people lately about the upcoming University Ave. LRT, and whether or not it's going to have tunnels (or bridges) at two key intersections: Washington Avenue at the U of MN, and at Snelling Avenue in Saint Paul.

The problem doesn't have an easy answer, but it points toward something I call the Transit Dilemma. Good transit is most expensive where it's most needed. Those places that are in dire dire need of a transit option are those places where the best option is an underground tunnel. (The short list is Lyndale/Hennepin, and the U of MN.) And of course that's god-damned expensive.

It's because of density, which is the most basic prerequisite for effective transit. In places like the Stadium Village stretch of Washington Avenue, you've got by far the most heavily clogged, pedestrian-laden place in the Twin Cities. This is a place where cars stream in at 45 mph from downtown only to be met with one lane of stoplight-encrusted road with busses galore, parking, and the most people per square foot for 500 miles in any direction. It's a real buzz kill. (Here's the strib story on the topic.)

To even think about putting LRT at street grade here would make the U of MN congestion ten times worse, and that's why this whole business about "Tunnel or No Tunnel?" is mere window dressing. The powers that be at the U of MN would never condone it.

Less so but still a problem is the Snelling Avenue interchange. This is the #2 traffic intersection in Saint Paul, and is only going to become more heavily trafficked as the Bus Barn site gets built up and the SuperTarget (and SuperWalMart?) go in at this site. Putting a LRT down the middle might tie this area in a Gordian knot, and maybe an unsightly Lake Street-style overpass (or a tunnel) would be a good idea.

But I don't think it'll happen here. Transit planners are probably thinking that University Avenue auto traffic will decrease somewhat with the LRT going in. (Though the overall traffic will be more than compensated by the train numbers.) And they're really trying to keep costs down. But, that being said, this will be the probable flashpoint of any anti-LRT aggression. Particularly since the damned Midway Books guy is going to be out protesting every time a train goes by.

These debates reveal why TOD is such a cost-effective way of building a transit system, but only in the long term. (In the short term it doesn't make any sense because you're building a rail corridor where there isn't any demand.) But in the long term, as infrastructure follows the capitol investment, you've got a great transit surrounded by density. And you've done it much cheaper than if you'd built the transitway after the density.

(Not to mention the whole chicken-and-egg conundrum, about whether density follows transit or vice versa . . .)


Andrew said...

Damnit!!! You took my topic!!! But that's ok I'll still write about it anyway :)...The Metropolitan Council thinks that it can save $140 million by removing the Tunnel out of the University Avenue Line. I agree with you that this would be a drastic mistake and that these issues would not be a problem if we had a penny pinching governor and met council.

One of my Profesors at the University of Minnesota recently attended a meeting about the Central Corridor and the University Tunnel. She informed me that the council is considering center median operation along Washington Avenue WITHOUT THE TUNNEL!!! This is not only bad for the University, but bad for the city of Minneapolis, Students, Bikers, Pedestrians, everybody who lives and walks through Stadium Village.
We Transit advocates must get in touch with whoever we can, be it Steve Morris, or even Chris Coleman and Mayor Rybek and demand that if the Central corridor is going to be built that it MUST have a tunnel or as the next title of my post shall be once again, no tunnel no train.

Andrew said...

Correction...Didn't have a penny pinching governor and an independent elected Met Council. There, that's better...

Wm said...

i'm with ya.

kk said...

Thing is, the project has to meet a certain cost efficiency index (based on travel time improvements) in order to get matching funds from the FTA. So, this is not just about a penny-pinching governor. Eliminating the tunnel goes a long way towards getting the project to meet that index-- if they include a tunnel, they will have to either cut costs elsewhere or somehow improve travel times a great deal. WITH a tunnel, there may be no project. And shelving this one till other transit projects are done (as andrew suggested in his blog post) is just not going to happen. The link to St. Paul is vital for getting ridership numbers up on all those other projects. Plus, there is an equity thing going on, politically-- east metro counties will not stand for all the high quality transit improvements going in the west metro. Central Corridor is by far the best of the east metro corridors. Rush Line is basically there because of Oberstar. Red Rock will have a tough time meeting the cost efficiency index since the highways in that area have just been improved.

Personally (and I'm a U student) I don't see how median operation along Washington Avenue would make things any worse for pedestrians (as for bikes... things can't really get any worse for bikes there, either!!)

Wm said...

Well, kk, i'm not worried about pedestrians, and as for bikes ... like you say, my one bike accident occurred the time I tried to bike down that stretch of Washington Avenue. (oops.)

But, how do you think cars will be able to manage it with two lanes removed? They'll be down to one lane only? Parking there will disappear?

It seems like a very untenable situation... though i can't really imagine a tunnel there either, now that i think about it. (and i had a dream about this very topic just the other day.) Would a tunnel go under the river? Under the bridge? On the bridge, then down and through the bedrock? Just how would this work?

(I suppose this is a question for a transit engineer.)

Andrew said...

Most likely the Tunnel would go under the bridge, making the Washington Avenue bridge a triple decker with Pedestrian on Top, Traffic in the middle, and light rail on a third rung. I think this is where the $140 Million comes in, the improvments neccassary for the bridge to allow for all that activity. I am going to a Transit expo tomorrow at the U of M, I'll see if I can find out more about it if there are people there. Thanks for looking at my post KK, the "No New Taxes" Governor hasn't helped us out much on Central so that's why I am name calling, plus he's a Republican...:)