Supporters of light rail transit on the Midtown Greenway cautioned against a rush to judgment in August, when a report to transit policymakers seemed to indicate a different route had a far better shot at winning federal approval.
Their preferred route for a Southwest Light Rail Transit (LRT) line, Route 3C-2, fared poorly in a comparison of construction costs to user benefits. Another popular choice, Route 3A, running between Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, came in right on target.
Council Member Ralph Remington (10th Ward), who proposed Route 3C-2, wasn’t ready to concede in August.
“That report is sending out the wrong signal,” Remington, who sits on the Southwest LRT Policy Advisory Committee that will recommend a final alignment later this year, said.
“If we want to build public transit that’s going to be sustainable for the next 50 to 100 years, then we have to put a lot more thought into it and give some real thoughtful analysis on where population density is going to grow the most,” he said.
Remington said that area is in and around the Midtown Greenway through Uptown. An LRT connection to the suburbs would build an important connection between Uptown residents and suburban jobs, he argued.
But Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who chairs the Policy Advisory Committee, said the cost advantage for 3A over 3C-2 was hard to ignore.
Both 3A and 3C-2 follow the same route between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, the LRT line’s southwestern terminus. Both were estimated to attract roughly the same number of riders, about 28,000–30,000 per day by 2030.
Route 3A would cost an estimated $1.1 billion–$1.25 billion to build. The cost to build Route 3C-2 was higher — $1.6 billion–$1.8 billion — in part because it would run in a tunnel between the Midtown Greenway and I-94.
Annual operating costs for 3A also came in lower at $23 million–$25 million, compared to $27 million–$29 million for 3C-2.
Those figures were included in a consultant report delivered to the Policy Advisory Committee Aug. 10. That report gave 3A an edge in the time saved by commuters, as well.
Dorfman said all of those numbers contribute to the cost-effectiveness index, or CEI, that weighs cost against user benefits. Hitting the right number on the CEI is crucial to winning federal funds, which will cover half the cost to build Southwest LRT.
“Right now — and it could change — but right now the Federal Transit Administration says, unless you have a CEI of $29, don’t even come talk to us about a project,” she said.
The consultants put Route 3A at $28–$31; Route 3C-2 landed at $44–$48.
Looking for riders
It was expected those CEI numbers could change by late August. Still, many observers doubted it would make a big difference for the Midtown Greenway route.
The consultants’ Aug. 10 report relied on outdated comprehensive plans for Minneapolis, St. Louis Park and Eden Prairie. Comprehensive plans describe a city’s vision for future growth, including where people and businesses will be located in coming decades.
Remington said a revised report, accounting for the high-density growth expected around the Midtown Greenway, could boost the CEI score for Route 3C–2.
“It probably won’t impact the CEI more than $2, or so, but it is a consideration,” he said.
Many wonder how ridership estimates for the two proposed routes could have been so close in the first place. After all, 3C-2 runs through densely populated Uptown, while 3A follows a bicycle trail past lakes and parkland.
The other City Council member on the Policy Advisory Committee, Robert Lilligren (6th Ward), said the answer is the Federal Transit Administration wants to fund projects that attract new transit users. Route 3C-2 would run near Lake Street and Nicollet Avenue, two areas already well served by bus transit.
Lilligren said the ongoing debate over cost and ridership obscured another important point: Light rail functions better at higher speeds over relatively long distances on a dedicated right-of-way. Route 3A comes closer to that ideal.
For transit service in urban neighborhoods, Lilligren said, “a street car line would be better and, until then, bus service.”
The Minneapolis perspective
During an open house on the potential Southwest LRT routes at Minneapolis Central Library Aug. 13, a map showing Route 3C-2 seemed to draw the largest crowd.
Tera Muellerleile of Cedar-Isles-Dean, a 3C-2 supporter, said it just made sense to her that light rail should go where the people live: in Uptown.
Muellerleile said she worried about the impact Route 3A might have on green space in the Kennilworth Corridor — not to mention the direct impact on her.
“Route 3A runs through my backyard,” she said.
Pete and Kim Rhodes said they’d rather not see Route 3C-2 run past their 105-year-old home in Whittier, where they also operate a recording basement studio susceptible to noise and vibrations from passing trains. High-frequency bus lines already serve the neighborhood, they added.
Still, several people without a backyard in the fight asked the same question: What will this light rail line do for Minneapolis?
Alex Anderson of Kingfield said he wanted to see transit service in the Midtown Greenway one way or another. With no specific plans for a streetcar on the table, light rail could be a good choice, Anderson said.
“Either [route] is going to be good for the metro area,” he said. “[Route] 3C-2 is probably going to be better for the city, itself.”