Southwest LRT might be on deck, but not because of merit

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August 12, 2014
By: Amy Rock
Amy Rock

The July 22 op-ed “Approving Southwest LRT is crucial for region” states SW LRT is on deck at City Hall and argues for its approval. The primary justification is the “foundational and aspirational” goal of the Downtown Council’s Intersections Downtown 2025 Plan to increase the share of people coming into downtown by a means other than car from 40 percent today to 60 percent by 2025. 

However, the justification is not grounded in facts regarding the value of SW LRT in attaining this goal or how “on its own merits” SW LRT contributes to building out the planned regional transit system.

Using the Downtown Council’s figure of 160,000 people working downtown daily, if 40 percent are coming into downtown by means other than car, that is roughly 64,000 people today. The goal of 60 percent or 96,000 coming into downtown by year 2025 means adding 32,000  new non-car commuters by 2025.

What value and how cost effective is SW LRT toward that goal?

Using the ridership tables in the 2012 SWLRT DEIS and updated Met Council ridership projections (MPR: A stop-by-stop look at Southwest LRT):

  • The often cited 33,000 daily ridership by year 2030 refers to single LRT boardings, not individual roundtrip commuters. Individual roundtrip SWLRT commuters would be roughly 16,500.
  • From the DEIS, over 67 percent of the projected SW LRT riders are not new to transit. This means that 11,000 of the projected roundtrip SW LRT riders will be transferred from the bus system, including the much appreciated Wi-Fi equipped Southwest Transit express bus that stops in the downtown jobs center rather than the flanking baseball stadium. These future SWLRT riders are already getting to their downtown destinations by means other than car.
  • Therefore, SWLRT is estimated to create 5,500 new to transit riders by year 2030, five years out from the Downtown 2025 goal.
  • SW LRT is also advertised as increasing access to 270,000 jobs in the southwest suburbs; the DEIS states 25 percent of ridership is reverse commute, so 1,375 of new to transit riders will be headed to the suburbs.
  • A portion of new to transit riders are current carpoolers according to the DEIS, which states that actual cars off the road would be 13 percent less than the number of new to transit riders.
  • So, by 2030, SW LRT should increase coming into downtown by non-car means by about 3,600 people.
  • Therefore, SW LRT will bring a less than 6 percent increase over the current number of people coming into downtown by non- car means; SWLRT will contribute roughly 11 percent to the 2025 Plan goal of 32,000 more people coming into downtown by non- car means.  
  • Using a $1.65 billion budget to build SWLRT, excluding $23 million in annual operating costs, the price is roughly $458,000 per new person coming into downtown by non-car means. For context, it would take another $6.4 billion if half that amount per person were invested in the remaining 28,400 commuters to reach the Downtown 2025 goal. 

The public should understand what the Downtown Council is supporting when it consistently endorses SW LRT. We need to ask, is it worth $1.65 billion to achieve roughly 11 percent of the goal of the Downtown Council’s Intersections Downtown 2025 Plan? Is $458,000 per person a reasonable figure? Could we do better with that impressive amount of money?

Regarding the editorial’s applause for the “negotiated agreement,” the SW LRT alignment controversy arose because basic due diligence by Hennepin County was never done to determine that the freight rail could actually be moved in order to fulfill its agreement with Minneapolis. In April 2014, Gov. Dayton described the multiple conflicts involved in moving the freight from the Kenilworth Corridor as “easily foreseen, 5 if not 10 years ago.” Instead of considering a different route when it appeared that the longstanding agreement to relocate freight rail would be broken, the Met Council has only pressured Minneapolis to agree to colocation of freight and passenger rail.  In April of this year, the Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously against co-location. After Mayor Hodges “No” vote, she called the alignment “a fundamental failure of fairness.”  

Following on this history, the “negotiated agreement” is clearly a political capitulation by the City of Minneapolis; and it is important to note that in this very high stakes game the Downtown Council applauds the political surrender of its home city of Minneapolis, while also noting that the Downtown Council’s membership spans the western suburbs as well as the city.

Further, the editorial assertion that SW LRT “will be done right” is certainly not supported by the incompetence and failure that caused the controversy in the first place.

Indeed, SW LRT is on deck, and it’s time for a strikeout. 

Amy Rock is a Minneapolis resident.