Looking ahead at the future of LRT in Minneapolis

Honestly, I have to admit that I’ve been fairly apathetic about the process of determining a route for the proposed southwest light rail line in Minneapolis. I love the Hiawatha Line: it’s the biggest reason why we moved to the house we live in. At the time I was working downtown, and our house is within walking distance of two stations. I commuted on the light rail every day for 3 1/2 years. I also take a keen interest in the extension of the Hiawatha line to the new Twins stadium, and I’m mildly interested in the next light rail project: the Central Corridor, because it connects to the U of M campus and downtown St. Paul, other places I am interested in traveling to.

But Eden Prairie? Not so much. All of the talk I have heard about the southwest line has been focused on Eden Prairie. Who cares? It’s the same reason I haven’t been clamoring for a ride on the new Northstar commuter line. I don’t need to go to Big Lake. I wouldn’t even know where the hell Big Lake was if not for the Northstar line teaching me that it’s obviously somewhere in between Minneapolis and St. Cloud (which, no offense to Michele Bachmann’s constituents, I also don’t need to go to).

Of course, I forget that in getting to Eden Prairie, the southwest line might just go through other interesting parts of the city along the way, such as Uptown. Or, maybe not. (Read on… I’ll get to it.)

Tonight has been a strange night of web browsing for me. I started off with a Daring Fireball post about Gary Hustwit’s (of Helvetica fame) new documentary Objectified. Then kottke.org led me to start thinking about geography, which is usually what carries me off on flights of link-clicking fancy. Even better, Kottke also linked to a fascinating post on oobject with before-and-after photos of cities, some good, like reconstruction of bombed-out European cities post-WWII, and others, well… pretty much the opposite. (Perhaps the eeriest thing about the exhibit was the similarity between Kabul and Detroit.)

After pondering urban decay, I was uplifted a bit by a series of photoblog entries by Alex Block, a Minneapolis native now living in DC, capturing his experiences on a return visit to our city this past summer. He had valid, if slightly stinging, criticisms of our Skyway system, but he also gave the LRT some attention. Most compelling for me, however, was his coverage of the proposed southwest LRT line, including the potent map below:

Minneapolis southwest LRT line alternatives

Block’s source for that map provides excellent background on the situation, and why federal cost-effectiveness guidelines may dictate that the comparatively worthless green line will probably get built, instead of the more expensive — but also immeasurably more useful — blue line. It’s not just population density; a pair of related maps show that poverty levels and current public transit use also heavily favor the Uptown route over the Kenilworth route.

Don’t get me wrong… the green line runs through some very nice parts of town, and I suppose in many ways it does make sense, at least from the perspective of construction costs, to follow existing rail right-of-way as much as possible. But “some very nice parts of town” don’t really need mass transit in the way that, oh, you know, densely-populated parts of town do, especially densely-populated parts of town with much higher poverty and transit ridership levels.

On the other hand, I suspect many people were initially critical of the route of the Hiawatha Line. I think I was myself, but of course back then I wasn’t familiar enough with this part of town to care very much. (And by now it should be obvious that I only care about what I care about.) It seemed that the primary selling point for the Hiawatha Line was that it directly connected the two heaviest-traffic parts of the metro area: downtown Minneapolis and the airport/Mall of America cluster in Bloomington. That in so doing, it could also be built relatively cheaply along available right-of-way next to Hiawatha Avenue — land originally intended for a freeway (source) that was never built — was a nice bonus for getting the plan through the funding process, despite the fact that that also meant that between the VA Hospital and Lake Street it would mostly run through a mildly-blighted stretch of abandoned grain elevators and former department store warehouses converted into self-storage units.

That mildly-blighted area is notably less blighted (the boarding up of Hiawatha Joe notwithstanding) today than it was a few years ago, thanks almost entirely to the presence of the LRT line running through it.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for the southwest line as well. Perhaps I should not be so quick to dismiss the potential for a light rail line to transform the ugliness around I-394 between the Dunwoody Institute and Penn Avenue. On the other hand, it’s not just the light rail that breathed new life into the area around Hiawatha Avenue. Hiawatha Avenue itself had to be there, and there’s nothing like it in the area of the proposed Kenilworth version of the southwest line. Nor does the majority of that part of the city need the kind of boost the light rail has given the Longfellow neighborhood. Phillips, Lyn-Lake, and Uptown, however, do need the benefits high-capacity rail transit would offer. They’re among the most densely-populated parts of the city, with some of the worst street traffic. Uptown is also one of the biggest destinations in the city, besides downtown itself, and for a southwest line to achieve the kind of success the Hiawatha Line has in its five years of operation, it’s going to need more riders than just Eden Prairie’s weekday commuters.

And so, much like my meandering links across the Internet earlier this evening, and my meandering reasoning here, it seems to me that there’s little question that if we think about the long term objectives of the line… the reason for building the damn thing in the first place, it makes sense to build it where it will actually be used, not just where it’s cheapest to do so.

Addendum: Lest you think I’ve gotten too swept up in my grand visions of freeway systems planned in the 1950s and ’60s, finished or not, and forgotten that they splintered and destroyed (disproportionately African-American) communities; or in this century’s counterparts in light rail projects and related work that lead to things like rerouting highways through sacred Native American land… I haven’t.