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.

The only thing worse than Arial is a careless mix of Arial and Helvetica

I snapped these photos yesterday in the parking lot of the Lyndale Rose Garden in Minneapolis. Why, at a garden with huge displays of flowers, fountains, sculptures and more, would I bother taking not just one but multiple photos of the pay machine in a parking lot?


In particular, ever since I saw the documentary Helvetica, I’ve been observing instances of the use of Arial — that abomination of a Helvetica knockoff Microsoft foisted upon the world by being too cheap to license Helvetica for Windows — on public signage. In days gone by, the default, almost ubiquitous, font on all sorts of public signs was Helvetica. But in the modern PC era, these signs often use Arial, the readily available not-quite-lookalike, instead.

But this pay machine is something else entirely. It displays a schizophrenic mix of Arial and Helvetica.

'PAY HERE' and taped-on sign in Arial
The most readily distinguishable difference between Arial and Helvetica, as I’ve noted before, is the capital R. So this pay machine immediately caught my attention with the giant “PAY HERE” sign at its top, immediately recognizable as Arial. I also noticed that the taped-on “ATTENTION” sign (which frustratingly informed me that the credit card function was not working) was in Arial as well.

Dymo labels in Helvetica
Next I noticed the pasted-on Dymo labels below the change slot, which were printed in Helvetica.

Machine instructions in Helvetica
The instructions printed on the machine, presumably by the manufacturer, are in Helvetica, albeit an ugly, artificially compressed version. So it would appear that the “PAY HERE” sign was a Minneapolis add-on and not part of the original unit.

Introducing a new blog: 52 Coffees

Coffee is a fruit.Today, with some help from SLP, I hatched a new scheme (can schemes be hatched?). OK, not really a scheme. A new blog. 52 Coffees.

We were sitting at Caribou in Highland Park, discussing the merits of working from a coffee house (at least, one with free WiFi). I idly suggested I should do it once a week, visiting every Caribou in the metro area. She upped the ante and lowered the lameness quotient by suggesting that I only visit independent coffee houses (at least, ones with free WiFi). And blog about it.

So that’s what I’m going to do. Starting next week. I may seek some assistance from Google Maps to locate all of the coffee houses in Minneapolis and St. Paul and visit them sequentially in an radiating pattern from our home. Or I might just randomly visit them. Or a mix of both. I’m not sure, and I’m even less sure you care. But the point is, I’m starting next week, with Minnehaha Coffee. Be sure to follow the blog. And I’ll try to get rid of the default WordPress theme soon, I promise.

Two videos featuring Gov. Tim Pawlenty

Our governor measures his words with a Vernier caliper while dissembling Rush Limbaugh’s hope that Obama fails — as subtly hinted at by a vague, ambiguously titled article on his website (Limbaugh: I Hope Obama Fails) — on the Rachel Maddow Show:

…And is slightly less politic (though no more factually accurate) when criticizing Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak in front of a less public audience in Rochester last month, as shown in this video of Mayor Rybak’s rebuttal:

On a positive note, I can confidently say that I’d rather have this Republican governor than a certain former Democratic governor in a certain other state who tried to sell a certain Senate seat vacated by a certain current President of the United States. Or any of the four (maybe five) other Republican governors I can name off the top of my head.

Don’t believe me? From west to east, Sarah Palin, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bobby Jindal, Charlie Crist. Is Sonny Purdue still in Georgia? I ought to know him; I voted against him. I know there are some more, but in the words of the inimitable Donald Rumsfeld, they’re “known unknowns.”

Exorbitant downtown parking rates

Yesterday I needed to go downtown. Specifically, I needed to go to the Hennepin County Government Center. We’re still waiting for our new Fit to arrive, but in the meantime I needed to apply for a duplicate title for our old trade-in because for whatever reason I just can’t find the original title.

Anyway, downtown. I normally would have taken the light rail, as I live within walking distance of a station, and the Government Plaza station is about 100 feet from my destination. But there were just enough extenuating factors to make it seem like a good idea to drive instead. The ultimate determining factor was that it probably wouldn’t cost much more to park than to ride. I would’ve spent $4 on a 6-hour pass, and I expected parking to be somewhere between $10 and $13.

So off I went on my merry way. After conducting my business with the county, I decided to stay downtown for a while, to have lunch at one of my most-missed lunch spots since I stopped working downtown last March, and then to do some work at a nearby Caribou. Such is the luxury of being able to carry your entire office in a messenger bag.

In the end I spent a total of 3 hours downtown before heading back to the parking garage. When I put my ticket in the pay machine, I was aghast — aghast, I tell you! — to see the price for 3 hours of parking adjacent to the government center. $23. Let me repeat that in a more suitable fashion:


$23. For 3 hours of parking.

Assuming that these exorbitant rates are only in effect between the hours of, say, 7 AM and 5 PM (and not even considering evening and weekend parking), and assuming that there are approximately 500 spaces in the garage (which seems a reasonable, conservative estimate, having been inside it), then Allied Parking is raking in over $38,333 per weekday, or $9.97 million per year, on this one garage alone. I realize it is a large physical structure and it requires maintenance, but the parking and payment process is fully automated, so they’re not even paying someone minimum wage to sit in a little glass box and collect their ransoms for them.

Contrast this with the apartment building I used to live in downtown. Our rent was something like $1200 per month. There were 24 apartments per floor, and 28 floors of apartments. Even assuming everyone was paying that much (which probably isn’t the case, since ours was a 2-bedroom but 20 of the apartments on each floor were only 1-bedroom), the apartment building’s revenue would work out to only $9.67 million per year (but like I said, in reality it’s probably significantly less than that), and they had a staff of maybe 20 or 30 people, and a lot more maintenance than a 6-story parking garage would require.

Bottom line: if you want to make money in downtown real estate, just build a parking garage. Frankly I’m surprised there’s anything downtown but parking garages.