Central Corridor: Cost concerns put Plan B in driver's seat

  • Article by: JIM FOTI , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2008 - 11:51 PM

Wednesday is Jim Rosvold's 35th birthday, and he fears that the Metropolitan Council will be giving him a gift he doesn't really want: a light-rail line that will force cars away from his pizza parlor.

Closing Washington Avenue to vehicles, removing street parking, mixing pedestrians and trains, adding traffic from the new Gophers stadium -- "It's a recipe for disaster," said Rosvold, who would much prefer to see his birthday gift wrapped in a tunnel, the university's preferred method of routing trains through campus.

As the Met Council tries to garner federal approval, it's poised to vote Wednesday on a Central Corridor alignment that will leave a lot of wish lists unfulfilled. That's because not only do the feds get to decide how much they'll contribute, but they also get to decide how much everyone else may spend.

So even though the line's planners have pored over a large spreadsheet showing Plans A through H, the only plan that really works out financially is the second one from the left: Plan B.

The lack of options doesn't surprise Nancy Rose Pribyl, who works down the street from Rosvold's Campus Pizza and heads up the Stadium Village Commercial Association. The officials who collected public feedback seemed as though they were listening with iPods in their ears, she said: "I felt very much as though their opinions were likely already formed."

Peter Bell, chairman of the Met Council, summarized his group's predicament this way: Federal officials encourage listening, but they don't provide the money or mechanisms for many of the desires to come true.

The ambitions of the line and the complexity of the decisionmaking process have left transit riders, drivers, taxpayers and even leaders with questions, so here's a look at what we know ahead of Wednesday's big decision. Of course, as one Met Council member pointed out last week, with only one viable choice on the menu, the big decisions may already have been made.

THE BASICS

Length: 11 miles, connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul

Stations: 15

Scheduled to open: 2014

Estimated weekday ridership: 44,000

Train cars: 31 initially, 46 or 47 eventually

(For comparison, the 12-mile Hiawatha line has a weekday ridership of 25,000 and 27 cars.)

TRAFFIC

Will drivers along University Avenue be as unhappy as drivers along Hiawatha Avenue, where the light-rail line has created longer waits at traffic signals?

The Central Corridor line would use something called signal priority, which is less disruptive than the system in use on Hiawatha.

If a train is approaching a green light, the light might stay green longer to let the train go through. But trains wouldn't have the power to turn a red light into a green one, as they do when they approach intersections on Hiawatha.

Will it be harder to access businesses and side streets along University?

In some ways, yes. Because trains would run down the middle of the street, there would be fewer left-turn lanes. Left turns would be allowed only at intersections with signals instead of at every block, and traffic on side streets will be able to cross University only at intersections with signals. Pedestrian crossings will be at more frequent intervals.

The plan is to add signals at eight intersections so drivers wouldn't have to travel too far to make turns. Two other signals would be removed.

PARKING

Will there be any park-and-ride lots for the Central Corridor line?

None is planned. Unlike the Hiawatha line, which brings people into Minneapolis from southern suburbs, the Central line connects two cities, and neither city sees parking as the best use of land for areas near stations.

The Hiawatha line has limited parking in the city of Minneapolis because transit officials want to encourage riders to arrive by bus, bike or foot. Central's planners share that thinking.

How much street parking will the line eliminate?

Most metered and other on-street parking will be removed from University and Washington Avenues in southeast Minneapolis, as well as in downtown St. Paul. Much of the street parking along University in St. Paul will remain.

TUNNEL

Why is a tunnel at the University of Minnesota unlikely?

The original plan called for a tunnel under Washington Avenue, with the line curving north a bit as it crossed University Avenue.

This plan was developed before the new Gophers football stadium, which is being built in the line's original path. A rerouted tunnel would increase costs by an estimated $100 million, which the Met Council says would make the overall project too expensive to win federal approval.

Will Washington Avenue in the East Bank area be closed to vehicles?

Options on the table include running trains on the street with a single lane of vehicle traffic in each direction or closing the street and converting it into a pedestrian mall or a transit and pedestrian mall.

If the street is closed, where will the cars go?

Transportation planners are studying that. Because no streets run parallel to Washington through campus, alternate routes include East River Road. The budget for Plan B includes $20 million for new traffic signals and other traffic-mitigation efforts.

If the U really wants a tunnel, why doesn't it offer to pay for it?

Federal approval of the line hinges in part on its total cost, regardless of who is paying for what. Building a tunnel would raise the total above what federal officials are likely to approve, unless other elements of the line were scaled back.

Would a tunnel make the line faster?

Yes. Trains would take about a minute and a half longer to cross campus at street level than they would in a tunnel.

What about another route through campus?

The university is paying to study an alignment that would take trains through the northern part of campus and the Dinkytown area. Results of that study won't be available until summer, however, so if the Met Council were to decide on such a route, the entire project would be delayed by a year.

What's a year's delay with a project this important?

Bell estimates that, at a minimum, a year of delay would bump up the cost by $45 million because of inflation.

BUS SERVICE

What happens to bus service along the Central Corridor's route?

The Route 16 buses, among the busiest in the Metro Transit system, will remain, although frequency will be reduced from every 10 minutes during peak hours to every 20 minutes. A new circulator bus is planned for a section of University; it would run every 30 minutes.

Planners of the rail line have said that no riders will be any farther from a transit stop than they are now and that the number of transit seats along University will increase dramatically. But some residents of the heavily transit-dependent neighborhoods around the line are concerned about the increased waiting times bus riders will face. And express bus service between the two downtowns via Interstate 94 will be reduced.

Why does University Avenue need buses if it has a train?

Light-rail stations are up to a mile apart, so transit riders unwilling or unable to walk the longer distances can catch a bus at existing stops.

Would buses be allowed on the portion of Washington Avenue that would be closed to other traffic?

The university has indicated that it would prefer a transit mall to be for trains and pedestrians only, but Metro Transit runs 1,100 buses down Washington a day and would have to restructure many routes.

STATIONS

How many stations are planned?

Fifteen new stations are planned; four existing stations in downtown Minneapolis will be shared with the Hiawatha line, as will the new station being built as part of the Twins ballpark.

Why aren't they building three additional stations that St. Paul neighborhoods want?

Building those stations would raise the cost of the line and lengthen travel times, jeopardizing federal approval. However, underground infrastructure for the stations is included in Plan B to make it easier to build them later.

Will all the stations be built to accommodate three-car trains?

Under Plan B, yes, at an additional cost of $1 million per station.

Why do this if three-car trains aren't being used?

The hope is that, as ridership grows, three-car trains could be put into service. Building two-car platforms and then expanding them later would cost an estimated $2 million to $3 million per station.

THE PROCESS

Who decides what the line will ultimately look like?

The Met Council is a 17-member body appointed by the governor, and it oversees Metro Transit. It will build the line, and its members will vote on "major scoping decisions" (the alignment and stations), at its regular meeting at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Why now?

Once the project's scope is decided, engineers will need time to prepare the application for federal money by the September deadline.

What's the cost-effectiveness index?

It's a number that is calculated through a complex formula that takes into account capital costs, ridership estimates and the time passengers will save because of the new line. The current CEI magic number that the Central Corridor must not exceed is $23.99.

Does the number change?

It might be raised in the spring, which could give the Central Corridor some wiggle room. But Bell warns that increasing the project's cost would mean that the state and counties would have to come up with more money for their half.

FOR MORE INFO

www.centralcorridor.org

Jim Foti • 612-673-4491

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