The Met Council is gambling $8.7 million on a project to alleviate pedestrian congestion that might exist in 5 to 10 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.
That's like buying flood insurance on the house you have yet to buy.
The below $8.7 million piece of public infrastructure is intended to create a more safe passageway for travelers at the Downtown East station during Vikings home games. It’ll serve west and northbound train passengers and other pedestrians looking to enter a new football stadium. It is deemed this will be an important pedestrian overpass once all four major light rail lines completed.
Those reading this should have at least two questions:
I pay particularly close attention to local projects. I read blogs, forums and newspapers daily. I know and follow local decision-makers on social media, track development proposals, and pay attention to those boring committees few care about. I also work in the industry and talk to other people who work and follow the industry across related professions. It’s fair to say that I have a very good idea of what’s going on in the Twin Cities and the transportation and development needs of the community.
Never once have I heard of this project until a few days ago. And now, out of the blue, we’re dropping $8.7 million on a bridge that’ll be needed 10 days a year starting in 2019.
I wrote a blog post last year titled The Politics of Dumb Infrastructure. It was well received, and is even being used as required reading in an undergrad planning course in California. In the article I theorize as to why we make bad decisions when it comes to receiving other people’s money on transit projects;
It’s the orderly, but dumb system that makes planners and politicians play to a bureaucratic equation that is supposed to guide officials towards the best alternative. Only it never actually works out that way and it usually forces smart people into making highly compromised and less-than-ideal decisions.
The pedestrian bridge is different. It may deal with Federal grants, but is also come from local and regional coffers. Regardless, this project is being pushed forward. According to the Star Tribune,
“The transit agency will likely devote $6 millon from its coffers for the project (this figure could be offset by federal grants), with the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (which oversees stadium construction) ponying up $2 million, and the rest coming from bonds issues by the Met Council.”
Before we go any further, I think we need to ask a complex question.
How did we get here?
The new $1 billion Green Line is done and the $1.1 billion Vikings Stadium is underway. They combine to represent over $2 billion of investment. Our local leaders are concerned, as they should be, that these pieces of infrastructure be as perfect as possible.
To quote a former Governor (one who wasn’t a professional wrestler),
“All too often, the human tendency is to compound one big mistake with a series of additional mistakes in the hope that somehow the results will improve. This appears to be the case with the Vikings stadium.”
Politicians are attracted to big, transformitive projects, so it seems only natural that our leaders, who have expelled a great amount of political capital, want to see every inch of it succeed. Even if that means throwing good money after bad.
How We Justify It All
An engineer at the Met Council, likely under much political pressure, noticed something: based on 2019 projections, during peak hours on Minnesota Vikings game days, there will be only a 120 second headway between trains. This will likely not be enough time to manage safe pedestrian crossings. The proposed solution is the bridge.
The pedestrian bridge makes some sense. Based on the projections, there will be long lines and delays during this period; and building a bridge for pedestrians certainly isn’t an unreasonable response. The Met Council’s Transportation Committee appears to be interested in the idea.
Let’s look at these assumptions: they assume that there will be two additional light rail lines in full operation, both of which have not yet even been either fully allocated money or constructed. Basically, the Met Council is gambling $8.7 million that there might be a problem in 5 years if we’re somehow able to build two additional light rail lines and they are operating at full capacity for 10 days a year.
To reiterate: Four (4) LRT lines being in operation (Blue, Green, SW & Bottentieu) and that Vikings game attendees hitting a 40% transit mode share. All of things don't currently exist. It also assumes, more importantly, that if there is congestion people will not find an alternative route or change their travel behavior. This isn't to say we can't plan ahead. We should. But, we should be more realistic in our projections and our priorities.
Where Are Our Priorities?
Why did this project get fast-tracked while other smaller, more “everyday” projects never see the light of day? And, when smaller projects get the public’s attention, why do they struggle to find funding? These are merely a question of priorities.
As Nick Magrino (at streets.mn) has asked so often, “why are we embarrassed by the bus?” He writes,
“… I can’t shake the feeling that many of the expensive transit improvements we get in the Twin Cities are thought up by people who don’t actually use transit. Which is why we end up with Northstar, the Red Line, and so on.”
A bridge like this seems like such a low priority, especially when we have legitimate transportation needs. For example, THIS is a bus stop on a heavily used transit line near the center of Minneapolis.
It’s not that a pedestrian bridge is a terrible idea. Under the projections, at some point in the future, it seems maybe reasonable. But, why is the Met Council prioritizing and fast-tracking this, whereas things like bike lanes, bus shelters, and potholes get ignored? I say this because you could build 40 miles of protected bike lanes for the same price tag.
Projects can take on a life of their own. There is no traditional process to getting things done. In this pedestrian overpass, you have the right person with the right slideshow presenting it to the right people at the right time. From here, you have the Met Council employees and political-appointed representatives who have monies at their disposal. The proposal, while not perfect, seems reasonable enough. And, we’ve just spent $2 billion on infrastructure, so we need to make it right. The presentation looks good, so why not go for it?
What would your City do with $8.7 million?
Imagine if the City of Minneapolis was given $8.7 million that could only be used on downtown pedestrian and/or transit projects. What would they do? The answer is: not a pedestrian bridge to be used during 10 sports games a year.
So, why are we doing it?
The answer is that we can get money from elsewhere to do the things we don’t need to do. But, when it comes to doing the simple things that we need to do, well, that money isn’t available from elsewhere. The pedestrian bridge is a bad idea (right now) that’s made worse when you think of the countless thousands of more useful public investments we could be making.
The truth is that the people and the City of Minneapolis don't even care about it. It's not on their radar. It's the people who control infrastructure and transportaiton dollars who care about this. If given the opportunity to allocate these dollars elsewhere, it's fair to say thatliterally everyone locally would divert them elsewhere.
Our priorities get skewed and we misallocate resources most when our funding comes from elsewhere. In fact, it is precisely why Minneapolis has the below. All of which the City of Minneapolis will be tearing down in 30 years …
Note: This is also next to a proposed park called "The Yard" that neither the City of Minneapolis nor it's Park Board want to maintain. Yet, somehow it's still a thing.
“All of the concept drawings of the now-approved Vikings stadium proposal include large swaths of dedicated tailgating lots near the stadium. If Minneapolis builds these lots, the new facility will simply repeat the development mistakes of the area surrounding the Metrodome.” - Sam Rockwell at MinnPost
Who doesn’t love a good tailgate?
Back in the mid-2000s, I’d head to baseball games at the Metrodome with a handful of friends, grab a grill, some cheap beer and countless brats and burgers. We’d post up in the parking lot that’s now Gold Medal Park and we’d eat, drink and occasionally make it to a Twins game. It was a blast.
Tailgating is not only fun, but it’s synonymous with red, white and blue. It has become a new American tradition that is seamlessly being integrated into new stadium plans. Unfortunately, these tailgating plans don’t fit well into urban spaces.
This is what the tailgating mecca of now-Gold Medal Park looked like circa 2006.
It was a beautiful, drunken mess of a place. This is a Google Streetview of the location a few years later. It’s clean, green and has a bike lane that connects to the Mississippi River.
The tailgating is gone. It’s been replaced by a park that abuts a number of mid-rise condo developments. 2nd Street in downtown has to be one of the most transformed streets in all of Minneapolis. What was once a sea of parking is now a successful urban place. This is the problem with tailgating in downtown and other locations where land is at a premium.
Tailgating downtown (or by the University of Minnesota, for example) isn’t very productive. Having open-surface parking lots in downtown designed for the sole purpose of grilling 10 days a year is unwise. Even if you consider that people will use the space for parking during the other 350 non-event days a year, it still falls short.
The Vikings Stadium site plan hasn’t been finalized, but this is what the public has to work with. Most of the northwest side of the proposed stadium is dedicated as some type of open space or tailgating space. The curious site drawing even includes two grey half-circle parcels what is now a over a parking lot and a Hennepin County building. If I had to take a guess, I’d say its a clever way to disguise what they hope will be open surface parking.
Why does land use matter? Well, that’s basically what we’re dealing with here in the development of the “People’s Stadium”. How the new stadium and its surrounding relate to the rest of the downtown environment will ultimately determine the success of the stadium itself. The Metrodome failed as a catalyst for a number of reasons, some of which were outside of its control, but one of the primary failures of the Metrodome was that it helped turn everything around it into a parking lot.
There is this dubious claim advocated by stadium proponents that stadiums bring development. Minus a bar here and there, this is not true. Think of this, has Target Field really created development? Or, would the development in the North Loop occurred anyway? From all I can tell, all Target Field did was successfully motive Hubert’s and Kieran’s to relocate while leveraging the on-going successes of the North Loop.
Why would anyone want to live by a stadium or a tailgating lot? It’s a complete desert 95 percent of the time and complete chaos the other five percent of the time. Wanting to intentionally create that environment, that boom and bust cycle, in the center of a town seems like a good way to hurt it.
While I liked Sam Rockwell’s MinnPost article (and how he described the problem), I have to disagree with his assertion that a compromise can be reached and that Minneapolis can reinvent tailgating. We can’t, and we shouldn’t try. Minneapolis shouldn’t discourage people from tailgating, but at the same time, they certainly shouldn’t sacrifice our urban area to accommodate it. And, if it does, Minneapolis merely be repeating the mistakes of the past.
Follow me on Twitter at @Nathaniel1983.