Above: Olson Memorial Highway at Van White Boulevard (Eric Roper)
A highway, not a train, was the star of a hearing Tuesday on whether Minneapolis will sign off on initial designs for the Bottineau light rail project.
City leaders and neighborhood residents voiced frustration over the proposed six- and seven-lane layout for Olson Memorial Highway, the corridor where the train will travel through the bulk of north Minneapolis. The mayor's office said last March that redesigning the highway, also known as Highway 55, was "absolutely essential."
The $1.48 billion Bottineau line would extend the Blue Line light rail from downtown Minneapolis to Brooklyn Park. Four of its stops outside of downtown would serve Minneapolis, including two on Olson Memorial (see map below).
“There isn’t going to be a scenario where we maintain seven lanes of traffic exactly as it is today and we dramatically improve the pedestrian experience," the mayor's policy director, Peter Wagenius, said this spring.
Yet project staff said Tuesday that the number of lanes on the road, controlled by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, would not change. They do expect to reduce the speed limit to 35 miles per hour and reduce lane widths.
“It … needs to be a roadway that continues to be a trunk highway, but it needs to be made safer," said Bottineau project director Dan Soler, noting that more than 30,000 vehicles travel on the road each day. "A lot of the folks here in the community have talked to us a lot about pedestrian access."
Above: An aerial of the proposed layout for Olson Memorial Highway.
That did not sit well with a number of council members on the dais, as well as several testifiers. The committee nonetheless consented to the initial design, which will be forwarded to the full City Council.
“Wouldn’t we assume that some of the folks that are driving today might take our new, very expensive train?” asked Council Member Lisa Bender.
Bender later added: "Our traffic models assume that people will continue to drive at their current rates. And we know that if we design our transportation systems to make it easy and inexpensive to drive, they will. It’s called induced demand."
Council Member Cam Gordon pointed to a photo that was e-mailed to committee members, showing a similar layout for a rapid bus project in Apple Valley.
“It totally looks like a suburban concept," Gordon said. "It totally looks like something that doesn’t belong in a dense city. It totally looks like something that’s never going to get us the commercial node that we want.”
City staff said the design of the road would likely impact the amount of development spurred by the line. Bottineau is somewhat unusual because of how much publicly owned land surrounds the line, said the city's long range planning director Jack Byers, giving it a higher development potential than past light rail projects.
"The environment may be less hospitable to pedestrians than if it were 4 lanes of traffic," Byers said. "And that may cause developers to develop less intensely. Less intensity means fewer units.”
Council Member Blong Yang, who represents the area, said the Minnesota Department of Transportation ultimately quashed consideration of lane reductions. Yang said his constituents want to see the line built, though he lamented that the final route will bypass the bulk of the North Side.
“My only regret is that this line didn’t cut through more of north Minneapolis, so that more of north Minneapolis would benefit from it,” Yang said.
Above: A map of proposed Minneapolis-area Bottineau stations. The two northernmost stations, Plymouth Avenue and Golden Valley Road, are located in the city of Golden Valley.