John Dewitt: Soapboxes spring up over transit-mall plan

  • Article by: JOHN DEWITT
  • Updated: March 9, 2008 - 4:06 PM

Light rail at grade on Washington Avenue through campus -- and the shifting of vehicle traffic -- wouldn't be as tragic as some suggest.

There's an old saying that if the facts are on your side, use them, and if the law is on your side, use it, but if neither is on your side, shout a lot. That may help explain all the shouting since the Metropolitan Council chose a transit mall as the preferred option for light rail on Washington Avenue through the University of Minnesota campus.

The university's approach to this issue has been most disappointing. As an institution funded largely by Minnesota taxpayers, the U owed Minnesotans an objective analysis of the viable alternatives to a $200 million tunnel. I first heard the school's arguments nearly a year ago. There was one option, a tunnel, and the arguments were weak. I kept waiting to hear about other options and for better arguments. But the arguments only became more strident. Last summer, I learned that a tunnel was probably too expensive and that a surface alignment for light rail might be necessary. In mid-January, with the decision day barely a month away, I learned of Minneapolis' growing concern that the university still had no "plan B." At the last minute, the U came up with an alternative, the northern alignment. But it was much too late for any meaningful analysis of an option that knowledgeable planners believed had little chance of obtaining federal approval.

A number of the U's concerns about a surface alignment fail to withstand the slightest scrutiny. For example, the U pictures a Washington Avenue littered with the bodies of dazed students struck down by light-rail trains. But if we look at the two busiest pedestrian nodes on the Hiawatha Line -- the Nicollet Mall and the Metrodome when a game lets out -- we find zero incidents in 3 1/2 years of operation. The existing traffic on Washington is far more threatening. If 80 percent of the 25,000 cars on Washington have the U as a destination, that means that 20,000 cars a day are making turning movements off of Washington through very congested pedestrian crosswalks. I suspect that 12 to 16 light-rail trains an hour, driven by professional operators, are far less dangerous, especially if one considers that the trains will replace many of the 1,500 buses that travel Washington each day.

There are some points to consider in favor of a transit mall:

•When Salt Lake City extended its light-rail line, TRAX, through the University of Utah campus, 6,000 parking spaces were eliminated. The University of Minnesota has done a commendable job of growing transit's modal split, but there's always room for improvement. If the U eliminated that many parking spaces, it would eliminate at least 12,000 trips to and from the campus each day.

Instead, the U appears committed to a "no net loss" parking policy. It can and must do better.

•Many trips are of truly marginal value and could easily be eliminated. A rule of thumb is that when the Minnesota Department of Transportation sets up a detour, one-third of the traffic uses the detour, one-third finds another route, and one-third simply goes away.

•A majority of the traffic to the U comes off of our freeway system, suggesting opportunities to intercept and reroute it.

•Every destination on Washington Avenue has an alternate means of access, even though it may be less convenient.

•The U would no longer have its mall divided by an urban arterial for cars, complete with a jersey barrier topped by a fence.

I understand that the U has hired a Boston landscape architecture firm to develop plans for how Washington Avenue might look and work as a transit mall. Let's see what the firm comes up with, and then we can discuss how that vision will be destroyed if Washington must accommodate heavy car traffic.

At some point, we need to stop planning as if it were still 1950 and start planning for 2050.

John DeWitt is a retired financial systems analyst living in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis. In 1995, he was one of the founding members of Transit for Livable Communities.

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