Counterpoint: For transit, smaller vehicles and lots more trips

  • Article by: BOB CARNEY JR.
  • Updated: February 14, 2014 - 6:48 PM

A Southwest light-rail alternative in smaller vehicles would be faster, flexible.

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In recent weeks, transit has been a recurring topic on this page. An editorial documented a woeful future that threatens, due to worn out roads and bridges (‘State’s in a jam on transportation funds,” Jan. 11). A commentary article followed, from Republican legislators, indicting the economics of streetcars (“Why the Legislature should put brakes on streetcar dreams,” Jan. 18). Minneapolis officials responded with a challenge (“Streetcars, yes, and buses and more,” Jan. 29), saying the lawmakers should offer up “… a BRT-only, no-rail transit system. Then we could have a real debate.”

A “real debate” is welcome. But let’s expand our scope to a comprehensive vision of what we can truly do with transit. Let’s think and plan using our knowledge of current and emerging technology. Let’s plan on the scale — with the 100-year time frame and public-private coordination — that founded our Minneapolis park system.

And let’s start with a Southwest light-rail alternative — shaped by three future-focused considerations: vehicle size, service frequency and automated driving.

My proposed “Transit Revolution” approach uses Metro Mobility-size vehicles — 24 passengers and one lift. These cost about $70,000 new, compared with $3 million per light-rail car. I’ve run the numbers for a plan that would move the same number of people on the Southwest Corridor as light rail.

The light-rail plan features about 200 weekday trips, with about 100 people on each train. The Transit Revolution alternative averages about 10 people a trip, with about 2,400 trips a day.

Here’s your obvious thought: “Bob, you’re crazy! Economies of scale — it’s a slam dunk — light rail is the way to go!”

Well, let me sit you down for a shocking fact: I ran the numbers for part-time drivers (we’ll need almost 700) at $17 per hour. Even with about 10 times as many discrete daily trips, the $35 million annual operating cost is about the same as the Met Council’s $32.7 million light-rail operating cost estimate.

Let’s now consider the advantages of having 10 times as many discrete trips. The service frequency could be much higher — every five minutes or better — even including variants and supplements built into the route. We could tailor express runs for speed, with specialty runs and door-to-door shuttles to bring people to a much finer grid of destinations. Over decades, we could tailor a small-vehicle system for both speed and access in ways that those behemoth light-rail whales can’t possibly match.

In the short term (decades), what I’m proposing is a giant jobs program — and today this is desperately needed. But automated driving is coming. When that happens — when drivers are the equivalent of elevator operators — the cost per driver ($0) will become the same for a Metro Mobility-size bus and light rail. Which system do we want our children and grandchildren to have when the switch over begins? That’s the decision we’re making today.

Next, let’s consider capital costs.

Here’s the key formula: “existing” equals “zero capital cost.”

Transit Revolution vehicles could use the existing Shady Oak Road to roll through the Golden Triangle to Eden Prairie Center.

From Shady Oak Road to downtown our slogan is: “Grade it … Pave it … Use it.” We could use the existing right of way proposed for the Southwest line from Shady Oak Road to west of Lake Calhoun. But from there, let’s go down the existing Midtown Greenway — under three at-grade cross streets just east of Calhoun — with stops at the existing Uptown Station and Lyndale and Nicollet Avenues — all linked by elevator to existing north-south bus routes.

Our Transit Revolution vehicles could go up a ramp at a new Greenway/Lake Street transit station on Interstate 35W, and roll to and from downtown using existing MnPass lanes that are guaranteed congestion-free.

Let’s demand a Transit Revolution. Let’s build for future generations, instead of rebuilding the past.

 

Bob “Again” Carney Jr., of Minneapolis, was a candidate for Minneapolis mayor in 2013.

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