In an alternate universe, the planning of Southwest light rail goes much smoother than in this universe, where planners assume light rail through a forest will get more ridership than light rail through Uptown, freight railroads don’t need to be consulted on poorly planned reroutes until the last minute, and tunnels through forest and houses built 25 feet away from the freight rail tracks are acceptable. The following is a timeline in the competent universe.
1985: Hennepin County buys route known as the Kenilworth corridor from the Chicago & North Western Railway for future transit use.
Do: Preserve whole width of right-of-way for trail, transit and freight rail. Ensure that residents near the route or anyone buying a home near the right-of-way are informed about potential transit use near their homes.
Don’t: Allow houses to be built on part of the right-of-way and just 25 feet from the tracks. Let real estate agents sucker people into buying houses near the tracks under the assumption that there won’t be any more freight trains. Neglect to inform residents about future transit use along the route.
1994: Chicago & North Western Railway discontinues freight service through the Kenilworth corridor.
Do: Preserve whole width of right-of-way for trail, transit and freight rail. Rebuilding of Hwy. 55/Hiawatha Avenue calls for severing the 29th Street Railway Trench (now the Midtown Greenway), which will force the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Co. (TC&W) to use the Kenilworth corridor to travel east.
Don’t: Neglect to inform people that freight trains may need to use the Kenilworth corridor again due to severing of 29th Street Railway Trench. Let people assume that the tracks are abandoned and that freight trains won’t travel through there ever again. Let developers build next to tracks under the assumption the right-of-way will be used only by transit and a trail.
1998: 29th Street trench is severed and abandoned. TC&W begins using Kenilworth corridor to travel east to St. Paul.
Do: Preserve whole width of right-of-way through the Kenilworth corridor for trail, transit and freight rail. Preserve whole width of right-of-way of the 29th Street trench for trail and transit use.
Don’t: Assume that it’s only a temporary reroute and that a new permanent route on steep grades, curves and through the heart of a community with no grade-separatesd crossings will be used by trains as long as 100 railcars. Ask TC&W if this reroute is acceptable at the last minute.
Early 2000s: Southwest Corridor proposed between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis. Bus rapid transit and light-rail transit are considered, as well as numerous routes, including whether to route via Kenilworth corridor or Midtown Greenway/Uptown.
Do: An alternatives analysis that eventually concludes light rail is worth the investment. Continue studying route options.
Don’t: Give in to Federal Transit Administration policies of routing light rail through forests and gravel pits just because in theory it will be faster for suburban travelers and have a cheaper construction cost.
Late 2000s: Locally preferred alternative is light rail through Kenilworth corridor despite the fact that it avoids a dense area of people and jobs who should be connected to such transit. The good news is that the right-of-way allows for trail, transit and freight rail, since developers weren’t allowed to develop next to tracks, so no tunnel or property acquisitions are required.
Do: Make Midtown Greenway light rail a high priority to connect Southwest with Hiawatha (now the Blue Line) so that access to Uptown is easier.
Don’t: Pretend the Kenilworth route is intended to serve the racially diverse area of north Minneapolis despite the fact that the nearest proposed station from there is the same distance as Target Field Station (1.3 miles between Near North and Target Field Station, 1.4 miles between Near North and Basset Creek Valley Station). Deny that this route is to redevelop the impound lot and gravel pits into mixed use, transit-oriented development.
Early 2010s: Construction begins on Southwest light rail, thanks in part to not being greedy, being honest and not making uneducated assumptions. In 2017, the line opens.
The good: Project nearly on time and nearly on budget. Midtown Greenway light rail is in extensive planning, with a goal of opening in the early 2020s. NIMBYism was an issue, but could have been a lot worse had greedy developers built next to the tracks decades ago and if residents hadn’t been informed of potential transit use near their homes.
The bad: Bryn Mawr Station and Basset Creek Valley Station are underutilized, but development is starting to be built, so ridership should start to rise.
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Overall in our alternative timeline, while the Southwest planning process went through a couple of rough patches, the project was successful and most people besides anti-transit groups deem it a good investment to our transportation system. Hopefully, the people at the Metropolitan Council have learned from the mistakes of the actual Southwest light-rail process so they never happen again for the next transit projects. If Southwest is ever built, it needs to be successful and meet the promises made. The jobs and respect of the Met Council depend on it.
Eric Ecklund, of Bloomington, is a student at the University of Minnesota majoring in transportation planning.