With recent news that plans for the Blue Line extension are falling apart due to failed negotiations with the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, now would be a good time to discuss (again) whether serving the northwest suburbs with light rail is the best use of local, state and federal transit funding.
While the Green Line extension is already well under construction, looking into future transit corridors in the form of BRT (bus rapid transit) leads one to conclude that there are better options.
Consider the numbers:
The 13-mile Blue Line extension is (or was) projected to cost $1.5 billion. Of that, $129 million has already been spent on planning and engineering. If we resolve to spend the whole budget, that leaves roughly $1.37 billion.
Let’s look next at what many see as the most successful bus line in the region: the A Line, which began service in 2016 between Rosedale Center in Roseville and the 46th Street station in Minneapolis. It runs along nine miles of Snelling Avenue, Ford Parkway and 46th Street. This BRT line provides high-frequency service, with only 10 minutes between buses. The project cost roughly $27 million.
If we were to rebuild that line from start to finish now, let’s say it would cost $30 million due to inflation.
Taking the two numbers — $1.37 billion and $30 million — we’re left with an enlightening comparison. The cost of one Blue Line extension could fund roughly 45 A Lines.
Now, close your eyes. Imagine what we could do with 45 new BRT lines serving the northwest suburbs. Even with 22 lines, each double the cost or length of the A Line, it would make an exceptional impact on the transit-riding public due to improved connectivity.
Several east-west routes and north-south routes, with 15-minute frequencies, could intersect with the Green Line extension — not just at the centralized Target Field station hub, but at several points. Furthermore, the connections between these new BRT lines would create the network effects that make transportation planners swoon.
For instance, an extended Metro Transit C line from Olson Highway (Hwy. 55) down N. Penn Avenue could feasibly connect riders to the Green Line via the Bryn Mawr station to jobs in the southwest metro area, rather than needing to ferry them via the existing C Line to Target Field station to catch the same train.
This simple addition, likely costing no more than a few million dollars in improvements, would save riders over two miles in unnecessary travel.
In another example, riders traveling on a new BRT line (call it the F Line, with 15 minutes between buses) could serve riders from Plymouth along Rockford Road and 42nd Avenue and deliver them to a higher-frequency line (say, seven minutes between buses) along Bottineau Boulevard and W. Broadway Avenue, near where the Blue Line extension alignment was planned. This line could travel either downtown or to northeast Minneapolis, or two lines could serve both.
Opportunities abound for better transit to more places, serving a larger number of low-income people and people of color than any single LRT line could ever hope to.
Adding more convenient and connective transit lines (albeit with somewhat less capacity) in more places, with infrastructure that already largely exists allows us the opportunity to spread the benefit of transit to hundreds of thousands more people, rather than concentrating the benefit to only those within a mile or two of a light rail line.
The major goal of mass transit is to provide people with more options than to travel by foot, bike, or car. Rethinking our dedication to light-rail transit and investing in more cost-effective options like BRT would have great benefits in the long run.
Now that we have a do-over for developing transit that will better serve the northwest suburbs, let’s do it right.
Robert Latta lives in Minneapolis.