Diverse transport network positioning Minneapolis as economic leader

Minneapolis is not a coastal city, nor does it boast a favorable climate, but the city does count a growing population of young people and 21st century jobs on its score sheet. What is also unique about this German Midwestern city is that it has become the envy of other cities due to its impressive bicycling culture, expanding transit system and diverse economy.

The Twin Cities boast two unique transport items. The first is the bicycle highway connecting bicycle commuters with downtown Minneapolis and other job centers. The second is a growing light rail system that taps into regional commuter rail. The Minneapolis light rail system is still young, but this has benefitted its operations.

Hiawatha Light Rail at Franklin Avenue Station (January 2011). Photograph by Randy A. Simes.

Unlike St. Louis and Denver, Minneapolis’ light rail system has low-floor vehicles that do not have awkward steps right when you enter the train. The more modern rolling stock used in Minneapolis is also more visually attractive and at least seemed to be quieter.

Presently the light rail system extends from the famous Mall of America, through the region’s international airport eastern suburbs, and into downtown Minneapolis eventually terminating at the recently completed Target Field (home of the Minnesota Twins).

The good thing about the line is that it is there and that it has been able to improve on earlier designs incorporated elsewhere throughout the United States. The problem is that the route runs through a very suburban-designed part of the region and offers very little in terms of walkability immediately surrounding the stations. Transit-oriented development will certainly help this situation, but significant time and money will be needed to right the ship.

Much like Atlanta, Minneapolis seemed to sacrifice urban connectivity so that their early system connected major nodes like their airport, stadiums and mega mall. As a result much of the large population nodes are left off the map, and thus out of reach of this young light rail system.

Articulated bus in the Warehouse District [LEFT], and Hiawatha Light Rail running through downtown Minneapolis. Photographs taken by Randy A. Simes in January 2011.

What will help this issue immensely will be the system’s growth. Fortunately, the region’s rail transit system is about to grow and expand into St. Paul. Under construction now is the $957 million, 11-mile Central Corridor light rail project. This will tap into the existing Hiawatha light rail line at its Metrodome Station in downtown Minneapolis.

The 16-station Central Corridor light rail line will connect downtown St. Paul and the University of Minnesota with the rest of the overachieving transit system. Current projections call for the first passengers to start riding in 2014.

While Minneapolis and St. Paul are not there yet when it comes to transit, they have been investing in a system for years that is beginning to become regional and comprehensive. These moves already seem to be paying nice dividends for the Twin Cities, and have placed it among one of the few good economic performers in the Midwest. Where would Cincinnati be today had it began investing in regional rail transit in 2002 when MetroMoves put regional light rail before voters?

  • Jake Mecklenborg

    I don’t know why the downtown > airport line was built first, instead of Minneapolis > St. Paul. Sometimes the first phases in these systems are dictated by the need for a storage yard site large enough for the full system build-out. That is partly why the south half of Seattle’s first light rail line was built first, even though it has much lower projected ridership than the north half. The north section to the University of Washington will be almost entirely underground, and there is no space for a storage & maintenance yard.

    The storage yard site for Cincinnati’s Rapid Transit Loop (subway) was planned to have been where the Norwood Lateral branches off from I-75. While under construction, the site was moved to the Winton Rd. streetcar barn, which was near the Mitchell Ave. Kroger.

    I do not recall if a yard site was determined for the Metro Moves plan, but it likely would have been somewhere along the “I-71” line, since that was the first line to be built. The former Showcase Cinemas location in Bond Hill would be idea for a future system yard.

  • John Schneider

    I believe they built the airport line first because a lot of it was old railroad ROW. Other than the tunnel under the airport, it was a relatively easy build. A Cincinnatian, Mike Setzer — later Metro’s GM — built it. The ridership on the Downtown – MOA line has been much higher than expected. I think they hit a ridership level in the first year that wasn’t expected to be reached until 2017 or thereabouts. One of my partners rode it the other day from downtown to the airport. Cost him $1.75, and he said it was terrific. He was always a rail supporter. Now I think he’s a really committed rail supporter.

    By contast, they’ve had a hell of a time laying out a route through the University of Minnesota for the Minneapolis – St. Paul route, but that’s settled now. UM officials worried about the effect of vibration on sensitive scientific equipment on campus. Seemed to be much ado about nothing, but they were finally satisfied.

    They are now planning a line to the western suburbs.

    Minneapolis is strange in that it acts decisively like a booming Sunbelt city … with terrible winters.

    Like Randy suggests, it’s kind of an outlier. It think it’s the best city in the Midwest. And getting better.

  • CM

    I miss you, Minneapolis! Cincinnati could learn from you.

  • Light rail serving Minneapolis’ western suburbs would be fantastic for this system. You are right John that ridership along the Hiawatha Line has been much higher than anticipated. This led to an investment to lengthen station platforms to allow for longer trains (very smart move on their part).

    What confused me was the slow travel speeds along the grade-separated portion of the line east of the inner-city neighborhoods. I thought it could have been traveling much faster. Also, the dual airport stations are a bit confusing for an out-of-towner trying to navigate the system for the first time. Portland’s airport connection is much, much nicer.

  • The dual airport stations are necessary given that the two airport terminals are about a mile-and-change apart.

    @John: most of the right-of-way for the Hiawatha line was actually cleared ROW for what was to be a Hiawatha freeway.

    I also somewhat take issue with the part of Randy’s post where he says this line went through a “very suburban-designed part of the region”. The only part that could arguably be described as such is the southern end, south of I-494. The rest of the line either goes through airport/federal property or long-established (pre-1940) parts of Minneapolis.

  • Sean Gray

    Things that are a huge debate in Cincinnati are common sense in Minneapolis. The central corridor and Northstar commuter rail line were even planned/built under and with the support of a Republican governor. A $1bln LRT, a $350m commuter rail. The mindset here is so different. Moving here was shocking at first and I am finally starting to get better at not starting sentences with “well in minneapolis _____________”

    The park system is incredible for it’s connectivity. Imagine a trail system between Cincinnati’s parks on trails with their own right of way, complemented by an on-road network of bike lanes. A triple trailed grade separated bike freeway feeding downtown. A bike sharing program. Roads built to complete streets standards. Minneapolis has it all. There is a reason why people are still out biking in January when it is -10 degrees out.

    Even the suburban areas are mindful of pedestrians. A regional trail system connects across counties. Bridges over highways always have pedestrian access. Roads have sidewalks/trails and curbs and highways have ample shoulder.

    As far as the system not connecting dense areas, you have federal formulas for transit funding to thank for that, which score attracting NEW users to transit. Dense areas already have many people using existing options such as the bus. Minneapolis’ uptown neighborhood is the most dense in the region and the new LRT to the western suburbs will skirt it 1 mile to the west because they couldn’t get the scoring system to make such a route competitive against other cities’ bids for funding (it would add a couple of minutes to the commute for people in the ‘burbs…., hurting the number of new riders).