Campus light-rail route details still under consideration

Building a route through Dinkytown could delay the project by a year.

by Anna Ewart

After years of intense negotiations, a plan for the alignment of the Central Corridor was finalized last month. But that plan still isn’t set in stone.

On Feb. 27, the Metropolitan Council approved a plan for the 11-mile light-rail transit line that will connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.

However, a number of features are still being discussed, and corridor planners will make some concrete decisions in the coming months.

Four of those decisions could impact the University: the terms of the transit, pedestrian mall on Washington Avenue, consideration of Northern Alignment and busing changes along University Avenue and financial remedies.

Final decisions must be made by early September to apply to the Federal Transit Administration, which would fund half of the project.

The transit mall

The plan adopted by the Metropolitan Council would create a transit and pedestrian mall on Washington Avenue, which would span roughly from the Radisson Hotel to the Weisman Art Museum and house the LRT.

It remains to be seen what else will go in the mall. All normal vehicle traffic would be diverted to streets around Washington Avenue, but there could still be buses, emergency vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians.

The University doesn’t want the mall to include buses, said Vice President for University Services Kathleen O’Brien, a member of the Central Corridor Management Committee.

The Metropolitan Council has said it would like buses to be included on the mall.

Some project planners expressed concern that diverting buses onto surrounding streets would force people to transfer from bus to LRT, increasing travel time, congestion and the Cost-Effectiveness Index.

The CEI is calculated using a number of factors, including travel time, capital costs and ridership estimates. In order to receive federal funds, the CEI cannot exceed $23.99.

Northern Alignment

Unable to gain approval for an expensive tunnel, the University is now funding a study of a different alignment through campus. The Northern Alignment would take the light rail through Dinkytown.

The LRT would either go eastbound on University Avenue and westbound on Fourth Street, or through the Dinkytown rail corridor. It would cross the Mississippi River on Bridge No. 9 or the 10th Avenue bridge, rather than the Washington Avenue Bridge.

Although this alignment would almost certainly delay the project by about a year, the University says it would ease traffic concerns and avoid complicating access to University hospitals.

The study’s results won’t be available until this summer.

Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, also a member of the Central Corridor Management Committee, said Northern Alignment may harm the CEI, because it would reduce ridership by removing the line from the heart of campus.

However, O’Brien said the Northern Alignment could positively impact the CEI by reducing ride time and cost.

Before project decisions were made last month, Metropolitan Council Chairman Peter Bell said in a Daily interview that he’d made a commitment to University President Bob Bruininks to consider the study’s results.

“If the University study is compelling, and that’s the key word, we will review it,” Bell said.

University Avenue busing

The Metropolitan Council’s plan would change some bus routes. Route 16, which runs along Washington and University avenues, would run every 20 minutes instead of every 10 minutes during peak hours.

That would make transportation more difficult for the people who don’t live near the LRT stations but still depend on public transit, said Anne White, chairwoman of the District Councils Collaborative.

She said the route changes were made to increase ridership on the Central Corridor, improving the CEI.

University Avenue LRT stations will be about a mile apart, but infrastructure to build an additional three in the future would be included in initial construction.

However, the council indicated that one of those three stations could be included in initial construction if the FTA increases the cap on the CEI or the cost of the project goes down.

Alternative bus routes and route changes are being considered.

Cost of remedies

The plan allocates $39 million for mitigation, or money to be put toward fixing traffic, noise and changes to the cities’ infrastructures that result from the Central Corridor.

Some mitigation money would be used to reroute traffic away from the transit mall and deal with parking. O’Brien said there is also more than $150 million in contingency funds that could end up being used for mitigation.

McLaughlin said some mitigation costs are rightly attributed to the project, but some might not be.

“It’s about actually allowing the transportation system in and around the ‘U’ to work,” McLaughlin said. “You don’t want to be cavalier about how you do that.”

He also said that he was pleased that the Legislature managed to pass a transportation bill this year. If it hadn’t, he said he was unsure where LRT funding would have come from.