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New MnDOT chief good for transit


This week, Governor Mark Dayton announced that Charlie Zelle will take over in January as the head of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Zelle is the CEO of Jefferson Lines, an inter-city bus company. He also is chair of the board of the Minneapolis area Chamber of Commerce.

"Charlie Zelle understands that transit is essential to creating jobs in Minnesota and making sure people can get to work affordably," said Barb Thoman, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities. "As commissioner of MnDOT, Zelle will be working with a very talented and dedicated staff. We hope he will ensure that MnDOT is a partner in building out the transit system, accelerate the implementation of Complete Streets policy throughout the state, and focus on keeping our roads in good repair. He understands the links between urban, suburban and rural communities--and how our economic health depends on being connected."

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Twin Cities Transitways Update


By Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

Four of the metro region’s most highly anticipated transitways—Cedar Avenue Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Bottineau, Gateway, and Southwest LRT—recently have crossed important milestones toward opening for service.

Cedar BRT, scheduled to open next spring, will travel 16 miles through Apple Valley, Eagan, and Bloomington, where it will connect at the Mall of America station to the Hiawatha LRT to downtown Minneapolis.  Cedar BRT will use a dedicated lane on Cedar Avenue and the MnPass lane on I-35W to insure speedy travel. Station-to-station buses are expected to operate at 15- to 30- minute frequencies, seven days a week for 15-18 hours per day. This corridor will also continue to have express bus service from Lakeville to downtown Minneapolis during peak hours. Initial stops will be Cedar Grove Station, 140th St., 147th St., and Apple Valley Transit Station. Lakeville stops will be added at a later time. Parking is available at Cedar Grove and the Apple Valley Transit Station.  More information about Cedar BRT.



 Left: Cedar BRT Stations Map courtesy MVTA. Right: New Cedar BRT bus.


The Southwest LRT project, connecting downtown Minneapolis and Eden Prairie, issued a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for public comment this fall. The DEIS process seeks to identify impacts of the different alignments. Public hearings on the DEIS were held in November in Minneapolis, St. Louis Park, and Eden Prairie. Written comments can be submitted through 5pm, December 31st. The hearings and written comments will give rail planners helpful feedback as the exact alignment, station locations, and the myriad impacts are worked out. The Federal Transit Administration already has approved this line to move into Preliminary Engineering, which is expected to begin in 2013. The full State share (10 percent of the project cost) has not yet been secured. 

The Bottineau Corridor is very close to selecting the Locally Preferred Alternative, which is expected to identify LRT as the mode and D1 as the route. With the exception of Golden Valley, all of the communities along the corridor—including Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, and Brooklyn Park—have passed resolutions of support. It is important to note (as we did in a previous blog) that the transit planning for this corridor and sub-region calls for new transit service in North Minneapolis through some combination of rapid bus and/or streetcar.

The Gateway Corridor Commission, which focuses on service from the St. Croix River to Saint Paul / Minneapolis, recently selected Alternative 3 as the preferred project option, from among 8 studied in the Alternatives Analysis. Alternative 3 is bus rapid transit on Hudson Road (frontage road) and I-94 East. Alternative 5 (LRT along the same corridor) will be also move forward to be studied for comparative purposes in the Draft Environmental Impact phase. BRT in the Gateway Corridor is being planned to include both station-to-station service and express service that bypasses some stations.  The comment period for the most recent plans for the Gateway Corridor will be open until January 3, 2013.

We know there is neighborhood opposition in St. Louis Park to the freight re-routing component of Southwest LRT and objection in Golden Valley to the proposed route for the Bottineau Corridor in the current rail right-of-way along Wirth Park. We also understand that some East Metro voices hold firm to the notion that the Gateway line should be LRT (the current plans do allow for a transition to LRT at some point in the future when greater housing/commercial density supports greater ridership). In all three cases, time remains to ensure appropriate mitigation where necessary and to adjust plans to best accommodate future economic development.

Eyes on the Prize

As neighbors and planners work to define the alignment and stations for these corridors, we want to make sure to keep eyes on the prize—and on the funding.

The development of a transit system in the Twin Cities is essential to long term competitiveness—job creation, access to jobs, and many other benefits. This was reaffirmed recently in the ITASCA Project’s Return on Investment (ROI) Assessment of a regional transit system. A conservative estimate shows the highest ROI—of $3 in benefits for each $1 in investment—with an accelerated build out of the transit system and with growth targeted to transit stations. The assessment calculates six types of direct impacts, on travel time and reliability; vehicle operating costs; shippers and logistics costs; emissions; safety costs; and road pavement conditions.

Affordability and health are also key benefits to building a future with better transit options.

People consistently say they want more transit, especially as gas prices rise. Transportation is the second largest household expense, and takes a larger share in low-income families. Yet, currently, only 25 percent of metro area residents have access to convenient transit (defined as within a quarter-mile of service that runs at least every half-hour). 

The economic upside of stimulating new housing and jobs along transit corridors has the additional benefit of preserving open space and making more trips possible on foot or by bicycle. Plus, people who take transit walk more than people who drive alone.

As we’ve noted many times, a broader concern is funding. The funding to build and operate Cedar BRT is assured, but, unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the other three corridors.

We encourage our readers to be strong voices for increased investment in transit and to engage in the details of getting planning right for transitways, stations, and connections by bicycling and walking. 


A Grand Reopening for the Historic Union Depot

On December 8, Saint Paul’s historic Union Depot will officially open to the public and begin serving transit passengers for the first time in 40 years! TLC is eager to participate in Saturday’s grand reopening festivities and to hop aboard one of the Metro Transit buses that begin serving the depot that same day. We recently sat down with Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority’s Josh Collins, to ask some questions about new transit service, the restoration, and what to expect at the December 8 celebration. We hope to see you there—be sure to stop by TLC’s table to say hello!


TLC: What modes of service are launching at Union Depot and when?

JC: The services begin in phases. Metro Transit bus service and casino shuttle service will begin on December 8. In January, Jefferson Lines will begin regional bus service out of the Depot. Amtrak will relocate to Union Depot sometime in 2013 and the Green Line (Central Corridor LRT) will start in 2014.

TLC: What will Union Depot offer for bicyclists and pedestrians?

JC: In early 2013, One on One Bicycle Studio will open a full-service bicycle center in the depot, featuring secure storage, bicycle repair and retail, showers, lockers, and food/drinks for commuters on the go. We have built a new bike path across the north side of the train deck along Kellogg Boulevard, which will eventually connect to the Bruce Vento Regional Trail. For pedestrians, we have made significant improvements to the sidewalks around the depot, and  from the river into Lowertown along Sibley Street. Clearer pedestrian paths, wider sidewalks, and improved sight lines all contribute to a safer environment for pedestrians.

TLC: Why is it important for multiple modes of transportation to converge at the restored Union Depot?

JC: To address the complex transportation needs of the community, we need transportation options. Union Depot serves as a connection point to services, amenities, and facilities that serve all types of people. Multiple types of mass transit, bicycling, walking, and automobile users all will find utility at Union Depot. Even those who travel up the Mississippi River on the steamboats to Saint Paul will find themselves only feet from Union Depot.

TLC: Can you tell us about any new or expected housing, office, or other development near Union Depot? How do you think this reopening will impact downtown Saint Paul?

JC: The great thing about Saint Paul—and of course, Lowertown—is that things are already happening here. The reopening of Union Depot is just a part of the incredible energy and enthusiasm that people have about the future of the east metro. Inside the depot, we have numerous opportunities for additional restaurant, retail, or office space. By the time the Green Line opens we hope to have added additional tenants to the depot, which will draw people inside the great building. Lowertown is a noted arts community, and at the depot we are looking forward to becoming part of the bustling, creative community.

TLC: From 1923-1971, Union Depot was a bustling hub for freight and passenger rail. Are there any interesting elements of Union Depot’s history that stood out or were preserved through the restoration process?

JC: We conducted public tours through the second year of construction, and the personal stories and memories that were shared by some of the attendees were profoundly moving. We spoke with a woman who said goodbye to her father in 1942 at Union Depot, where he took his final photo with his family before dying in a plane crash in the Philippines. We met families who arrived in the 1950s as refugees from their homelands, who began new lives in Saint Paul and view the depot as the place that welcomed them home. We met the children of orphans placed on trains in New York and sent westward in the early 1900s, who arrived at Union Depot to join new families in and around Saint Paul. The emotional connection that Union Depot has with the community is absolutely incredible.

TLC: What can people expect during the grand reopening celebration on Saturday, December 8?

JC: The day begins at 9:30 a.m. with remarks from public officials who were instrumental in making the project happen. This project took the commitment of local, state, and federal officials, and the investment has put a great many people to work. At 10 a.m., the wall separating the public from the waiting room will come down and family-friendly celebrations will continue into the evening, culminating in a family movie night (“Elf”!). There will be actors from Bedlam Theatre recreating historical events and moments out of time, artists, musicians, flamenco and belly dancers, information on transportation, booths featuring historical information and much, much more.

TLC: Is there anything else you’d like to add about Union Depot, our region’s transportation system, or the significance of this restoration & reopening?

JC: The children who will attend this event will never know a Twin Cities that doesn’t have trains running down the streets. Think about that. Union Depot is steeped in history and memories. On December 8, we will welcome back generations who remember the “way it was,” but we know that it is just the beginning of a new era of experiences and memories yet to be.

Learn more about Union Depot and the grand reopening celebration here.

Photo courtesy of Union Depot Facebook page

How bad is traffic congestion in the Twin Cities—and how do we know?

By Barb Thoman, Executive Director 


With the release of the recommendations by the Governor’s Transportation Finance Advisory Committee and MnDOT’s annual report on Performance Measurement, there is growing discussion about traffic congestion. Is our congestion among the worst or average for our size? And how do we know? 

The Texas Transportation Institute (TTI)’s Urban Mobility Report is the most often referenced national report comparing rates of traffic congestion among metro regions. The most recent report ranked Twin Cities highway congestion 16th in the nation, based on an indicator they call the Travel Time Index, which measures the difference in the time it takes to make a trip during peak times (i.e., rush hour) versus the average of all the non-peak times (i.e., the rest of the day).

Our congestion ranking is exactly our ranking in terms of population—16th. As you might expect, larger metro regions have more traffic congestion than smaller regions, unless your economy is weak, as in Detroit, and then your congestion ranking is lower than your population ranking.

So why does MnDOT’s recent Transportation Performance Report say our region has the 7th worst congestion? This is not 7th worst in the nation; it’s 7th of 32 “large” cities. We are in fact the most populous region of the 32 regions classified as Large. And, we don’t typically compare ourselves with Columbus, Memphis, Las Vegas, or the majority of the places in the Large region grouping. Not surprisingly, these smaller regions have a lower level of economic activity and less traffic congestion—making our rate in the group look high.   

So, remember:  16th in size, 16th in terms of our congestion ranking and average.

MnDOT defines congestion as speeds below 45 mph. That seems like a pretty high threshold to me (40-45 mph isn't much of an inconvenience). Nevertheless, for 2011, MnDOT reported that only 21 percent of the 379-mile regional highway system is congested during peak periods.

Nearly 80 percent of our highway system averages speeds above 45 mph at peak periods.  Twenty-one percent congested in the peak is a slight drop from 2010, when the rate was 21.5 percent congested.  The current rate is about the same as 2003 (20.8 percent) and 2007 (20.9 percent). 

So remember:  nearly 80 percent of traffic during rush hour is going 45 mph or more

So what is not in these national and local reports that might be helpful to know when you want to draw conclusions about traffic congestion? 

Our region has a very large regional highway system—8th largest in terms of lane miles per person, according to the Federal Highway Administration. The size of a region’s highway system does not always correlate with its congestion rate. The transit-rich region of Portland, Ore., is a case in point. That region has only 2/3 of the highway lanes miles that we do, and a congestion rate that TTI reports to be only slightly higher than what we experience.  So Portland’s much smaller highway system has not translated into terrible traffic congestion, largely because people have a lot of transit (and bike) options for avoiding it.

It’s also important to know how far people are commuting and slowed by congestion. A region might have terrible traffic congestion, but if the region is compact and commutes are shorter, the impact of congestion on individual drivers is less. If we compare our region to Seattle, we see that Seattle’s congestion rate is higher than in the Twin Cities but peak-period commute trips there are much shorter (13 miles roundtrip vs. 21 miles in our region). In addition Seattle offers many more transit options so people have more options for avoiding congestion.

So remember: congestion is as much a factor of how many options you have and how close things are.

As we look to the future of our region and making mobility possible for everyone, including the additional 900,000 people we expect to live here by 2030, let’s remember that we already have a very large highway system that should be kept in good repair.  To remain competitive as a region and to offer people options for avoiding congestion, we should finally build out a 21st century transit system—and safe connections by bicycling and walking.  Finally, I hope we can begin to refocus our development patterns in a way that reduces the need to drive so far so even if you can’t avoid congestion, you’re not in it for very long.  


See TLC’s policy brief that summarizes FHWA data on highway size at

See page 68 of CEOs for Cities' "Measuring Urban Transportation Performance" report for estimates of commute length at


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