Monday, February 01, 2010

Light Rail Musings

For my non-local readers, this is a response to Johnny Northside's post on the debate over the possibility of light rail in North Minneapolis. As a NoMi resident, I felt inclined to offer my fifteen or so cents.

First of all, I should say that I generally oppose the expansion of light rail throughout the Twin Cities. It remains an expensive boondoggle, even if federal matching funds are provided, and the cost per rider is as exorbitant as it is well concealed from the public.

I am continually impressed by the degree to which certain people believe light rail to cure all social ills, from global warming, to infrastructure, to poverty, to traffic. The presence of light rail almost certainly impacts all of the above, but with very little return on investment, compared to other vehicles (no pun intended).

Alas, that ship has sailed. The man in the top hat has come and gone, and now everyone loves the sexy trains. We live in a post-Katrina world, where light rail will bring about change we can believe in. Light rail even donated $50 million to relief efforts in Haiti. This is an indisputable fact.

So I'll approach this issue as a choice between the two different routes on the table, one that cuts through the heart of North Minneapolis via Broadway and Penn (hereinafter referred to as Broadway), and one that bypasses the area via the edge of Theo Wirth park (hereinafter Theo Wirth).

Most NoMi activists seem to be excited about the possibility of light rail on Broadway. Their enthusiasm in understandable. Light rail means foot traffic. Foot traffic means business. Business means expansion and jobs and community pride and crackheads moving on to greener pastures. At least, in theory.

For all of the reasons above, I am inclined to support the Broadway option. I am, after all, a conservative, and a selfish person therefore. More money on Broadway means higher property values, better local entertainment options and, frankly, less of an eyesore.

There is also a justice issue, at least at a macro level. The construction of I-94 famously tore apart communities across the cities, from the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul to Phillips in South Minneapolis and, of course, North Minneapolis, though to a lesser degree than the former.

While the same cities standing to benefit from light rail (suburban hot spots like Plymouth) also benefit from easy access to major thoroughfares (55, 394, 694, 100, 169), the worst areas of Minneapolis are often miles from any major highway. Were this an unintentional by-product of poor city planning, this would still be in need of remedy. That it is, for all intents and purposes, an intentional act carried out with almost surgical position makes it even more so.

So count me in, but with some caveats. There are valid and reasonable arguments for the other route, and supporters of the Broadway option would do well understand and engage them. Call me naive, but I would hope we all would want the best possible outcome for our entire region, beyond parochial interests.

The first two objections are self-explanatory. The Theo Wirth option would cost (marginally) less money and would result in (marginally) faster transit times. These are not negligible considerations. Two minutes may not seem like a big difference, but when we are discussing stops that are 15-30 minutes from downtown by car, that's a pretty large margin. And if we are going to spend more money, there needs to be some sort of financial justification.

There are also the frivolous, NIMBY type objections. In this case, they are particularly absurd. Some have expressed (or have been paid to express) concern that light rail will detract from the community's character, citing the decline of the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul after I-94 paved over it. Per Northside's blog, someone was apparently concerned that her children would be able to play in the streets... On Broadway and Penn...

It seems to me that the question of which route to support hinges on your perspective on safety. Locals who brave public transit in the toughest areas of this city will be quick to tell you that it's not all as bad as advertised. I more or less agree, insofar as Route 5 is depicted as a war zone on wheels by the media.

However, it is indisputable that this particular stretch of Broadway and Penn is the least safe in all of the Twin Cities. If it weren't so, nobody would be clamoring for the addition of light rail. You don't see residents near 50th and France crossing their fingers for the state to ram a big green train through their neighborhood, do you?

Convincing Plymouth residents that they have nothing to fear from a jaunt through a neighborhood that has seen four murders just this month is going to take more than raw assertion. Yeah, we live here, and yeah, we know that Molly the methwhore is harmless, and only became addicted when she was studying for finals at the U. But expecting suburbanites, who pay good money to turn a blind eye to paradox, to make such distinctions is unrealistic.

And the safety issue goes beyond the stops themselves. A direct route to the most crime ridden neighborhoods will leave suburban residents vulnerable to increased home invasions. In my own little square of the city (which is relatively safe, considering the extraneous geography), we see an uptick in break-ins due to our proximity to the 5. I can sympathize with property owners who have no desire to spend their tax money on a big shiny getaway car.

On Northside's blog, one commenter proposed a "zero tolerance policy for idiots". A nice sentiment, but how do you implement this in practice? Providing security for every rail-car will only exacerbate the cost disparity between the Theo Wirth and Broadway lines.

Other than that, travellers are left to the vagaries of Minneapolis law enforcement. Simply put, preventing crime is not a priority in this city. Our mayor is more interested in ending the blight of bottled water than he is in putting cops on the streets (contra his promise to add 50 cops, there are now fewer police officers than there were when he took office).

Our judges have shown a disregard for justice that frankly borders on contempt for innocent citizens. Who wants to risk getting mugged in a city where the penalty for the crime is $50 and probation?

There are aesthetic concerns as well. A peaceful jaunt through Theo Wirth (however romanticized the notion may be) sure seems more appealing than a trawl through Jordan and Camden. People will spend thousands of extra dollars for a car with cup holders and heated seats. You have to imagine a scenery disparity of this magnitude will factor into their transportation decisions.

Not only are these concerns valid outright, but they will inform ridership numbers. A ghost train benefits no-one (*cough* People Mover *cough*), and has the potential to cause real harm to the surrounding community. Further, a drag on ridership renders the entire enterprise meaningless for surrounding communities. My southbound trek on 100 is no fast if we can't alleviate the various east-west bottlenecks.

The answer, then, is to define the position as one that benefits all players.

First of all, as North Minneapolis goes, so goes Robbinsdale and Golden Valley. Sociologists generally agree that crime is a spreadable phenomenon. The laws of diminishing returns state that a jaunt down Victory memorial will be more profitable for a robber than the 23rd break-in this month of some poor elderly guy's house on Lowry and Fremont. A stable, viable economy throughout the area benefits even those who seek to vacate the area.

Second, the NIMBY argument makes a lot more sense when applied to Theo Wirth, the last undiscovered wonder of the city. It is arguably the last urban area here where one can feel truly alone. I can think of one constituency, particularly influential with Rybak's office, for whom this argument ought to be quite persuasive. Just sayin'...

Third, our advocacy needs help from other areas, and vice versa. For example, BJs strip club makes me queasy every time I drive by. It also operates illegally. The city would be within it's rights to shut it down at any time. It doesn't because it's been a good citizen (Lions club and all), but it does not benefit the community.

This is the problem with parochial advocacy. It is necessarily bound up in ideological preference, thereby dividing communities. NoMi should demonstrate a commitment to eschewing ideology if it is going to gain the cooperation of the state...

If this issue becomes a choice between cost and providing yet more transportation options for people who don't own cars, the former wins.

If this issue becomes a choice between those who are content with a certain level of crime and those who are not, the latter attitude wins.

If this issue becomes a choice between city and suburban interests, suburbia wins.

Reading the comments on Johnny Northside's blog, I'm not sure . I'm happy to help bring light rail to North Minneapolis, but if that requires buy-in to a foreign ideology, I'm content to wait on the sidelines.

Told you there were caveats.


Blogger Sarah said...

"Yeah, we live here, and yeah, we know that Molly the methwhore is harmless, and only became addicted when she was studying for finals at the U."

That's one of the funniest lines I've read in a long time :)

7:58 AM  
Blogger Ranty said...

A very thoughtful post, Kevin, thank you. I must remember to check your blog more often.

I still have mixed feelings about light rail in general myself. But, as I live basically smack in-between the two potential lines (I'm just up west from B/P, toward the parkway) I find myself grudgingly interested in what's going to happen with all of this.

11:31 PM  
Blogger The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

I also agree with much of what was said here, and I'm surprised because my first encounter with this blog was the whole Christmas carol thing. (Which I thought committed the double fault of being both in poor taste and not funny. Gotta nail at least one of those in a post like that.)

Anyway, I'm not a big fan of light rail either. For a lot of reasons, I hope like hell the Central Corridor thing never happens. But if light rail in/around NoMi is going to happen, then I say it oughta come down B/P and drive out the rifraff. If I had my way, I'd bring it all the way down Broadway and power-wash the whole damn corridor. But the political will isn't there to make something that bold happen.

1:01 AM  

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