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Slaughter on Washington Avenue? Or Shootout at the Weisman Museum

Light Rail and Washington Avenue,
Under, At Grade, Or Somewhere Else?

Yesterday Mr. B. spent a very interesting hour and a half in the Weisman museum on the University of Minnesota campus listening, along with the Metropolitan Council, to comments from the public concerning the planned light rail project down the so-called Central Corridor between Minneapolis and St. Paul.

There is a distinct possibility that the route will include Washington Avenue on the university campus. Originally some hoped that this routing would be underground, but financing issues seem to make a tunnel unlikely. So it may be a choice between at grade on Washington Avenue or perhaps some other route leading to better traffic control opportunities.

Since the project will go through the University of Minnesota somewhere, U folks are understandably interested and have strong opinions on the matter. The usual suspects from the U of M were there. Neighborhood activists, bicycle riders, and students of urban planning also had an opportunity to speak. Even an artist made his pitch at the end. Great mix of people.

The chairman of the Metropolitan Council, Peter Bell, ran the meeting impeccably, greeting each speaker and thanking them for their input. It was an efficiently run and informative meeting.

To no one’s surprise, all of the speakers officially affiliated with the University endorsed the university position which was basically that an at grade light rail system on Washington Avenue is unacceptable.

The session was scheduled to run from 12 to 2 pm, but actually finished at 1:20 pm, which was quite surprising given the number of people present – my estimate is about 100. People who wanted to speak were asked to register to speak and to limit their remarks to 3 minutes if they were speaking for themselves or five minutes if they were speaking for some organization. After everyone who had requested time in advance had spoken, chairman Bell asked for further input until there was no more. Thus everyone who wanted to say something had their shot.

The entire meeting was peaceful. At first I was a little surprised to see a police officer, but he turned out to be one of the speakers. Vice President Kathleen O’Brien from the university was notably conciliatory in her remarks toward the end of the meeting, not insisting that the answer was a tunnel or forget about it, as some of the earlier speakers had argued.

It should be noted that there was no give and take or argument between the council and the speakers. Speakers simply made their presentations and sat down.

A very brief summary of remarks follows with identification of the speakers where possible:

Maureen Reed ( U of M Alumni Association)

Light rail at grade a tremendous threat to health and safety. Would suck lifeblood out of hospitals and clinics

Steve Wilson, Summit University Planning Council

Support building of light rail line. Do it right..
Restore missing LRT stations.

Take into considertaion the needs of those who need transit the most.

Arvonne Fraser, Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood

LRT - right rather than quickly
Surface line dangerous and inefficient, Washington Avenue not wide enough

Steven Rosentstone (U of M, Minister of Culture)

Central corridor - not every option will produce great outcomes
At grade will produce bottlenecks
Businesses will be destroyed

Bobby Daniels, Medical School and UMP physicians

At grade will lead to 10% reduction in those accessing clinics. $100 million in revenue loss.

Loss of that magnitude would cripple the U medical school. Emergency vehicles would have a difficult time.

Greg Hoessness, U of M Police Chief

Lots of traffic. Pedestrians oblivious while plugged in to iPods, etc. Level 2 trauma center access bad.

Steve Hausch, U of M Med Center

Opposed to at grade. Ease of access to services is critical. Tunnel option preferred.

Phil Easton - Athletics Department

Opposed to at grade option.

Mr. Baker, U of M Parking and Transportation

Safety, emergency access, and reliability of concern

Kristin Denzer, U of M Graduate and Professional Students

Favors tunnel because at grade precludes tunnel, whereas other options
(more stations, extension) could be taken care of later.

Emma Olson, U of M undergrad student body president

Ekspecially articulate
Lots of students use public transportation.
Support a tunnel. Safety is the reason. "I urge you guys..[sic]"

[Regardless of one's position, speech like this from the student body president is embarrassing.]

Josh Tolkin, urban planning student

At grade is preferred. A tunnel will lead to lost economic opportunities. Artery cut is a bad argument, at grade lines in Europe, Denver, Sacramento. No safety problems. Important piece of urban infrastructure. Tunnel at huge cost does not outweigh cost of other desirable things.

Matt Clark

Hold off on Union Depot

Consider possibility of light rail at grade, put traffic under.

Lois Brown, U of M grad student

Washington Avenue unsafe now and she avoids it. Putting a train on Washington Avenue will actually be safer than the present traffic situation. Divert traffic from Washington Avenue.

130 million dollars for a tunnel is a solution for a problem that doesn't exist.

John Ulit

Transit mall on Washington Avenue. University students would be in no more danger than drunken Vikings fans downtown who have to deal with light rail at grade. Transit mall will be the best decision ever forced on the U of M.

Marcus Young, Artist in Residence for City of St. Paul

Do not forget about a vision for public art in the Central Corridor project.

Ross Jackson

Push hard for bicycle access as part of project

Kathleen O'Brien, U of M VP for University Services

Northern alignment a viable alternative to tunnel

Margaret Carlson, U of M Alumni Association

Best doctors at the U. At grade option will make it more difficult for patients to get to U of M. Do not make it more difficult or people will have to change doctors.

---end of public comment summary---

If money were no object, a tunnel would be a great novelty, like the streetcars of my youth. But we have to recognize that there are limits to what we can spend and that issue was simply ignored by the tunnel fans. Just as it will take a lot more money than we’ve got to be one of the “top three research universities in the world.? We are somehow going to have to reconcile the resources we’ve got with our ambitious aspirations. This continues to be a hard lesson for the U of M administration to learn.

Given how dangerous it already is to cross Washington Avenue as a pedestrian, the complaint that somehow the light rail at grade will be unsafe rings hollow. Surely a combination of overpasses, underpasses, and well done pedestrian crossings could handle this objection? There are already two bridges over Washington Avenue as well as a tunnel between Moos Tower and a parking garage.

The complaint from the U hospital is lame. The situation at the U hospital is currently ugly. We are going to build a new pediatric unit across the river at the Cedar/Riverside complex. Perhaps the University could consider locating a trauma center there also? Hospital access from 94 to the Cedar/Riverside complex would seem to be a lot simpler. Mr. B. is not an urban planner, but problems due to the light rail at grade would seem worthy of an urban planner’s attention, especially at the university. With an emphasis on outreach and community involvement such a planning project could be a worthwhile opportunity for U faculty and students to show their stuff.

My main concern is the problem that two lanes of light rail at grade and two lanes of traffic may cause. In an emergency – hospital or fire department – efficiently moving the necessary vehicles through a single lane of traffic may be a big problem. Also an accident could completely seal off things in one direction leading to a traffic nightmare. I am not a traffic engineer and there may very well be ways around these problems. I hope so.

If this last issue can be addressed satisfactorily, then I believe that an at grade Washington Avenue light rail path would be the best compromise.

Instead of saying that light rail at grade down Washington Avenue is unacceptable, as evidence of good faith it would be interesting to hear the University of Minnesota administration asking the questions: "What if light rail went at grade along Washington Avenue? How could we make this work?"

At the end of the month they may have to start thinking about answers to these questions.

I am dismissing the so-called Northern route out of hand. Interested readers may wish to enlighten me to the contrary. There was a lot of talk that at grade on Washington Avenue would sever an artery. Washington Avenue is, indeed, the main and most convenient way to put down a transit line through the university with ready access to East and West Bank, Coffman, Northrup, and UHospitals serving as just a few examples. Are there any arguments on this?


Having lived or been a pedestrian in a number of cities with at grade streetcars or light rail of some kind, where businesses thrive and pedestrians are safe, I'm not sure why people think this is more dangerous than the regular traffic on Washington Ave. Streetcars don't dart out into traffic unexpectedly, run red lights, drive while talking on cell phones, cut off bikers without signaling or block the intersections. Reduction of car traffic to Washington, with our without light rail would make that zone a lot safer. It's likely that the construction would harm local businesses, but so has the resurfacing of Lake steet in service of cars, or the repair of bridge in Dinkytown for the same reason.

Light rail has killed a lot of people in cities like Denver. I would like to know the actual accidents and death rate of light rate collisions in each city, state, or area.

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