The Equity Factor

Right Side of the Tracks: Twin Cities Light Rail Plan Pulls Switcheroo on Freight Line

The Twin Cities light rail stop outside Target Field. Credit: Adam Fagen on Flickr

Twin Cities metro leaders revealed a plan Tuesday night for a light rail line that has smart transit-oriented development (TOD) plans accounted for. Some members of the Metropolitan Council, the regional planning authority, have scoffed at the new plan, but make no mistake: The proposal is ripe for smart growth.

The Southwest Corridor line will run 14 miles and connect downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul to the southwest suburbs. But it gets tricky: Hennepin County and five cities have to approve the plan. It’s not necessarily a case of too many cooks in the kitchen, but it’s hard to please everyone.

The plan as presented on Tuesday would shift freight tracks, owned by Canadian Pacific, that run parallel to the light rail of the same corridor. Basically, the freight line would move to the north side of the light rail. This would most significantly affect the route in St. Louis Park, where there isn’t much room on the north side of the tracks for development or investment.

Now, it’s worth noting that swapping the tracks with Canadian Pacific would add $60 million to the $1.56 billion plan, but it still makes sense. In July, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy released a new tool for measuring the effectiveness of TOD. I wrote then that you can’t simply “put a new train station a half-mile across a highway and expect people to flock to the neighborhood. Walkable paths and easy access are what matter.”

That’s exactly the case in St. Louis Park, as well as in nearby Hopkins. Shifting the light rail to the south will give residents and businesses better access to it. Certain parts of the northern corridor run very close to Highway 7 and would create what the local media has called a “no-man’s land.”

Kevin Locke, community development director for St. Louis Park, agreed that running light rail on the south side of the corridor would spur more development. For starters, if it’s on the north side the freight tracks would separate stations from land uses to the south.

“We think the southwest line would be good for economic development and the recommended plan, in particular how it lays out the rail for the stations in Hopkins and St. Louis Park, would spur growth,” Locke said. Methodist Hospital, he added, is one block south of the proposed Louisiana stop. Leaders expect employment growth after the light rail is up and running in 2018.

The term “economic development” gets thrown around a lot, but Locke’s approach encouraged me as to how the light rail could transform the corridor. There were no mentions of big-box stores or surface parking lots, but rather faith in anchor institutions. “There’s certainly room for higher-density housing,” Locke said. “And lots of space for mixed-use development.”

There’s plenty of infighting further down the line, though, where the proposal calls for tunnels through Minneapolis’ Kenilworth Corridor. The tunnels would essentially hide the light rail from the Kenilworth Trail, a popular bike bath, though critics say that the trains would still stay above ground for too long. (This refers to a 20-second stretch on a channel near two picturesque lakes.) Though the trail won’t be affected — except during construction — some residents still want nothing to do with it.

Mark Fuhrmann, the Metropolitan Council’s head for new rail projects, maintains that the proposed plan “will generate much more development along the line” in the long term. Not to mention it’s cheaper: Previous plans called for rerouting freight trains onto berms in St. Louis Park, which would have cost $200 million. The current plan will only make a $160 million dent in the overall price tag.

The Metropolitan Council is set to vote next Wednesday.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Bill Bradley is based in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in The Daily, Bloomberg Businessweek, GQ.com and Vanity Fair, among others. Follow him on Twitter @billbradley3.

Tags: economic development, equity factor, transit, light rail, transit-oriented development, minneapolis-st. paul, twin cities