See more of the story

Opinion editor's note: Star Tribune Opinion publishes a mix of national and local commentaries online and in print each day. To contribute, click here.


It came as a mild surprise back in 2021 when efforts to co-locate Bottineau light-rail transit (LRT) with Burlington Northern (BNSF) freight operations through the northwest suburbs failed despite broad community support. Seemingly routine issues became emotional and could not be overcome, forcing transit planners to settle on a much slower alternative pathway for Blue Line expansion, over north Minneapolis streets and the median of Hwy. 81 through Robbinsdale and Crystal.

But it should come as no surprise at all if community support for the "Bottineau on Broadway" alternative starts to unravel once the very real performance, safety, accessibility and gentrification concerns associated with on-street rail transit systems come to light ("North Minneapolis neighborhood worried about blue line light rail extension," May 18).

Yet that could be a good thing.

On-street light-rail transit is not safe, according to federal research. Collision events involving on-street trains happen 10 to 15 times more frequently than with off-street route configurations of the sort originally planned for the BNSF corridor.

The risks have forced costly and performance-sapping mitigation measures including speed reductions of 10 to 15 mph relative to off-street systems. Today in the Twin Cities, the 18 mph Green Line along the University Avenue median is no faster than a well-run express bus, while the planned 30-mph off-street Southwest light-rail transit (SWLRT) Green Line extension will run largely unimpaired over an exclusive right of way between Minneapolis and Eden Prairie.

Restricted to a bus-like 15 mph, the Bottineau-on-Broadway alternative will do little to improve mobility for most north Minneapolis and northwest suburban riders. Few will get where they're going faster than they do today — save for a small, privileged population of riders close enough to walk or bicycle to a nearby light-rail station and then ride directly to MSP Airport or Mall of America without a downtown transfer.

That will lead to the up-zoning and redevelopment of north Minneapolis station environs, forcing rents up and longtime residents out.

With station-area real estate being the only identifiable beneficiary from light rail on north Minneapolis streets — and with pandemic-era transit ridership depressed, possibly for years — the cost, timing and equity proposition of this disruptive and underperforming venture now seems quaintly out of step with community needs.

An extended timeout is needed for stakeholders to step back, reflect and compare the Bottineau rail-based alternatives at hand with other U.S. light rail configurations. They should visit Seattle and take heed from the rash of collisions and fatalities following the onset of LRT service along the median of south Seattle's MLK Parkway, which angles through that locale much as West Broadway cuts through north Minneapolis.

In response to an outraged Seattle community, train speeds have been reduced and costly elevated sections will soon span key intersections, while on-street configurations are now banned from future Seattle area lines.

Does Bottineau need to repeat this?

Progress toward corridor equity and mobility goals could continue as planners refocus on developing more frequent and fungible bus service over more rider-friendly routes. If done right, North Side riders could reach popular destinations and transfer points like Target Field as fast or faster than either today's local buses or tomorrow's on-street light rail. That might be the key to the regional mobility and equity the community craves.

There is also the onset of SWLRT service to benchmark as it operates over an efficient, off-street southwest metro pathway that is the geographic mirror image of the original BNSF/Bottineau corridor. Strong SWLRT performance would compel a harder look at off-street Bottineau alternatives — either running subway-style underneath Broadway or around Broadway over the original, shared use, BNSF corridor.

It seems almost cruel to ask the Bottineau community to wait even longer for "their turn" at securing showcase transit service. But it seems even more sinister to saddle it with an underperforming shiny object that promises far more regional mobility than what is actually delivered.

Jerome Johnson is a retired transport economist and a founding member of Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit.