Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hiawatha leads Metro Transit to record ridership

Metro Transit's overall ridership is up again this year, setting new records. The number of riders went down last year due to the poor economy (a trend which was seen all across the country), but it has now rebounded to 78 million—2.3% above last year, and an absolute increase of around 1.75 million rides. KSTP says this is the 4th time in the last 30 years that Metro Transit has reached 78 million or more.

The Hiawatha light-rail line grew its ridership by 6% (about 600,000) to 10.5 million rides in 2010, breaking the service's 2008 record. According to the agency, core urban bus service grew by 0.7% (about 450,000) to 65 million rides. Their express buses saw ridership grow too—possibly helped by the new Marquette and 2nd Avenue busways in Minneapolis—rising by 2.5% (about 225,000) to 9.2 million rides. There was disappointment with the Northstar commuter line, though, which only carried 710,400 passengers—21% below where they hoped it would be for the year (presumably 900,000). Fortunately, the line still met its budget targets, so counties along the line should see refunds again this year.

I can see a lot of possible reasons why the Northstar Line is having issues. Metro Transit is quick to blame the economy, though I'm skeptical of that excuse. I would have expected express bus service to remain soft if that were the case. Of course, even with an increase this past year, they might still be below 2008 numbers for all I know (I simply don't have the data).

One big problem might just be the expectations themselves. Transit projects around the Twin Cities started using different numbers after the Hiawatha line burst forth with ridership counts that exceeded even 20-year projections. It's hard to pull off that trick a second time, and perhaps suburban residents just aren't as train-happy as their brethren in Minneapolis.

Anyway, if we're restricted to thinking about the line as it currently is, I think the biggest issue is frequency of service and the time of day when it begins and ends. I doubt I'd be able to maintain a train-compatible schedule if I lived along the corridor and took it to work each day. I often end up staying a bit too late at work, or get up too late in the morning. The last train arrives in Minneapolis at 8:10 AM, while the last evening departure is 6:15 PM. Personally, I'd only feel safe if arrivals ran until about 8:45 or 9:00 and departures ran until about 7:00. Unfortunately, it'll cost a lot to run more trains—the Northstar runs on what is basically the busiest freight corridor in the state, so more trains require additional track to add capacity.

Stepping outside of that a bit, I think some of the station locations were poorly chosen. Well, maybe there wasn't much hope for the U.S. 10 corridor, bloated as it is with suburban- and exurban-style development, but at least one of the stations could have been put in a better spot. My biggest gripe is with the Elk River stop, which is more than 2 miles from the intersection of Main Street and U.S. 10 (the only thing I can find that resembles the "center" of Elk River). I figure they should have put it near Lions Park, which would put it just about half a mile from the Main Street intersection.

Of course, probably the biggest issue with the Northstar Line is that it doesn't go to St. Cloud yet. Once it goes all the way, it'll carry far more riders. Mn/DOT figures the line will be able to cover between 90% and 110% of the operating costs with fare revenue, so it should break even at least once in a while. I really wish they'd just fund the extension and be done with it, but I'm sure it'll take many more years of fighting before that happens... I'd like to be surprised, though.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Robert Street corridor to start Alternatives Analysis

The Robert Street corridor from downtown St. Paul south to Rosemount is entering a new phase of study, following a $1.18 million federal grant last month. It's an alternatives analysis, to start within 6 months and finish between mid-2012 and the start of 2013. Streetcar/light rail and bus rapid transit options have been mentioned most often up until now, but no specific type of service has been determined yet.

According to the book Twin Cities by Trolley by John W. Diers and Aaron Isaacs, horsedrawn streetcars started serving Robert Street in 1887. Electric streetcars ran from 1891 until 1952. Two Twin City Rapid Transit streetcar services, "So. St. Paul" and "S. Robert", shared track from downtown across the river to Concord Street (officially Cesar Chavez today) and State Street. Rather than going straight south along Robert, the streetcars of the S. Robert service ascended the bluff along State Street, rejoined Robert Street a few blocks later, and ended at Annapolis Street. The service up the hill between Concord and Annapolis only lasted until 1938.

The So. St. Paul service was more heavily trafficked than S. Robert and continued along Concord Street. It's not entirely clear when the name came along, since the tracks initially only went as far as Witham Street, just east of today's U.S. 52 (Lafayette Freeway). In 1905, the service was extended about 5 miles through the city of South St. Paul to Linden Street in Inver Grove Heights.

In 1913–1914, the St. Paul Sothern Electric Railway built 17.5 miles of track from Inver Grove to Hastings. They had intended to reach Red Wing and Rochester, but never made it that far. The line opened in late 1914, but didn't have through service to St. Paul until an agreement was finally struck with TCRT almost a year later. The railroad carried on until 1928. TCRT took over a small stretch of track to Faulkner Ave in Inver Grove Heights, but abandoned that in 1933, cutting back to the earlier Linden Street terminus.

With this history in mind, I'm not entirely sure whether a future "Robert Street Corridor" would actually continue along Robert Street or if it would go along Concord instead. Of course, both services would probably be useful, so I wouldn't want to be restricted to an either-or scenario. There are definitely a lot of stuff along Robert Street today, though a good chunk of it is a post-1950 "Anywhere, USA" business corridor. Looks can be deceiving, and I'm a bit concerned that the number of residents within walking distance could be pretty low.

Red Rock Corridor station area open house meetings

Red Rock Corridor officials are slowly moving along with their project. Plans are being finalized on how to extend bus service southeast to Hastings, and the buses should be operating by the end of 2011.

Another round of open houses are planned this week for commuter rail station areas in Newport, Hastings, Cottage Grove, and Saint Paul. The only Saint Paul station they're talking about (aside from the Saint Paul Union Depot, which is on its own path) is the one sited at the intersection of Lower Afton Road and U.S. Highway 10. I attended a previous meeting about the Lower Afton station, and was frustrated that the decision on where to route trains between St. Paul and Minneapolis was still years away, and the plans for station locations in between weren't going to be discussed for a long time either. Still, I hope the meetings will be useful for people who do live in current planned station areas.
Newport City Hall
596 7th Ave.
Newport, MN 55055
January 10, 2011
6:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

Hastings City Hall
101 4th St. E
Hastings, MN 55033
January 11, 2011
6:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

Cottage Grove City Hall
7516 80th St. S.
Cottage Grove, MN 55016
January 12, 2011
6:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.

Battle Creek Community Center
75 Winthrop St. S.
Saint Paul, MN 55119
January 13, 2011
6:30 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.