Thursday, June 30, 2011

Traffic impacts from Minnesota government shutdown

lawnmower man
State capitol grounds maintenance continued during the 2005 government shutdown—was that deemed critical for public safety? This year the public won't be allowed in the building, but we'll have to see if the lawn still gets mowed.
The Minnesota state government is going to be mostly shut down tomorrow, and drivers are going to notice.

Here's what I know will be shut down:
  • The MnPASS receivers for HOT lanes on I-394 and I-35W will be turned off, so the lanes to being HOV-only during rush hours.  I-394's reversible lanes will only be open to westbound traffic, and the dynamic shoulder lanes on I-35W are expected to be disabled.
  • Construction on the new U.S. 52 Lafayette Bridge in downtown Saint Paul will stop, though maintenance will continue on the existing (fracture-critical) bridge.
  • The new U.S. 61 bridge in Hastings over the Mississippi may be put on hold.
  • The I-494/U.S. 169 interchange project will be put on hold and some other road projects will also stop.
  • Highway rest stops will be closed.
  • The Secretary of State's office will be closed and unable to record data for liens and loans, and title searches for cars and various other property won't be possible (real estate is handled at the county level, and won't be directly affected).
Here's what will keep going, at least for a while:
  • It was initially reported that the Stillwater Lift Bridge was initially going to be raised and left in the open position, blocking car traffic, but it has apparently been deemed critical to public health and safety—so Wisconsinites(!) can get to the hospital—and will continue operating.
  • Construction on the Central Corridor LRT is expected to continue, since funding has been appropriated in past years. It's mostly a Metropolitan Council project, but there are 19 Mn/DOT staff there for regulatory oversight and it's not clear what will happen with them.
  • Mn/DOT's traffic cameras will continue operating, but will only be available to traffic managers and will not be broadcast. Ramp meters will keep operating because Mn/DOT feels they deter crashes.
  • Metro-area transit will keep running for the time being. It's estimated that Metro Transit can keep going for about a month on cash reserves. (The bank accounts of suburban providers are bigger as a proportion to their annual budgets, but the Met Council forced them to draw down reserves two years ago to bring them more in-line with Metro Transit's financial situation.) Minnesota Valley Transit Authority is the largest suburban provider, and they can supposedly run for 60 days on reserves.
And just because you might feel like breaking something after thinking too much about politics, here's a Finance & Commerce video of the demolition of the old Bremer Bank building in downtown Saint Paul:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Northstar Regional Rail vs. Northstar Commuter Rail

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A super-sized weekend Northstar train from autumn 2010 which was set up for combined game-day loads of Vikings and Twins fans

The Republican-held Minnesota legislature passed a funding cut for Metropolitan-area transit of $109 million for the 2012–2013 biennium, leaving only about $10 million in state-appropriated funding per year. Transit operators in the Twin Cities only pull in about $95 million per year in ticket revenue, so this is something akin to watching 55% of your riders suddenly disappear.

The legislation was overturned by a veto by Gov. Mark Dayton, but now that the Republicans have staked out such an egregious position, it's likely that Democratic politicians will cave to a cut much like the loopy $69 million hack job proposed earlier in the House's session and a seemingly less-bad (at the time) $30 million-ish cut from the Senate instead. Metro Transit's rail operations are the meatiest targets for cuts, and I'm personally convinced that the earlier proposals (particularly the one from the Senate) were specifically intended to force the Northstar commuter and Hiawatha LRT services to be shut down—each of which require around $15 million in subsidy per year at the moment.

I personally could not justify cutting the Hiawatha Line, since it attracts so many riders to Metro Transit as a whole and carries them quickly for a relatively low cost per head (with 2008 data, it's about $1.44 subsidy/rider, with total cost of $2.32/rider). The Northstar is a different story. I hate to come to this conclusion, but the Northstar is currently an expendable service. The cost per rider is far too high, with subsidies in the vicinity of $20 per trip—That will likely go down over time, but looking at two-way trips for each day, that ends up being much more than the average cost to own a car. Considering that most Northstar riders will drive to the car-oriented stations in the first place, it's not an appropriate use of scarce resources.

I can justify subsidizing a trip at $20, $40, or even hundreds if it is only an occasional thing—a few times per week, month, or year—but not every day. This is why I think the Northstar should be converted into a regional rail service operating throughout the day rather than just during rush hours. I also still cling to the idea that it should be extended to St. Cloud, primarily because it has the potential to run a profit. Mn/DOT's Minnesota State Rail Plan pegged the operating ratio at between 70% and 111%, and I feel those numbers could be very conservative—The same plan says that the farebox recovery for the Northern Lights Express to Duluth would be just 22% to 34%, even though corridor-specific studies have put it at more than 100% (and a positive operating ratio is a requirement for the Federal Railroad Administration funding source that they've been targeting).

Note that St. Cloud has a local airport, but it doesn't have any scheduled commercial service. Even if it did, it would probably be very overpriced. Using other regional short-hop costs as a guide, a person could expect to pay $260 to $360 just to get from St. Cloud to the Twin Cities by air. Amtrak tickets on the frequently-delayed Empire Builder are more like $20, but I figure there's plenty of headroom to increase prices for a reliable regional service.

Currently there are 14 12 individual trips per weekday (6 5 inbound round-trips plus one reverse-commute round-trip) using five four trainsets which park underneath Target Field in between the morning and afternoon rush periods. That's a waste of expensive equipment. (The three round-trips per weekend day just use one trainset.) Since each trip takes about 50 minutes, a single train could have been used to provide service every two hours on the route, or two trains could have been used to provide hourly service. Trips to St. Cloud would take about twice as long and would probably need twice as many trains to get the same service frequency.

$320 million has already been invested in the corridor for infrastructure and usage rights. Getting to the original vision for the service probably requires $100 to $250 million more, but a phased approach could make good improvements for much less. I think there's a strong possibility that a series of normal bank loans could be used to build the rest of the line at this point, either repaid through fare surpluses or by Mn/DOT in future years when our state legislators regain a sense of sanity.

The main choke point for service to St. Cloud is a segment of single-tracking that runs from the Northstar's Big Lake station to just beyond Becker, a distance of about 9 miles. Double-tracking had existed there in the past, and some grade crossings still have the extra set of tracks embedded in the asphalt. It should be easy to rebuild it for for $20 million or less.  There might be some extra costs because Mn/DOT has claimed that the highway intersections along U.S. Highway 10 are too close to the tracks and would need to be reworked—Of course, that's Mn/DOT's fault for putting highway too close to the rails in the first place, but whatever.

Negotiating track usage rights for the extra distance to St. Cloud is a bigger question. If reductions in frequency could be tolerated, there might be room to reconfigure the service without requiring additional cost. The distance to St. Cloud is 66 miles vs. the 39 miles to Big Lake, so roughly 3.5 3 round-trips per day could be accomplished with the same allocation of train-miles per day.   Those trips would be backed up to some extent by Amtrak's Empire Builder from St. Cloud to Saint Paul (when it's not running 10 hours late or terminating due to flooding or other issues out west). Gaps in the low level of service would also be supported a bit by Jefferson Lines buses (operating essentially direct from Minneapolis to St. Cloud) and potentially the Northstar Link buses (the current method of getting from Big Lake to St. Cloud).

I'm sure that smallish $20 million or so loans could be repaid in just a few years if the Northstar became profitable.  Even if such money couldn't be repaid through surpluses, the debt service plus operating subsidy would probably be less than today's ~$15 million yearly subsidy.  With the current wave of fiscal insanity, we basically can't afford to subsidize Northstar at all, but this could be a way to keep it operating even through a period of through-the-bottom austerity.

I'll also just briefly mention the idea that BNSF could take over Northstar completely.  Their crews already operate the trains and they wouldn't have to pay themselves for track usage rights, so it would be a pretty easy for them to do it (thought it would also be easy for them to cancel it).

[Update 11/20/2011: I have often mis-read the Northstar schedule. There are only five inbound trips per peak period, not six like I previously said.]

Monday, June 27, 2011

Some growing pains for Nice Ride

I suppose I could have been interviewed on KSTP this evening, but I decided against it because I was sweating and breathing a bit heavily. I took a Nice Ride MN bike from the Akerman Hall station on the University of Minnesota campus over to the newly-opened station at Raymond Avenue & Territorial Road in Saint Paul, only to discover a KSTP news van parked next to it with a few station employees hanging out—including one of their anchors, Bill Lunn.

[Update: Here's their story]

The Raymond Ave station had been empty all day long, so I figured if the Nice Ride folks weren't going to start populating it, I may as well start on that task myself. At the moment, it appears to be the only active station in Saint Paul—Last week, I took a bike from the Territorial & Westgate Drive station which stood about two blocks into the city, but the Nice Ride folks tweeted this morning that it had been removed due to a problem with permits. Three additional stations planned for the Hamline-Midway neighborhood were added to their map last week, but don't seem to be activated yet.

I'm not a big fan of the way Nice Ride is currently working to expand, although I temper those thoughts slightly because I think they're playing a bit of a longer game. They hope to expand into downtown Saint Paul next year, so part of this year's expansion involves adding stations along the University Avenue corridor (a well as Marshall Ave and Grand Ave) to start building up the link between the two downtowns.

The spacing of the newest stations is pretty large—significantly larger than what I'd like to see. When bike stations are spaced half a mile apart or more, they lose a lot of value for acting as the "last mile" link between transit and other destinations. The Marcy-Holmes neighborhood across the Mississippi River from downtown Minneapolis has been largely ignored, despite being fairly dense and chock full of students who cycle to the nearby U of M. I'm also a bit wary of expanding the bike sharing along the Central Corridor at this particular moment, especially since University Avenue is half torn up along that stretch. The remaining old pavement is not in very good condition (though it won't be much longer before traffic begins to shift onto new pavement on the south side of the street and the north side starts getting torn up). Riders can use side streets in many cases, of course, but there is a major choke point between Cleveland Avenue/Transfer Road and Fairview Avenue, where the Minnesota Commercial Railroad gets in the way and blocks off most roads and forces University Avenue itself into a relatively narrow underpass (in current light-rail construction, it is the only segment of two-lane road along the street—other parts of University have three-lane striping with a center turn lane).

The Nice Ride system as currently envisioned for 2012 is going to cover a huge geographical area, making it among the largest bike-sharing systems in the world by that measure. With a little help from Google Maps, it appears that the distance from 50th & France in southwest Minneapolis to East 7th Street & the Bruce Vento Trail—two stations planned for next year—clocks in at nearly 14 miles. Even Paris's huge VĂ©lib' system with 1,200 stations and 20,000 bikes only stretches about 12.5 miles. That's ten times the number of bikes and stations that Nice Ride will have by the end of next year, so I hope they know what they're doing.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Closed to cars, open to people


"Become the street. Think like the street. Be one with the street."

Grand Old Day is arriving in Saint Paul again this weekend, for the 38th time. I'm endlessly amused by their promotional video this year. Clearly this guy has a destiny as an urban planner.

I've really only been to Grand Old Day two or three times—usually I miss hearing about it until it's too late. It's a sort of proto-cyclovia event where 2.5 miles of Grand Avenue from Dale Ave to Fairview Ave in Saint Paul get closed down for an initial parade followed by events scattered all along the street (though I'm sure it's much more organized than a cyclovia is meant to be). I was impressed by the scale of it back in 2007 when I took this photo:

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Some websites claim the event gets 250,000 visitors, which would make it busier than any single day of the Minnesota State Fair (their one-day record currently stands at 234,384). I suppose the fact that Grand Old Day is a "linear" fair makes it relatively easy to access, though the fairgrounds themselves stretch for nearly a mile north-south and about half a mile east-west, if you average it out. Grand Old Day is also free, unlike the fair -- can you imagine trying to fully cordon off 2.5 miles of a traditional neighborhood and charge admission?

Hmm. Well, I have actually been pondering the role of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in a potentially more urban world. I go past it frequently since it's between my home and my workplace, and it strikes me that the place is roughly the same size as my hometown (the actual contiguous urban street grid as I knew it growing up, at least). You could easily fit a couple thousand residents on the land—no wonder my legs get so tired when I visit!—but it sits largely disused for most of the year. Sure, there are a lot of small events booked into the sturdier permanent buildings, plus a few major horse and car shows each year, but it's generally a big blob of empty streets, buildings, and parking lots.

I may have to dig deeper into the major fairs held in urban areas of older countries. Could people actually live at the fairgrounds year-round? I find it an intriguing thought.

That thought process also brings up the idea of putting the Vikings stadium on the fairgrounds rather than way out in Arden Hills. The transit patterns for the fairgrounds have been practiced for over a century at this point—originally with streetcars, and with buses for the last several decades—so it would be a much more logical place to put a new stadium (though still less logical than downtown Minneapolis).

Anyway... Hmm, I lost track of my original thought process. Ah yes—

Minneapolis is going to have a cyclovia event of its own on June 12th, Open Streets Minneapolis. It will close down about 2.3 miles of Lyndale Ave from 22nd St. to 42nd St. I'll be very interested to see how big the crowds are for that versus the well-established Grand Old Day. Of course, being a "cyclovia", it'll be much more welcoming to bikes as well.

And now, after poking at the Minneapolis cyclovia page, I am amused that Fargo beat the Twin Cities to the punch by holding an open streets event last year.