Sunday, March 25, 2012

March 24, 2012 weekly rail news

The big stories:

Early in the week came news that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has decided to let last week's legislative decision on the Talgo maintenance facility stand. I'm still baffled that the committee had so much power (no need to bring this to the full legislature?), and that it was so lopsided (12 Republicans and 4 Democrats?).

More recently, many train-related blogs I follow have been full of chatter about Florida East Coast Railway's plan to restart—on their own—passenger service between Miami and Orlando. This seems to be the first real foray back into the privately-funded for-profit passenger business by an actual railroad. There are a few private operators running regularly-scheduled service around the country, though they're all subsidized as far as I know. I made mention on Twitter of the Greenbrier Express as a privately-funded attempt aimed at the high-end market (and nicely filling out service along the current half-daily Amtrak Cardinal route)—but that came much more from a preservationist angle and ended up stalling last year as costs escalated and there were questions about meeting FRA regulations with heritage equipment.

I remain a bit skeptical about the FEC proposal, since they have an aggressive timeline of starting service by 2014, but I do think the Florida coast is one of the best corridors in the country for passenger rail. People are attracted to living near the ocean, and the Everglades limit most development in the southern part of the state to a narrow slice of land that's sometimes only 10 miles wide. Train traffic on the FEC is also dominated by fast intermodal trains, making it somewhat easier to mix in passenger service (which they propose to—at least eventually—run at top speeds up to 100 to 110 mph—station stops will drag the average down, of course).

Still, to directly serve Orlando, they'd need to build about 40 miles of new track and much of the existing corridor would need to be double-tracked. The plans for service apparently began to be worked out several months ago, though it doesn't look like they've gone through detailed ridership studies. A potentially bigger problem is the availability of rolling stock—To make their target date of 2014, they'd basically need to have equipment ordered already. I've speculated that they may make a bid for the Wisconsin Talgos, but that's probably not enough. Amtrak and various other state DOTs have ordered a decent amount of equipment in recent years, so maybe there will be enough Amtrak cast-offs to be sufficient. The FEC appears to be proposing hourly service, which would probably require at least 4 trainsets.

Regardless of whether they actually start running in 2014, I do generally believe they're doing the right thing at about the right time. Gas prices are now as high (on an inflation-adjusted basis) as they were back in the 1920s when rail ridership was at its peak. Now, that's actually a relatively meaningless data point, but it's one of an array of things that tell me that good business opportunities for passenger service will begin appearing again.

Fun stuff:

A wargamer's analysis on how to get a seat on the London Overground.

Minnesota news:

There will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the Northstar Line commuter station in the city of Ramsey this Tuesday, and they're aiming for a first day of service of November 16th. The project had been expected to cost $13.2 million, though it's currently $2.5 million under budget due to low bids. (Note my previous coverage.)

The Northstar Link commuter bus which connects to the Northstar Line has continued to see growth. There were 46,437 rides in 2011 vs. 26,263 rides in 2010, and January/February 2012 ridership is 30% above what it was in the first two months of last year (though I imagine a chunk of the growth comes from expanded service).

Open houses will be held for the Gateway Corridor (eastward from St. Paul) over the next two weeks.  The first is on Tuesday, March 27th.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012 6-8 p.m.
Eastside Community Center
Harding Senior High School
1526 East 6th Street, St. Paul, MN

Thursday, March 29, 2012 5- 7 p.m.
Chippewa Valley Technical College
Room 118, Health Education Center
615 W. Clairemont Avenue, Eau Claire, WI

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 5-7 p.m.
St. Croix County Government Center
Lower Level (enter by Sheriff’s Office)
1101 Carmichael Road, Hudson, WI

Thursday, April 5, 2012 5-7 p.m.
Woodbury City Hall
Ash/Birch Room, Main Floor
8301 Valley Creek Road, Woodbury, MN
The Interchange project at Target Field in Minneapolis is currently $30 million short on funding, even though the county is planning to select a contractor on April 10th. Also, so far, only one bid has come in below the $67.7 million projected cost.

The complete rebuild of the Milwaukee Road 261 is continuing in Minneapolis.  Boiler tubes are being replaced, and hydrostatic tests followed by first steam are expected this spring.  They aren't expecting the locomotive to be available for excursions this year, though it may be taken out for some test runs.

Bus driver Jeff Iceman of Red Lake Transit came in third at the National Tribal Transit Roadeo in Scottsdale, Arizona.

National news:

In California, it appears that politicians have wrangled votes to pass funding for that state's first high-speed rail line. It's not clear when a vote may happen, however.

Amtrak's rollout of e-tickets is continuing. The railroad's City of New Orleans is apparently the most recent train to get e-tickets. Nationwide rollout is still expected this summer.

The startup Detroit Bus Company is going to attempt to operate one route in the city and see if they can break even doing it. They're currently looking at $5 fares for an all-day pass.

Google and the city of Mountain View, California are apparently considering personal rapid transit for employees.

The Freakonomics guys put up a podcast about hitchhiking, some reasons why it has fallen out of fashion, and why and how it might see a resurgence.

International news:

There were protests in Bogota, Colombia over the state of the city's vaunted TransMilenio BRT system.

The Channel Tunnel between the U.K. and mainland Europe may soon get used by high-speed mail/parcel trains as an alternative to air-mail/freight. EuroCarex recently ran a test train which they say has 7x the capacity (by mass) of a Boeing 737 cargo plane.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Untangling Twin Cities taxis

Another column from me for

When was the last time you took a taxi in the Twin Cities? For me, it's been well over a decade—long enough that I can't even remember if I had to chip in for the fare or not.

Taxis are generally off my radar when thinking of different modes of transportation. I tend to walk, bike, and take buses or trains—taxis have never been much of a consideration for me because the price difference compared to local transit. Bus and rail fares rarely exceed $3 (the main exception being the Northstar commuter train), but taxi rates can easily reach 10 times that level. Taxis also simply haven't been that common in the Twin Cities—in Minneapolis, the city limited licenses to a mere 400 up until 2006 (though the total number of Minneapolis taxis has apparently only risen to 500). My own timidity largely just stems from the fact that I've barely used them and just don't know what's typical.

Lately, I've spent some time researching local fare regulations in order to further my education a bit. Minimum taxi fares in the area are often pegged at $5 (the maximum allowed for a minimum fare in Minneapolis and Saint Paul proper). Add in per-mile rates of $2.20 in Saint Paul and $2.75 in Minneapolis plus extra fees for waiting (up to $24/hour) or traveling from the airport (where $6.75 is on the meter before the taxi even starts moving). Oh, and don't forget the customary 10–15% tip (though you have the right to refuse to tip).

At this point in time, I suspect most cab drivers have credit card readers onboard, though I haven't seen it required anywhere yet. Street hails are legal, though I still haven't figured out if there's a special local code for roof lights being on or off (in some cities, this gets rather complicated).

It is possible to pre-negotiate a fare payment with at least some drivers. Saint Paul has set a minimum rate of $6.00/hour, though I suspect you'd be hard-pressed to find any driver willing to go that low.

Perhaps more confusing than fares and tips is figuring out which cab company to call when you need a ride. Cabs licensed in Minneapolis can drop off in Saint Paul, but not pick up there unless also licensed for the capital city. There also seem to be cabs licensed for airport service which aren't allowed to pick up in either of the two core cities (the MSP airport terminals are located in the unorganized territory of Fort Snelling, so taxis operating there may not be subject to the ordinances of surrounding municipalities).

At least a dozen different companies serve the two core cities, all of whom do things a bit differently from one another. Oh, and don't forget that there are 180 other cities and townships in the 7-county metro area alone which may have their own regulations. While I've been able to get some information about the core cities, reliable information for Bloomington—the region's third largest city—has proven to be elusive, so I haven't been optimistic about getting data from other parts of the metro. Understanding the patchwork of regulations around the region could easily become a full-time job.

This could be simplified, of course. At a recent BURP event where several area bloggers and followers got together for some drinks and conversation about all things urban, one wise guest suggested that taxis should really fall under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Council rather than being regulated by individual cities. Hopefully this would make things easier for everyone: taxi drivers, owners, and passengers. Drivers and vehicles would only need to be licensed once, and wouldn't need to worry about out-of-sync license renewals (Woodbury licenses always expire on Dec. 31, for instance, while Saint Paul licenses expire a year after being issued). Cab owners could get vehicle inspections done once rather than multiple times in multiple locations, and things like driver background checks could be made more uniform as well.

The Minneapolis City Council will be looking at taxi regulations soon, though their interest is in protecting drivers following a recent murder on the city's North Side. Council Member Gary Schiff wants to mandate either bullet-proofing or cameras in city taxis—both of which have been security options in Minneapolis taxis for a while now, though the major local companies tend toward using a GPS-based alert system instead.

Is it time to start thinking more broadly about taxis and their role in the Twin Cities transportation network? In my mind, taking a more regional approach is long overdue.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

March 18, 2012 weekly rail news

Fun stuff:

Hennepin County Public Library brings us this 1967 ad about Twin City Lines. Is that an advertisement? Seems more like an informational flyer. Whatever it is, I'm entranced by the fonts and layout—very clean and modern, and clearly post-Helvetica.

The news:

Some infuriating items coming from points east this week:
  • In Wisconsin, the Joint Committee on Finance voted to block $2.5 million in funding to plan for a $53 to $65 million maintenance base for the state's two new Talgo trainsets being assembled in Milwaukee. This has set up a conflict between Governor Walker's administration, which actually wants the trains, and the Republicans in control of the Senate and Assembly. It sounds like the committee's word is final, unless the Governor vetoes the action.

    It would be cheaper in the short run to have Amtrak expand their (Beech Grove?) facility to handle the new trains, though Wisconsin would have an opportunity to keep some employment if they build it in-state. I also keep thinking of the equipment and facility in the context of the canceled extension to Madison (which will eventually come back from the dead) and future expansion of service to Minnesota. Wisconsin only ordered two trains which technically cost about $47.5 million, but had some extra costs for modifications—direct costs for the trains plus planning for a new facility have brought the sunk costs up to $71.8 million. However, the state had been planning to order more trains as the Madison route got built, potentially followed a few years later by orders from Minnesota for trains along the Minneapolis–Duluth (Northern Lights Express) and Minneapolis–Chicago corridors. (Though Mn/DOT is probably looking at other manufacturers too.)

    Some headlines have said that the trains could be mothballed pretty much right away, though I'm not sure if that's really going to happen. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is trying to find the $2.5 million to keep the plans going for a facility in his city, and it'd be interesting to see if they can fund it themselves. If maintenance activities move to Illinois, then we have to ask who's going to pay for that (Illinois? Amtrak? Wisconsin? Milwaukee? Chicago?). There's also the question of whether the state would move to sell off the trains–I think they'd get some quick bids, though it's unlikely they'd recoup their total investment. It'd be nice to see Mn/DOT make an offer, especially in light of the Saint Paul Union Depot opening later this year (with only one Empire Builder train each way each day).

    Oregon has also purchased two trains from Talgo's Milwaukee plant, though they'll obviously be maintained somewhere out in the Pacific Northwest.

    Lastly, I'll mention that there's been some complaining by Wisconsin legislators about the new Talgo trainsets having a somewhat smaller capacity (about 20 seats less) than the Amtrak equipment they'd replace. Some Hiawatha trains get full as it is, though the current service operates with unreserved ticketing—You can buy a ticket and redeem it at any time of day (I think they may also be valid for a period of days, weeks, or even months). Switching to reserved ticketing would balance the load a bit more—and I think Amtrak has been planning to make that switch for a while anyway. The new trains have passive tilt mechanisms, so they should go a bit faster, which could reduce running times and effectively increase capacity by allowing more runs per day. Perhaps not enough to make a difference at this point, however.

  • Over in Michigan, the nasty not-so-secret tidbit about Wolverine trains to Detroit running over slow sections in Norfolk Southern-owned territory got worse this week as the railroad lowered speeds to 25 mph on their tracks between Kalamazoo and Dearborn. Track speeds had already been low—I'd previously heard they were 30 mph in places—but it makes an embarrassing aspect of the Midwest's first 110-mph train even more cringe-inducing. The Michigan Department of Transportation is not happy—they're negotiating with Norfolk Southern to purchase the track, and it sounds to me like NS is just letting the rails deteriorate until they can let go of them. (Of course, similar things happen on roadways all the time—here in Saint Paul, University Avenue has had a lot of maintenance be deferred because of the now actively under-construction Central Corridor LRT line had been looming for years...).
On to less annoying things...

The Let There Be Light Rail blog has some photos from a tour of the Union Depot renovation. Oh yeah, I have some photos too, since I went on Wednesday (though I didn't get into the Amtrak ticketing area like she did). Here's a shot of mine from the south end of the waiting room:


Other photos in my Union Depot set on Flickr.

The Reason & Rail blog has a list of Amtrak crashes over the last two decades which resulted in onboard fatalities, along with quick assessments of whether existing over-the-top Federal Railroad Administration crash regulations made any difference. For the most part, FRA crash regulations don't help, though positive train control would have prevented a bunch of the incidents. On the other hand, he notes that we don't know how many fatalities may have actually been prevented by FRA regs and only resulted in injuries.

Canadian National responded to Amtrak's recent complaints to the Surface Transportation Board about freight train interference.  The Reason & Rail blog saw that CN blames Amtrak for at least some of the trouble, apparently including a few incidents where Amtrak locomotives ran out of fuel only a short distance from Chicago.  If I ever get time, I may have to dig into the response myself to see how many incidents they're trying to brush off.  It's pretty much impossible for Amtrak to be responsible to themselves for all of the delays, but it definitely doesn't look good if what CN says is true.

Up in Canada, employees will be back at work at EMD's London, Ontario plant for a while as workers perform final assembly for a few remaining orders (which appears to add up to 28 individual units). The workers had previously been locked out at the start of the year after EMD opened their Muncie, Indiana plant.

The Sunset Limited route along the southern edge of the United States has gotten some coverage this week.  In the southwest, the schedule has changed, which has some good and bad aspects to it.  In the southeast, there are actually rumblings from a Republican congressman in northern Florida to restore the route from New Orleans eastward (which is still out of service after being knocked out by Hurricane Katrina in 2005), though he rattled on about costs in the TV interview associated with that article, so who knows...

A government forecast last week says that air travel demand is expected to increase by 3.2% annually, though there's likely going to be a continuing loss in the number of routes served.  Airfares are expected to stay high for most of the next decade.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Anoka wants to shrink the footprint of their Northstar station

Oops, looks like I forgot to include news of upcoming changes to Anoka's Northstar station in my latest news update.  That's alright—I kind of wanted to write a separate article on it anyway.

A parking structure and pedestrian bridge over the tracks have apparently been part of the plan for the Northstar commuter rail station in Anoka for several years now.  This would help consolidate the parking area at the station into a smaller space and open up land for development.  While the idea had been stalled for some time, a looming grant expiration date led the city to scale down the proposal to something they felt they could afford.

The line opened in 2009, but the city had received a $5.85 million CMAQ grant four years earlier in 2005 to help pay for a parking ramp and ped bridge. That design apparently cost $12 million, and the city was never able to scrounge up the roughly $6 million in local funding needed for the project. If I understand correctly, the original proposal had 450 parking spaces in the ramp, while it looks like they are now moving forward with a smaller 350-stall parking structure—the cost has now shrunk to $9.4 million. (The existing two surface lots have 377 spaces total and are seeing an average use of about 220.) With the lower cost, it looks like they'll be able to get combine city funds with additional money from the Anoka County Regional Rail Authority as well as a significant contribution from the Counties Transit Improvement Board:

City of Anoka$957,000
Anoka County Regional Rail Authority$575,000
Counties Transit Improvement Board$2,000,000
Congestion Mitgation and Air Quality grant    $5,850,000

The plan is to build the ramp on the southwest side of the tracks and open up the land on the northeast side for development.  I guess I'd quibble with that idea a bit, since the historic center of Anoka is to the southwest—shouldn't new development be put as close to the old part of town as possible rather than having the parking there? Then again, that would probably mean that a couple hundred more cars would pass over the train tracks to get to the parking (I presume most traffic originates on the south side).

But wherever the parking goes, it's good that they're shrinking the area needed. Park-and-ride facilities should be used sparingly.

These recent activities should push the CMAQ grant expiration out to March 31, 2013.

Monday, March 12, 2012

We need a post-streetcar history of Twin Cities transit

There have been a few books and many more articles written about the old streetcar systems in the Twin Cities. I'm sure there are more stories to be found there, but the streetcar era ended almost 58 years ago, and there are significant gaps at least in my knowledge of what happened between 1954 and roughly 2000. I think the time is coming for a detailed history of the bus era stretching from the final days of the streetcar era, through the transition from private to public ownership, and through the various twists and turns in policy and direction since then.

Such a book probably wouldn't be seen through the same rose-colored glasses that the streetcar era has been, but I think a decent story could be made out of it. There are a bunch of facilities that got built and torn down in the era which should get a little more detail. Nicollet Mall jumps out at me as being a bit of a centerpiece topic—among the early transit/pedestrian malls in the country, it continues to drive conversation today. While I tend to see the 50 years between 1954 and 2004 (when the Hiawatha LRT began service) as a dark age, there were plenty of smart and dedicated people in the community and working for Twin City Lines, MTC, and the Metropolitan Council/Metro Transit (and all of the other relevant entities) over the years. It doesn't necessarily mean that they were able to accomplish what they sought, but we know that there were conversations about things like stop spacing and placement as far back as 1956, and conversations about light rail along Hiawatha Avenue were already well underway in 1976.

Some background of the Hiawatha Line has already been put into at least one book: Minneapolis in the Twentieth Century: The Growth of an American City by Iric Nathanson, which includes a 1976 sketch of an LRT route that has extraordinary similarity to what got built a quarter-century later. There's a passing reference to LRT that was once proposed along Interstate 35W (which reminds me that LRT had also been proposed along Interstate 394 but was discarded in favor of reversible HOV—now HOT—lanes).

I suppose it would be a fairly disheartening book, depending on where it ended. The bus service continued the downward spiral of ridership that the streetcars had experienced, and became an eyesore in their own right toward the end of private ownership. They were lurching, smoke-belching machines worn out from too many years on the road and not enough maintenance. At one point, Minneapolis went so far as to ban many of the buses from downtown because their emissions were so horrible. That's a marked contrast with today, where advancements in diesel engines and exhaust treatment—plus the introduction of diesel-electric hybrids—have all but eliminated the smoke and smell that was once common, and have helped quiet down the traditional diesel rattle.

A history of fares would be interesting. It's pretty remarkable that tokens were only finally phased out a year or two ago—I've only ever used cash, mag-stripe transfers and passes, and my Go-To card. Today, mag-stripe passes are being phased out as well in favor of disposable RFID Go-To cards. I'd also like to know if any explanation can be found for the generous standard 2½-hour validity period for transfers. As far as I know, it's the longest unlimited free transfer period in the country.

I've seen at least one claim that the Twin Cities had some of the earliest freeway-running express buses, so that might have an interesting story or two behind that. There's also the longstanding issue of how express buses tend to skip past a lot of potentially interesting places in favor of (usually) running non-stop from suburb to downtown. Some exceptions exist, such as the 94 express bus which runs all day long even on Sundays (the last run gets to Minneapolis after midnight on Monday morning). I've found that some buses on I-394 also make multiple stops, though they have to take such circuitous paths to reach park-and-ride lots that it's hardly freeway BRT.

Zooming back to the core cities, there are plenty of routes that have their own stories to tell. Most of the core system still runs along paths once plied by streetcars, so a few maps and tables comparing the systems would be worthwhile.

Anyway, there's enough stuff out there to create something pretty substantial. Again, the big problem would be to create something that would draw interest to a topic that is often dismissed as unsexy and uninteresting. But hey, if a guy could write an off-Broadway play about the 21A and the local Bus Tales website could toss around a few memes, there's probably enough human element to be brought in to make something that could entertain at the same time as it fills in a bit of hazy history.

(Am I volunteering? Uhhmm... Well, probably not. I'd be happy to assist on a project, but I'm personally short on the type of contacts I'd need—plus, I'm kind of in need of this stuff people call "money".)

Sunday, March 11, 2012

March 11, 2012 weekly rail news

If you're in the Twin Cities and would like to meet up with some other folks who are interested in transit and urbanism, I'm going to be at The Republic at Seven Corners in Minneapolis on Tuesday evening for the most recent iteration of BURP.

A Spring 2012 update on the Central Corridor from the City of Saint Paul:

Local blog Nokohaka did a short piece on the HMV Free-Way, a microcar developed by a guy from Burnsville that was manufactured in the late '70s and early '80s.

I've never been to/through LAX, though two of my old roommates flew through recently and were telling everyone via Facebook how much they hated it. After reading about some proposed transit options for connecting there over on The Transport Politic, I looked up LAX's layout and was struck by how similar it was to that of MSP—except for the fact that LAX has nine terminal buildings wrapping around its main access road while MSP's Terminal 1 is, well, Terminal 1. My sense is that they really ought to work on unifying those buildings with pedestrian and people-mover connections. (By the way, does anyone know the mode share split between cars and transit for MSP? LAX apparently only has 1% of travelers arriving via bus transit right now, though 9% of employees use it.)

Some Sturm und Drang about the Southwest LRT line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie. Kurt Zellers doesn't like it, Mike Beard doesn't like it. But businesses and others along the route want it. I would not underestimate the lobbying power of influential people in that corridor.

Train and engine workers at Minnesota shortline operator Progressive Rail have unionized under the United Transportation Union and reached their first agreement with the railroad.

The Minnesota Commercial Railroad has retired one of their unusual locomotives following a crankshaft failure. Locomotive #59 is a GE C36-7 which was originally built for an Australian ore mining railroad (Hamersley Iron). Because of its origin, it became known as the Crocodile GE (a play on Crocodile Dundee).

Minnesota doesn't produce any fossil fuels—our energy production is mostly focused on things like ethanol, biodiesel, wind, and a little solar. But, the oil and natural gas industry has been consuming greater and greater amounts of fine silica sand for fracking. Down in Winona, huge sand piles have been appearing close to the center of town, sitting there like the tip of the iceberg when it comes to issues surrounding the mining practices that have been going on. (I mention it because much of the sand gets moved out by rail and has led to a resurgence for some regional short lines.)

Over in Wisconsin, the Scott Walker administration is finding itself in a bit of hot water over the maintenance base for the Talgo trains they ordered. Apparently the idea of mothballing the trains as soon as they come off the assembly line is floating around. Amtrak claims not to have enough room at their shops to handle the trains and would require a multi-million dollar expansion (though perhaps only 1/5 to 1/10 the cost of the proposed Wisconsin facility). The tail end of the article also includes a nice tag: "a Journal Sentinel analysis last year found the state could wind up paying more to keep the current Milwaukee-to-Chicago service than it would have paid if the service had been extended to Madison." Yep, pretty much...

I've been hearing some noises over the past few months about how a major Canadian Pacific shareholder (Bill Ackman's Pershing Square) has been demanding that the railroad replace its CEO and make other changes in order to become more efficient. CP management sent out a letter to shareholders in response this past week criticizing the demands.

The Transportation Safety Board of Canada has released a report for the derailment of VIA Rail Ocean train #15 two years ago on Feb 25, 2010. The train entered a siding at 64 mph after the crew blew past a signal obscured by snow under the assumption that they had clear tracks ahead.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The case of the thirteen parking lots

This is a post I wrote for

Thirteen parking lots

The amount of parking along the Central Corridor in Minneapolis and Saint Paul could be measured in square miles. It is huge. Business owners have expressed frustration over the loss of hundreds of parking spaces along University Avenue itself, but those spots are dwarfed by the total amount of parking in the corridor. The Metropolitan Council's FAQ on the Central Corridor states:
  • What will happen to on-street parking on University Avenue?
    University Avenue will retain 175 of its 1,150 on-street parking spaces after 675 spots are removed to make way for mandatory elements such as the LRT stations, 250 are eliminated to accommodate non-signalized pedestrian crossings, 40 are removed to provide secondary station access, 20 are lost to make room for three-car station platforms and 40 are eliminated to allow space for minimizing traffic lane transitions. Project studies show 560 on-street parking spaces are available on north-south cross streets within a block of the corridor and 15,300 off-street parking spaces are available within one block of University Avenue. A 2006 city of St. Paul study found 25,000 spaces in private lots within one-quarter mile of the LRT stations.
One of my projects this winter has been to add detail to OpenStreetMap along the Central Corridor, and I've had a bit of morbid fascination with the parking lots spread all along the route. Anyone who's visited University Avenue has seen the massive lots at the Midway Shopping Center and other retail districts adjacent to the street. But small-scale parking has managed to consume huge amounts of land as well (and a lot of it has been around for a very long time).

The image at the top of this article shows the most egregious example I've found of small-scale parking spinning out of control, located along University northwest of the intersection with Raymond Avenue. Depending on how detailed you want to be, there are 15 to 20 buildings on the block. I count 20 curb cuts for driveways and alleys. And thirteen parking lots, give or take.

This absurd little chunk of land in Saint Paul seems to document a transitional period in history. There's aerial photography for the block dating back to 1923—a time when railroad and streetcar ridership was peaking in the Twin Cities and across the country. Back then, the Raymond Avenue side was mostly filled in, but the block was otherwise fairly sparse.

Northwest block of University & Raymond northwest in 1923

By 1953, the block became as built-up as it was ever going to get, and already had about eight parking lots.

University Avenue near Raymond, 1953

Since then, it seems that two buildings have been demolished and two have been added. Parking expanded into most of the green space on the block and also into the spaces left by the demolished buildings.

This block seems like a poster child for parking reform and consolidation. I've ambled along its sidewalks many times over the years, and it can be a draining experience to wander past some of the more industrial buildings, and to deal with all of the curb cuts. One particularly dreary day about a decade ago, I looked at the piled-up sand and melting snow on the Cromwell side and said to myself, "Wow, this looks like a third-world country."

However, I'm a bit surprised by this block now that I've dug into its history a bit. Compared to the surrounding neighborhood, this actually seems to be an island of calm in an undulating sea of transition. Several nearby blocks have been completely destroyed by highway construction since 1953, and others have completely changed due to urban renewal efforts. I had expected to find that a bunch of buildings had been destroyed to make way for parking, but that only seems to be a minor culprit in this case.

With my knowledge of what happened to downtown Minneapolis as urban renewal took hold, I often look at fields of asphalt in the core of the Twin Cities and think that they were once buildings, but that's not always the way things happened. Parking has tended to consume open, undeveloped space just as much (if not more).

I've gained a little bit of nostalgia for this little piece of the city because it has actually remained relatively intact, though I think it's best to divorce myself from that sensation. Clearly, a lot more value could be extracted from this land if some of these individual enclaves of parking got merged together and were shared more readily among neighboring businesses. There's an economy of scale to be found by from combining parking lots together—the asphalt could be used much more efficiently. Consolidated parking would also reduce the number of driveways, leading to improved pedestrian experience, more on-street parking, and open land that could be developed.

Few other blocks along the Central Corridor are quite this crazy, but there are still countless opportunities along University Avenue and elsewhere in the Twin Cities to redevelop asphalt "grayfields" into new homes and businesses. Rather than holding tight to as many parking spaces as they can get, existing property owners should look at those empty lots and try to imagine what could be in that space instead.

Monday, March 5, 2012

March 5, 2012 weekly rail news

I'm late this week, though things seem to have been fairly quiet. Many of the the things that happened this week were previewed in last week's edition, such as the ramp-up for another season of heavy construction for the Central Corridor/Green Line in Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

There has been a fair amount of local coverage of the worries of local business owners who will see continued traffic disruptions along University Avenue and other construction zones. Things are supposed to be better this year because the Metropolitan Council has spent time working with contractors—especially Walsh Construction of Chicago who generated a lot of criticism for their work in Saint Paul—to clarify guidelines and raise standards for things like pedestrian access in construction zones. The first days have still brought confusion, however—the Let There Be Light Rail blog noted that things have been confusing near the border of Minneapolis and Saint Paul at Emerald Street, with confusing lane shifts happening in the intersection at Berry Street as well as contradictory signage for bus #8 put up by Metro Transit.

This past week I participated in a community workshop for a statewide bicycle study underway by Mn/DOT and an open house by Metro Transit for their arterial transit/rapid bus study. They were enjoyable events to participate in since they both allowed a lot of good ideas to circulate around, though there's a bit of a question what will come of all of it. I'm most confused by the bike study at the moment, though that probably has another round or two of public meetings before it's done. The rapid bus study resulted in corridors along Snelling Avenue and West 7th Street in Saint Paul bubbling up to the top of the list for quick implementation, though many other corridors (especially in Minneapolis) had higher ridership. One of the big hold-ups for those other routes are ongoing or planned alternatives analyses (such as along Nicollet and Central). They'd better move quickly in Saint Paul, however, since the city has recently been making noises about streetcar projects that could spin off AA studies pretty soon too.

Alex had an article on covering the Minneapolis Transportation and Public Works Committee, including discussion of the cable anchor plate failures on the Sabo Bridge that caused disruptions to bike, pedestrian, car, and light-rail traffic along Hiawatha Avenue last month.

Outside of Minnesota...

Seemingly not wanting to be left behind with coverage of faster trains in Michigan last month, the Illinois Department of Transportation says that the first 18-mile segment of track capable of 110 mph travel in that state should be ready for testing by fall. The segment runs between the towns of Pontiac and Dwight.


In my previous post, I noted there was a derailment of a VIA Rail train in Burlington, Ontario, Canada that resulted in the deaths of two engineers and a trainee (with 20 years of experience with freight trains, but new to passenger service) who were in the locomotive. The derailment occurred along an 80-mph corridor when the train hit a crossover switch that was supposed to be taken at 15 mph. It now appears the train was going 67 mph when it hit the switch, fast enough for the locomotive to jump off of its bogies.