Saturday, June 30, 2012

I hate it when this happens

I hate it when this happens.

The annual Hmong soccer tournament and festival is going on at Como Park (well, McMurray Field) this weekend (the "Hmong Freedom Celebration and Sports Festival"). 30,000 people are expected at the park today. Metro Transit's response? Oh, we give up.

Admittedly, the bus is still running, and not too far away for people who want to come to the festival and get dropped off near the eastern edge, but I'm stuck in the middle and have to add half a mile to my journey.

Como Park has been operating their own free shuttle service for the past 2 or 3 years, and it seems to have helped with congestion on the immediately-adjacent neighborhood streets (where stricter parking restrictions have been added on weekends).  But, in my view, there's a lack of integration between the Como Park shuttle and the Metro Transit network.

Como Park visitors are now directed to park in a lot at the southern edge of the Minnesota State Fairgrounds—an area that is otherwise rarely used.  The only immediately-adjacent bus service is provided by route 3—specifically, route 3A and 3B.  That combination runs at half-hourly service on weekends.  This is a park-and-ride solution, requiring people to get to a fairly auto-dependent area in order to take a bus somewhere else.

Only the 3A bus runs through the park, so if you're on Como Horton Avenue within the park itself, you can only expect hourly service on Saturdays and Sundays.

Of course, the entire Metro Transit network shrinks drastically and runs at lower frequency on Saturday and (particularly) Sunday, so it would be tough to get transit integration working really well for the area.  Personally, I think it would be nice if the Como Park shuttle could stop at the intersection of Como and Snelling Avenues, where route 84 maintains 15-minute service on Saturdays and 30-minute service on Sundays (and it's the point closest to the park where the 3 is still half-hourly).  It would also be nice if a shuttle could run down to University Avenue either via Snelling Avenue or Lexington Parkway and pick up traffic from today's route 16 and the Green Line starting in 2014.

But, this could all be for naught if the random stuff people carry with them to the park gets in the way anyway.  There are strollers galore, toys, random folding chairs and other furniture, plus many people bring all sorts of food to the picnic tables and grills in the park.  There are some things for which public transit is impractical, and park activities push that envelope.

I haven't had to use the Como Park shuttle since I live right by the place.  It seems to have pretty good service frequency—the travel distance is only about 1.5 miles, so just a few buses can go back and forth rapidly.  I've never gotten a good look at what type of buses they use, since they're always in motion when I'm waiting at my bus stop, but one drawback is that they only have a single door at the front.  I'm sure that loading and unloading becomes slow and stressful at times.

As for rerouting the 3A when the park gets busy,  I guess I just don't think the traffic usually gets bad enough to justify that.  But I'm not the one trying to ply my way through it a dozen or so times during the day.  I can just walk around my neighborhood if I want to.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Notes from the June 2012 Passenger Rail Forum

Target Field station will soon morph into "The Interchange".

I attended the June 2012 meeting of the Mn/DOT-facilitated Intercity Passenger Rail Transportation Forum this past Monday and took some notes.  The last meeting was in April.

Space conflicts resolved for The Interchange (Target Field station)

The lead informational presentation was all about the planned Interchange station at Target Field, an upgrade to the existing Northstar commuter rail and Hiawatha LRT platforms.  Over the past year, Hines has been working on their Dock Street Apartments project, which would fill in a parking lot just south of the Northstar train tracks.

Even though the Target Field station area has been planned as an intermodal transit hub for some time, the apartment project didn't fully come onto the radar of transportation planners until the Minneapolis City Council approved conditional use permits for the site. Complicating matters, new and expanded heavy-rail boarding platforms hadn't even been designed yet, since that's part of "Phase 2" of the transit hub plans.  (The website for the Interchange currently only shows designs for Phase 1, which is more focused on expanding the light-rail platforms to handle the increased game-day loads once the Central Corridor/Green Line is up and running.)

Fortunately, an appeal was made following the CUP approval. After looking over plans, it turned out that the building took away about 4½ feet of space that would be needed for future use, particularly if the Cedar Lake Trail is to stay in the rail trench.  After several weeks of negotiations, Hines has basically decided to slightly rotate their building as compared to the original plans, which frees up the necessary space.

The Cedar Lake Trail will need to be partly relocated, and Hennepin County is planning to spend about $1.7 million to get a 25-year easement for the trail.  Hines also owns the other parking lots in the trench closer to Target Field, and plans to develop those with taller buildings at some point in the future.  Riders on the Cedar Lake Trail may find themselves inside riding through a colonnade/arcade area as pilings are sunk into the ground on the outside edge of the trail.

Needless to say, this was a near-disaster for transportation planning in the Twin Cities, which seems to have worked out for the best. Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin has been calling this "the Kmart moment of this generation", in reference to the store that was plopped down in the middle of Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis back in the 1970s. There was acknowledgment by meeting facilitator Dan Krom of Mn/DOT that this harried 10 weeks of back-and-forth between planners and developers could have been avoided if the right lines of communication had been opened earlier.

The Interchange is only planned to have two 900-foot platforms and four tracks (aside from the already-present freight line), though Mn/DOT believes this should be able to handle more than 60 trains per day.  The existing Northstar platform is 40 feet wide, but is planned to be narrowed to 26 feet, and then a second platform will be added just to the south of the current one.  Finding suitable alignments for platforms is difficult in the trench because of bridge supports that get in the way. Some early design attempts ran into problems because the pylons for the 3rd and 4th Street ramps to/from Interstate 94 would end up being right where train doors were supposed to open, but those issues have apparently been resolved.

Construction should begin soon on Phase 1 of the Interchange. The project had received bids from contractors earlier this year, but they came in over budget. Contractors were then requested to submit "best and final offers", which are due June 11th. A recommendation for a contractor is expected on June 19th, and final approval is expected on June 26th. It sounded like construction could begin as soon as July.

2013 legislative agenda

There was some discussion of priorities for next year's session of the state legislature. There has been less funding distributed to rail projects than expected over the last two years—notably, funding for engineering work on the Southwest LRT extension of the Green Line to Eden Prairie wasn't included in this year's bonding bill, and the bonding money provided to the Interchange was less than hoped for.

I didn't follow the discussion in great detail, largely because we're still several months out from the start of the next session. However, there was some mention of a bill brought up in this past session which would have clarified and expanded the power of the Transportation Commissioner to enter into agreements with freight railroads and Amtrak (probably HF2272). The bill only got a hearing this year and didn't move forward. Something similar to that may pop up again next year.

Northern Lights Express (to Duluth)

The Northern Lights Express project continues to move forward. LIDAR mapping of the route was completed in April, in order to get detailed measurements of the existing conditions. As mentioned in my previous meeting report, there's a "Hinckley loop" study underway to figure out whether the line should have a bypass added to directly serve the casino on the eastern edge of the city.

Zip Rail (to Rochester)

There are two threads of activity happening in the Rochester area. There has been talk for several years of building a freight rail bypass around the city. The topic was especially hot back when the Dakota, Minnesota and Eastern Railroad was planning to expand into the Powder River Basin area of Wyoming to access the coal reserves there. That expansion hasn't happened, however, and the expected flood of rail traffic hasn't happened. A new rail capacity study is going to look at whether the bypass or any other upgrades will be needed along the route.

Plans for passenger rail to the city are still in early gestational stages, but a statement of work has been put together for alternatives analysis and a Tier 1 EIS.  This means we should have an actual route to plan around within the next couple of years (there isn't any direct rail connection between the Twin Cities and Rochester, so something new will have to be built).

Saint Paul Union Depot

The updated status for the Union Depot  was short and sweet: "On time, on budget, scheduled to open in December", according to Ramsey County's Jim McDonough.  No word on whether Amtrak will be able to start operating there right away, however.

Enhanced rail service to Chicago

There are two rail projects in the planning stages between the Twin Cities and Chicago: A second daily roundtrip between the two areas operating at conventional speeds, and plans for multiple daily roundtrips operating at higher speeds (up to 110 mph).

The second daily train has some support from the state of Wisconsin and has the cooperation of WisDOT.  Amtrak began a 9-month study for the service on May 15th, so it should wrap up around February 2013.  Four route and terminus options are being contemplated in Minnesota:
  • Terminating at Saint Paul Union Depot.
  • Stopping at SPUD and terminating at the Interchange in Minneapolis.
  • Stopping at SPUD and the Interchange and terminating at St. Cloud.
  • Stopping at SPUD and the Fridley Northstar station and terminating at St. Cloud.
Amtrak has already conducted an inspection of the route, but will need to spend some time determining infrastructure capacity and equipment availability.  The train would likely operate with a schedule roughly the inverse of what the Empire Builder does today: It may leave Chicago in the morning and start its return run in the afternoon/evening.

Amtrak plans to spend three or four months on the study before first submitting a draft to the host railroads. They'll get a chance to comment on it, and then it will get sent to the state DOTs.

Unlike the Empire Builder, this is expected to start as a state-supported "corridor" train.  In order to get the best possible operating ratio, some stations may get added or skipped.

As for enhanced-speed, multiple-trains-per-day service, Minnesota is moving ahead with a Tier 1 EIS for what will be needed on our side of the Mississippi River, but WisDOT is not actively participating. A new website for the EIS phase is expected to appear soon, to go aside the current page which had been used up through the alternatives analysis stage of planning.