Friday, February 25, 2011

Could Minnesota receive some of Florida's (nearly) rejected rail money?

Governor Mark Dayton has been busy with meetings in Washington, D.C. in the past few days. On Thursday, he met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and expressed a desire to get money for high-speed rail to Minnesota. He specifically mentioned a route to Rochester, and possibly a high-speed route to Chicago through Iowa and Illinois instead of going through Wisconsin.

[ Pioneer Press | Star Tribune (blog) | Post-Bulletin | MPR | MinnPost ]

$2.4 billion in funds may soon become available due to political machinations in Florida. Gov. Rick Scott rejected the money—intended for a 220-mph rail line between Orlando and Tampa—though there have been a number of attempts to put a halt to the governor's actions in recent days, and the governor himself has agreed to revisit the issue. Florida is also home to the new Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, John Mica, and Mica is interested in seeing the line move forward.

For those reasons, I'm not holding my breath about the availability of money, but Minnesota should definitely put forth some bids anyway.

I appreciate Gov. Dayton's enthusiasm, and the Zip Rail train to Rochester is a great idea—the only problem is that the project is not really ready to receive truly large sums of cash yet. A line to Rochester has been pondered for at least 20 years, so I don't want it to be put on the back burner, but there aren't any environmental studies for the route that I'm aware of. A few tens of millions of dollars (or more—the Pioneer Press mentioned a sum of $75 million) would probably be the best, to propel work forward into alternatives analysis, environmental impact statement and initial engineering—possibly along with some initial land purchases for the route. Construction is still several years off in the future even if those processes begin immediately.

The idea of a bypass route around Wisconsin is even more foggy. I'm not aware of any in-depth studies of the idea. It's not necessarily bad—going around Wisconsin as tightly as possible would probably only add about 20 miles to a route—though I have concerns about the level of population along that detour. It might be worth examining the idea of running all the way down to Iowa City before heading west, since a new rail service is being extended to there from Chicago. However, that creates a pretty huge time deficit due to distance.

Probably the best actual rail investment for Minnesota right now would be to add a third set of tracks between Minneapolis and Coon Rapids to increase capacity on the existing Northstar commuter rail route, which is shared with BNSF freight trains. This would benefit both the Northstar Line (where there are complaints about the limited level of service) and the planned Northern Lights Express line to Duluth. Mn/DOT requested about $100 million back in 2009 under the TIGER program to construct the track as well as a new train station, but it didn't receive any funding because the TIGER program got heavily overbooked and there wasn't enough funding for all of the demand out there.

Along with that third track, it would be great to get funding either for the full NLX line to Duluth (probably around $750 million for 110-mph high-speed rail) or the extension of Northstar to St. Cloud. The Northstar extension ($150 or $250 million) would probably give the greatest bang for the buck because it's already half-built and has an existing fleet of trains. However, that's only a conventional-speed service, so the line to Duluth might score more political points for going faster. The Northstar could probably get done in short order, 2-3 years, and the NLX could probably be running by 2014 if things went smoothly.

Additional train service between Chicago and the Twin Cities should also be considered as an option. It's inexcusable that we only have a single train a day each direction right now, particularly since Detroit has declined enough that the Twin Cities is now the second-biggest economic center in the Midwest (after Chicago). We should have several trains making runs each day, and we could start out with the simple act of doubling the existing service. I'm split on whether it should simply be a corridor train running the 400-odd miles to the Twin Cities, the nearly 700 miles to Fargo, or whether it should be the restored North Coast Hiawatha to Seattle—a 2,300-mile route (which would be prone to significant delays), but we should definitely have another train. A new North Coast Hiawatha would take $1 billion and 4–5 years to get going, while simply adding a train to the Twin Cities would probably take 3–4 but be less than ¼ the cost.

I've never seen an analysis conducted, but I'm pretty convinced that a conventional-speed train between the Twin Cities and Chicago could operate at break-even or better if it had enough runs each day and could run at or near top speed as much as possible. The Chicago and North Western "400" was able to maintain a schedule of 6.5 hours between Saint Paul and Chicago from 1955 to 1960 while operating under today's 79-mph restriction (though it got by with just 6 or 7 intermediate stops between the two cities, as opposed to the 9 stops of today's 8-hour Empire Builder). I'd like to see a conventional-speed train examined using the old 400 route from Saint Paul through Eau Claire and down to Camp Douglas, then following today's Empire Builder route to Milwaukee and Chicago. That would only be about 407 miles long yet would add the city of Eau Claire and would probably have a greater chance of getting straightened out to provide faster speeds than the Builder's current route which has to deal with the natural curves along the Mississippi River.

Getting the speed down to the historic 6 to 6.5 hours would allow two trainsets to provide 3 round-trips per day. If the speed could be improved to get a 5-hour schedule, that would increase to 4 round-trips per day, and another pair of trainsets would double that to 8. It's not at all clear to me how much all that would cost. The trainsets could cost anywhere from $100 to $200 million in total, and over 180 miles of track would need upgrading with new signals, running around $300 million, another chunk of $50–100 million to upgrade the Canadian Pacific track the Empire Builder already uses, and other miscellaneous costs would probably run $50 million. The big question would probably be capacity rights, which could skyrocket along the fairly busy tracks. Call it $600 million to start, plus more in the pipeline to continue improving track over time. This would again land in the area of 4 to 5 years to implement, I suspect.

So anyway, I think it's a good idea for Minnesota to put in some bids for the cash. We could actually suck up most or all of it to divide among all of the projects I mentioned here, though it would be extremely unlikely for us to get that big of a chunk.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Could the Gateway Corridor help the St. Croix River bridge project?

Drat. I put the wrong date in my calendar, so I missed last night's open house for the Gateway Corridor held at the Union Depot. Another meeting happened in Woodbury tonight, and there will be meetings in Eau Claire and Hudson next week.

St. Croix River bridge plan (until 2010)
I'm fairly accustomed to seeing transit and rail projects sit around forever waiting for studies to be done, preventing anything from being built. Highways seem to get built without much fuss being made, though there are the occasional projects which get slowed down to a crawl. One example is the project to build a new bridge across the St. Croix River at Stillwater. The proposal going around for the past half-decade or so has been to build a high bridge on the southern edge of town extending from Minnesota State Highway 36. The bridge would take the road northeast and link up to Wisconsin Highways 35 and 64, blazing a new path a bit west of today's Highway 35. The main purpose of the new bridge would be to make it easier for people to get from Somerset and New Richmond into the Twin Cities.

Of course, this makes it a bit more clear why MN-36 currently stays a 4-lane divided highway (plus frontage roads) as it barrels right toward the edge of the river bluffs. This becomes a bit baffling for casual travelers, as they get funneled down the narrow MN-95 into downtown Stillwater, without any ability to turn around when traffic gets heavy.

Anyway, the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the St. Croix River valley (designated a National Wild and Scenic River in 1972) and has twice prevented construction of a new bridge. The plans were rejected because the bridge "would have direct and adverse effects that cannot be avoided or eliminated" and "would fundamentally change the scenic qualities that [previously] existed", according to the brief description on the NPS site. I'm a bit surprised that the NPS would act so forcefully against the bridge, though there had been a decision to allow it back in 2005 (which got overturned by a federal judge).

Like many others, I have trouble believing that a 4-lane bridge capable of carrying traffic at 65 mph (or more) is really necessary when the city currently gets by with an aging 2-lane lift bridge. It's certainly a slow drive on many days, but that's mostly due to a series of traffic lights (and a lot of people making left turns) on the Minnesota side.

In the past, I've heard that one of the NPS's complaints was that they didn't want to see any additional bridges built in the area—if a new one comes in, an old one must go. I've had a thought that it might be worthwhile to try rerouting the current Union Pacific rail line across the new bridge, if it ever gets built. Mn/DOT already expressed their desire to build regional rail along the route to Eau Claire as part of the 20-year State Rail Plan, and the route would be a very reasonable one for a high-speed rail link to Chicago. Currently, the UP tracks snake north and south on the Minnesota side to find an acceptable gradient down to the valley floor, which makes the route fairly slow. The trains currently cross in Hudson, though they get pretty close to the proposed path of the new bridge before descending.

A combined highway/rail bridge would allow the old rail bridge in Hudson to be removed, possibly straightening out the line a bit. This could allow the old lift bridge to continue operating into downtown Stillwater. Unfortunately, I haven't figured out a very good routing on the Wisconsin side. Rerouting the line would probably require construction of 10 to 12 miles of new rail, and an additional large rail bridge would need to be built to cross the Willow River on the north side of Hudson. The only reasonable paths I could find that avoided developed land (albeit very low density housing) were forced to go through Willow River State Park and skipped past the center of Hudson. I suppose that highlights a problem with the Gateway Corridor: Planners will have to choose whether they want to serve either Stillwater or Hudson—it will be very difficult to try and serve both cities.

Anyway, regardless of whether the rails get rerouted, I think it would be best for the new highway bridge to be restricted to two lanes—particularly if the old lift bridge (or a new bridge in the same spot) could be retained. Of course, drivers coming in on the 4-lane Highway 36 through Stillwater would not be happy to get funneled down a 2-lane bridge. It would be good for Stillwater if the other entrances to the city on County Road 5, Greeley Street, Osgood Avenue, and Beach Road were more heavily promoted through good signage.

As I said earlier, casual travelers often just get funneled into MN-95 instead of taking these other roads through neighborhoods to get into the center of town. I might even go so far as to shut down the main lanes of MN-36 and force all of the traffic onto the frontage roads instead, which would probably retain about the same capacity as there is now. The 175-foot gap between the two would be a bit narrow, but could be creatively redeveloped.

Actually, now that I think about it, perhaps the best option would be to remove the current MN-36 from Highway 5 to the river, reroute cars along the frontage roads, and plop a rail line in the old highway right-of-way.

View Stillwater Bridge in a larger map

Well, just a thought.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Continued interest in North Coast Hiawatha service restoration

North Dakota's House Transportation Committee has recommended funding a new study regarding restoration of the former North Coast Hiawatha service that Amtrak ran from Chicago to Seattle from 1971 to 1979. Ever since it was discontinued, there have been efforts to restore it. Today's Empire Builder would seem to serve the sparsely-populated states of North Dakota and Montana sufficiently, but many of the larger cities in those states are farther to the south along the Interstate 94 corridor.

[Update: The Fargo Forum also ran an editorial where the North Coast Hiawatha got a positive mention.]

Amtrak released a study in 2009 saying that it would cost about $1 billion—a hefty sum, though the improvements would be spread across a 2,200-mile route. Of course, since the route closely follows an Interstate highway, there's a strong argument to be made for improved bus service instead (I don't like the argument, but it's certainly a valid one).

Here's a cost breakdown I put together by looking at the report:

North Coast Hiawatha restoration costs
ItemCost (millions)
Improvements to new/restored route$518
Improvements to existing Amtrak routes$101
Positive train control (PTC)$60
Purchasing 6 new trainsets$330
Building/restoring 17 stations$17.6
Training 269 workers$16.8

About half the cost would go into restoring rails and stations, while nearly a third would be put toward new train equipment. Most of the rest would be put toward improvements to rails already served by the Empire Builder and other Amtrak trains, with a tiny portion left over for training new employees.

The study indicated that the new train would have a 58% farebox recovery ratio, which doesn't sound that good but is actually well above average for Amtrak's long-distance trains. They estimated that it would only be outpaced in financial performance by the specialized Auto Train, the Empire Builder, and the Palmetto.

The North Coast Hiawatha was considered a successor to the former Northern Pacific Railway's North Coast Limited and Mainstreeter routes, with a bit of the Milwaukee Road's Olympian Hiawatha mixed in. Amtrak introduced the train in mid-1971, restoring service to a route which had lost its trains upon the creation of Amtrak on May 1st of that year. It was a normally a thrice-weekly train, sharing parts of its route with a (then-)quad-weekly Empire Builder, though they would sometimes run daily during busy summer and holiday periods.

When the North Coast Hiawatha was discontinued in 1979, the Empire Builder was taken off of its historic routing through Willmar, Morris, and Breckenridge and began serving St. Cloud, Staples, and Detroit Lakes instead (this explains the strange kink in the Empire Builder's route between Fargo and Grand Forks). At about the same time, the Twin Cities train station changed from the Great Northern Depot in Minneapolis to the current Midway station in Saint Paul.

Hopefully the interests of North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington will soon come into alignment with those of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Here in Minnesota, there's a strong desire to create a "second Empire Builder" running from Chicago up to the Twin Cities and on to Fargo, so a restored North Coast Hiawatha could fulfill that role. The big thing now is to actually commit to building something—it will take 4 to 5 years to start up the train service, mostly due to the time to design and build new equipment and to engineer the infrastructure improvements.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Amtrak ridership

I've been working on graphing Amtrak's ridership over time. The Bureau of Transportation Statistics has monthly data going back to 1991, so I simply summed 12-month periods to create moving averages. Older data from 1972 (the first full year of Amtrak operation) to 1990 came from a forum post I found, though I'm not sure how reliable that is.

But the gist is, things are looking up. I hope that Congress will pull back from the idea of cutting Amtrak funding, considering that more and more people are turning to the rails.

I may have to make some companion graphs for highway and airline travel, which are showing different patterns at the moment.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

U.S. News: Twin Cities is the 5th-best transit region

U.S. News & World Report (now a web-only publication) has just posted a list of the 10 Best Cities for Public Transportation in the United States, and ranked Minneapolis-St. Paul at #5. That was surprising to see since we have relatively low ridership per capita here, but the rankings were based on a combination of "combination of public transportation investment, ridership, and safety". The Twin Cities ranked well due to a very good safety record.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gateway Corridor Open Houses

The Gateway Corridor along I-94 between St. Paul, Minnesota and Eau Claire, Wisconsin is moving along with planning, entering a phase of screening possible transit alternatives. They're having some open houses in the coming weeks, in St. Paul on February 24th (Wednesday), Woodbury on February 25th (Thursday), Eau Claire on March 1st (Tuesday), and Hudson on March 2nd (Wednesday). All meetings will be from 5–7 pm, except for the one in Eau Claire which will start half an hour later.

Via the RCRRA.