Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Central Corridor: a primer

One of my long-term projects, and when I say long term I mean long term, is to photograph the Central Corridor—between Minneapolis and Saint Paul—block by block, at various stages during its construction. I'll post some of the photos here, although I assume that the whole avenue will be something along the lines of 150 photographs, and I'll probably host those separately. I'm waiting on a wider-angle lens (24mm) which will let me more easily convey the street, especially considering its width in Saint Paul. It is my hope that, once the project is completed, photos can be taken from the same spots in the future for a before-and-after effect.

But before we dive in to a look at the Central Corridor—as it now stands—it would be helpful to have a quick (ha) primer on its history and some of the controversy towards bring fixed-guideway transit back to University. It helps to go all the way back to the founding of the Twin Cities. The area was inhabited by the Mdewakanton, a band of Dakota, before western settlement, which began in earnest in the early 1800s (there were traders and explorers before then, but none stayed). Fort Snelling was set up on the bluff overlooking the junction of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, and still stands, but settlement never concentrated there. Instead, two urban centers developed, each with a different purpose. Saint Paul was built at a bend in the Mississippi and was the northernmost port on the river—north of Saint Paul the river enters a deep-walled gorge and a 50-foot waterfall—not conducive to navigation. With steamboats as the main transportation mode of the early- and mid-1800s, the city prospered.

Minneapolis, too, did quite well. While Saint Paul was the northernmost (or, perhaps, westernmost) connection to the east, Minneapolis became, in a way, the easternmost connection to the west, because it had something almost no other city in the Midwest had: water power. Between the Appalachians and the Rockies, there are many large rivers branching off from the Mississippi (in addition to the big river itself), many named after states: the Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Ohio and others. Most of these, however, ply the plains, and, if they fall in elevation do so gradually. Not so for the Mississippi north of Saint Paul. After running in a wide, flat valley for its length, the old glacial outflows which provide that valley—the Saint Croix and Minnesota—diverge and the current main river climbs up through the gorge. Originally, the river fell over a ledge of limestone near the current confluence, and slowly crept north, eroding a few feet each year. This was stopped by the damming and control of the falls in the 1860s, although not for navigation—but for 111 vertical feet of water power. From across the growing wheat fields of the west, grain was shipped to Minneapolis to be milled and shipped east—where else was there available power?

(As an aside, it is often said that Saint Paul is the westernmost Eastern city and Minneapolis is the easternmost Western city. Saint Paul has narrower streets and is hemmed in by topography; most neighborhoods are up on hills. Minneapolis, on the other hand, is above the river, and spreads out across the plains. Perhaps this is a manifestation of from where the cities drew their influence.)

The Twin Cities are separated by about ten miles, and once railroads came in, there were services between the cities, the Short Line was built to help facilitate commuter-type services between the cities. However, while railroads have continued to play important roles in the Twin Cities' economy even to this day (although less so than in the past), short distance passenger rail has not—the cities never developed commuter rail type services; those were supplied by streetcars. In 1890, the first "interurban" (so-called because it went served both Minneapolis and Saint Paul; it did not resemble a typical interurban) opened along University Avenue. The streetcars put the railroads out of the short-haul business between the cities, and within a few years the Twin Cities had a fully-built streetcar system service most main streets every fifteen minutes—or less. On University (and several other main lines) rush hour service was almost constant.

Low in-city density, little competition from mainline railroads, and relatively little crossover between the two cities (which generally had separate streetcar lines each focused on the downtown), however, meant that there was never impetus to built higher-speed or higher-capacity transportation. With the infatuation with buses of the 1950s, the Twin Cities were quick to rip up the streetcar lines, even where patronage was still high on some lines. Yes, the were shenanigans with proxy battles and speculation about the involvement of General Motors, but even if they lines had continued in private ownership, there was little to keep them from being torn out, like most other cities in the country. The only cities to keep their streetcars had major obstacles in the way of running buses: Boston and Philadelphia had tunnels through their central cities which would not accommodate buses (and nearly all of Boston's existing lines run on private medians), San Francisco had several tunnels and private rights of way on existing lines, the Saint Charles Line in New Orleans runs in a streets median (or "Neutral Ground") and Pittsburgh has streetcar tunnels. In every other city in the country—and there were hundreds—the streetcars disappeared. There's little reason to expect that the Twin Cities, looking at street rebuilds in the time of rubber tires, would have behaved any differently, even without the goons who made it the first major city to switch to buses.

Speculation aside, it would be fifty years until rail transit ran again. The Central Corridor, mostly on University, was the obvious choice for the first corridor, from both a macro-political and planning standpoint. Politically, the line serves Saint Paul, the capitol, the University of Minnesota, and Downtown Minneapolis. Planning, it serves a major transportation corridor with inefficient bus service, high ridership, and the ability to spur more development. Logistically, the line from Minneapolis to the Mall of America, via the airport, was a bit easier to build, on a cancelled expressway right-of-way. And after years of planning and machinations, it was.

Between the two downtowns, however, there is still only bus service. There are three options: the 16 runs every ten minutes, all day, every day. It is very, very slow. There are stops every block, and since it traverses low-to-middle income, dense neighborhoods, it often winds up stopping every block, often for only one or two passengers. Most of the day, the trip—little more than ten miles—takes more than an hour. There is no signal priority, no lane priority, and the bus is far too slow to attract ridership from anyone in a hurry. A second option, which runs mostly at rush hour, is the 50, which stops every half mile or so and runs about 15 minutes faster than the 16. Then there's the 94, which runs express between the downtowns (with one stop at Snelling Avenue) every fifteen minutes along I-94, which is a few blocks south of University. However, it poorly serves the corridor itself, and is not immune to the rush hour congestion which builds going in to each downtown, often as early as 3:00 p.m.

In other words, there's no fast, reliable transit connection along University between the Downtowns. The buses are crowded and slow. Despite frequent service, the avenue has a lot of land use poorly suited to its location between several of the major employment centers of the area. Closer to the University, it has been more built up, with some good, dense condo developments, but there are still huge tracts of light industry, unused surface parking lots, big box and strip malls and (mostly) abandoned car dealerships. Thus, it is primed for redevelopment, and, with the coming of fixed rail, will likely (hopefully) change dramatically, once the light rail can provide frequent service to both downtowns. The run time is scheduled to be 39 minutes, much of which will be spent navigating downtowns. Outside the downtowns, nowhere will be more than 30 minutes from either downtown, or the University, any time of day. It will be very accessible. And it will like transform the area dramatically. That's why I want to photograph it before it all starts.

Next: The Central Corridor: controversy (or: "why is this taking so long?!")

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