Like the Twin Cities, Seattle has pursued a regional light-rail-transit solution to its pressing urban mobility challenges. Similar to our Blue Line and proposed Riverview Corridor line, Seattle’s 14-mile Central Link connects downtown Seattle with SeaTac International Airport after passing through a sports and entertainment district on the edge of downtown.

With nine miles above, below or otherwise off city streets and five miles either on streets or in medians, Central Link appeared to offer a valuable operational benchmark to Riverview Corridor planners as they considered their preferred alternative between downtown Saint Paul and MSP International Airport. Had they actually visited Seattle, those planners would have observed the off-street segments generally exceeded performance and safety expectations. However, the on-street segments were another story.

Riverview Corridor
The route of the proposed Riverview Corridor modern streetcar line between downtown Saint Paul (top right) and the Mall of America in Bloomington (lower left).

The four-mile segment that runs in the median of Seattle’s MLK Parkway, which angles through South Seattle much like West Seventh Street cuts through Saint Paul’s West End, became an operational and political nightmare due to frequent collisions between trains and vehicles—one every 45 days. Pedestrian fatalities have averaged nearly one a year since 2009.

In response to an outraged South Seattle community, the speeds of Central Link have been lowered by 10 mph through the MLK corridor, and overpasses have been planned at select cross streets. Central Link’s parent organization, Sound Transit, has gone even further by prohibiting the future routing of LRT on streets or medians. Seattle, it would appear, has learned the hard way that rail transit systems that run in the streets experience collisions and related events at 10 to 15 times the rate of rail transit that is off-street or in a dedicated right-of-way, according to data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

As it was, Riverview Corridor planners did not visit Seattle. Nor does it seem that they considered the plight of Saint Paul’s own Green Line, a regional LRT route that has been forced, for safety reasons, to plod down the University Avenue median at a streetcar-like clip of 16 mph, or 10 mph slower than the SWLRT Green Line extension that will run in a dedicated right-of-way through suburban Minneapolis.

They went to Kansas City instead.

But what isn’t clear is why these promoters think a modern streetcar in the Riverview Corridor, using Seattle-like trains twice as long and running twice as fast as the Kansas City streetcars, can run down the middle of West Seventh with its oddly angled intersections and difficult street crossings and still make the West End safer and better off after three debilitating years of construction.

There are no LRT lines in Kansas City to benchmark, nor are any seriously being planned. But there is a streetcar, a two-mile-long affair connecting offices and entertainment venues at one end of a struggling downtown with an Amtrak station at the other end—a footprint remarkably similar to Saint Paul’s downtown.

What Riverview planners saw there was a classic downtown circulator that did nothing to improve regional connectivity or transit mobility. Nobody in Kansas City gets to work, school or appointments faster and safer on the 10 mph streetcar. Office workers get to lunch, conventioneers to their hotels and sports fans to the arena slightly faster and much cheaper via KC’s free streetcar. But is that any way to define transit mobility for Saint Paul and the East Metro area? 

The Kansas City benchmark clarifies why Riverview Corridor promoters don’t seem to care that their modern streetcar will be slower than Metro Transit’s existing 54 Express bus. Or that a more efficient off-street right-of-way, the Canadian Pacific Railway spur, is available for new transit. Or that mobility in the East Metro region, especially for the transit-dependent, will continue to stagnate.

But what isn’t clear is why these promoters think a modern streetcar in the Riverview Corridor, using Seattle-like trains twice as long and running twice as fast as the Kansas City streetcars, can run down the middle of West Seventh with its oddly angled intersections and difficult street crossings and still make the West End safer and better off after three debilitating years of construction.

Fortunately, Riverview has an off-street alternative. The idle CP Railway spur is a faster, safer, more efficient route that passes close enough to West Seventh to effectively serve key ridership hubs at Randolph Avenue, I-35E, Lexington Parkway, Sibley Plaza and, potentially, Highland Bridge.

Seattle transit planners would have done anything for a similar alternative to its MLK Parkway median debacle. It would have saved lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in remedies, do-overs and excuses while enhancing regional mobility for the diverse South Seattle community.

The CP Railway spur could accomplish the same in the Riverview Corridor. Or do we, too, have to learn that the hard way?

— Jerome Johnson

Jerome Johnson is a retired transportation economist from Summit Hill who is affiliated with Citizen Advocates for Regional Transit.

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