One Morning’s Journey on Northstar Commuter Rail
By Ben Houle
Recently I stayed (with family) for a few days in Anoka, a northwest suburb about 20 miles outside of Minneapolis. As I had business in Minneapolis and no car to use, I took the opportunity to ride the new Northstar commuter rail line into town.
A little background on Minneapolis – it has had a successful light rail in place from the Mall of America through the airport and into Minneapolis for years. They added the Northstar Line extending from the last light rail stop out into the northwest suburbs in November of 2009 (www.northstartrain.com). The line took $320 million and twelve years to develop and mostly operates on 40 miles of existing freight track through agreements with BNSF, the owner of the track.
After checking my route with their handy mobile web trip planner (www.metrotransit.com) and a short walk to the Anoka Station, I was a little early for my 7:40am train. The station – while relatively convenient, clean, and welcoming, had zero amenities within a 5 minute walk. No coffee, no vending, no dry cleaners. It did have a park and ride lot to the tune of 250 or so spots which were a quarter full on this Thursday. The user interface at the ticket kiosk was intuitive and easy to use. I was disappointed to find that the credit card function was not working, however, since there had been no mention of that on the metrotransit.com website. So, with a pocket full of golden dollars as change for my bills and no coffee, I waited for the train. Being Minnesota it was nice to see that heated shelters were provided, although they weren’t running on this spring morning (it was a balmy 42 degrees).
The trains are large with a two story component seating about 130 people per car with three cars per engine. They are very clean and probably just past having that ‘new train smell’. Anoka is the third stop on the way in, but I was struck by the emptiness of the seats once on board. Maybe one in every four seats was taken at that point and the train was less than half full when we arrive at the last station. While there was no wi-fi, there were bathrooms and a friendly driver who actually sang a verse of ‘Happy Birthday’ to a 4-year-old in another car. I sat comfortably through spotty cell coverage as I tried to get a jump on emails for the day. I thoroughly enjoyed the smooth quiet ride and not having to fight the automotive fight.
The transfer station was built into Target Field (home of the Twins baseball team) which was a GREAT idea – tying in a destination for families for weekend ridership. Again, though, I was disappointed as there was no shop, vendors, vending machines, or stick of gum anywhere in sight. The way signage for the Hiawatha connection was clear and easy, but walking out of there would have been difficult without a map. While Minneapolis boasts one of the U.S.’s largest bike share programs (www.niceridemn.com), there was not an area to get a bike at Target Field. This was disappointing as I would have enjoyed the ride outside much more than the light rail as I only had a mile or so to go. The Hiawatha was smooth and quick and I finally got my coffee during my walk along Nicolette Mall.
Overall I would rate the experience as acceptable, but not spectacular. I would use it daily if I lived in the area, but that’s not about just the commuter rail. The other pieces of the transit system including the light rail, bus and bike share operate so well and frequently that making a meeting across town would not be a problem in Minneapolis.
As an Indy resident, I see a lot of positives in the possibility of commuter rail for us. I also see some bumps in the road. The Northstar was the product of and addition to a destination-oriented transit and a reliable mass transit system was already working. In its first 18 months, its ridership has been slightly below expectations. There are improvements to be made and I have little doubt that ridership will grow there, but it begs the question: Can a more conservative town like Indy expect to start with a commuter-oriented rail with all of our existing transit issues and expect it to flourish? I just don’t know.
Editor’s Note: Ben Houle (@IndyUrBen on Twitter) is an Indy-area native who works as a Civil Engineer for Woolpert, Inc. He is also involved locally with Habitat for Humanity and the Midtown Initiative.
Over the next five weeks I will profile 5 possible neighborhoods poised to benefit from the controversial NE Corridor line in Indianapolis that fall within the Marion County portion of the line. The corridor in focus is one proposed by Indyconnect, and would originate at Union Station in downtown Indy, and terminate in downtown Noblesville, on the region’s NE side. It would be the first rail transit of any kind in the Indianapolis area since the interurbans were dismantled. The neighborhoods in focus, have already begun some sort of station area planning as part of a neighborhood revitalization plan, or make good sense to be considered for such.
In 2009, an iniative was launched to explore revitalization of an area that borders the Monon Trail and lies between 16th street, and 30th street. The inniative, named the Indianapolis Smart Growth Renewal District Partnership, looked at the history of the neighboorhood and formulated a plan to revitalize it from years of decay that currently plague the area. The area’s history is industrial in nature resulting in a number of brownfields, and by extension, urban blight. Many properties, commercial and residential, are abandoned and have been cited as trouble spots by the city. Crime, rumored disease and lack of property upkeep have been pointed out. Those that currently live in the neighborhood have displayed a willingness to be involved in communicating how the future should look.
The plan centers on 22nd Street & the Monon Trail where The Project School is currently operating inside of a rehabbed warehouse, embodying the spirit of the plan. Future plans call for remediation of the brownfields in the area in the form of parks or pedestrian gathering areas and transit oriented devlopment surrounding transit stops in the area. One proposed stop could be located at 22nd street; however planners advocate for up to 3 stops in the area. Whichever area is slotted as the neighborhoods hub, connectivity to the rest of the area is key in promoting the revitalization.
The Indyconnect plan is not clear yet on how many stops will be located in the area. Due to it’s commuter rail status, building enough developer support will be key. Typically, “light rail” offers headways of 10-15 minutes and more frequently spaced stops which are obviously more attractive than “commuter rail” service of generally 20-30 minutes and station frequency generally measured in MILES rather than feet. The fact that the NE Corridor is new, should be promoted as a reason for attracting property developers to the area.
Another fact that will be pivotal in making sure that mixed incomes are addressed equally, will be city involvement. Most developers, left to their own devices, will plan higher income developments hoping for a large payoff. Most developers refer to this reasoning as “market demand”. As we often see, market demand doesnt drive urban property development as said private developers claim. In most areas of America where transit oriented development occurs, mixed income neighborhoods are constructed at the urging of city planning departments and political will. Another portion of this plan which speaks to me, is that many schools are located and planned for. This is another area where private development typically keeps it’s hands off the table. Insuring that public & private schooling is properly connected, will be a key responsibility of the city when it comes to promoting proper development patterns.
As you can see by reading only a few pages of the report (which is 122 pages), the neighborhood revitalization plan is 100% based upon a rail line being built through the middle of the area. Without the transit line, the plan would likely be changed. You even get the sense that the planner’s have hung their entire case on this notion. What will happen if the line is not built? Will the neighborhood continue to fall into disrepair? Will another plan be hatched? Where will funding come from? As such, energy is building in this neighborhood soley because a transit line has been announced to someday travel through it. Any changes that might jeopardize that energy should be closely examined by planners and addressed accordingly with stakeholders.
Next week’s post will center on the region loosely defined as “71st & Binford Blvd” where a neighborhood group has already published a station area plan based upon the same NE Corridor line.