Another train story

It seems that I’ve been talking a lot about the trains lately, but it’s something of interest to me, especially since access to the light rail was one of the reasons we bought a house here in Hopkins. And while I’ve been grousing about the selected route through Minneapolis (where the Met Council has decided to put the tracks through the middle of nowhere instead of the middle of a populated area and the city of Minneapolis is having to make up for this mistake by building a streetcar line where there should have been light rail), I would be remiss to not mention that something similar is going on in my own city. When the line was in the initial planning stages, however many years ago that was, apparently the city of Hopkins lobbied to have the light rail go straight down Mainstreet. Instead, the route is bypassing the main thoroughfare to the south and pedestrians need to cross a four-lane highway and walk a half a mile to actually get anywhere. And, yes, Hopkins is planning a streetcar to rectify this.

This is from the Downtown Hopkins Station Area Planning Report, and it illustrates the problem. At the center of the map is the station itself, with one dotted circle representing a quarter mile and the larger one a half mile radius. The very northern edge of the quarter mile radius touches Mainstreet, where all the businesses are. So, when people disembark from the light rail at this station, they need to cross the busy, four-lane Excelsior Boulevard, walk a quarter mile, and then walk further to their destination. And just why is this? Why not just run it down Mainstreet? The answer actually lies in the next station to the west, Shady Oak:

This is from the Shady Oak Station Area Planning Report. The red line is the rail line, and at some point the Met Council was trying to decide whether to run it south from Shady Oak or continue it west along the old freight rail line. For some reason, and I have no clue why they decided to do the right thing here and not elsewhere, they were smart enough to turn the line south and have it connect to more populated areas in Minnetonka and Eden Prairie instead of the easy route behind peoples’ houses. And this is why the line doesn’t run down Mainstreet (seen running along the very top of the image): If they would have chosen to go west, they would have been unsure of how to connect the rail line from Mainstreet to the route west. So, just in case they would have made such a bad move, it was decided that the light rail would not go down Mainstreet. Ever. Just in case.

So, the problem we have here is that there is this major investment going on that will bring more pedestrian traffic to Hopkins, but it drops them off at an inconvenient distance from where the businesses are instead of right on the doorsteps of said businesses. What is the answer that the city came up with? A circulator. A streetcar, even. If you take a look at the city’s study, you’ll find this map of a proposed streetcar line. They’re thinking of spending up to $30 million (the report figures $20 million per mile at the high end of streetcar construction, and this is a 1.6 mile route) to put a rail line where the Met Council refused to. It sounds like a familiar theme. (For the record, there are also circulator buses being considered as well. But they’re hoping to buy ones that look like streetcars if it comes to that.)

Okay, Matthew, what do you think they should do then? (I’m glad you asked!) How about we put that $30 million toward a redesign of the route through Hopkins? Instead of spending the money to build duplicate services, why not spend the money to put the rail line where it will better serve the people? It would be simple:

1. At the Blake Road station (on the eastern end of Hopkins), instead of continuing the route along the trail as planned, move the station to the east side of Blake Road (where the county already owns land anyway) and reroute the train to 2nd Street North. This also allows for placing a station directly behind Excelsior Crossings, the collection of Cargill offices that the city seems keen upon serving (every option except the streetcar in their proposed circulators stress having a stop there).

2. After the rails pass under the existing US 169 overpass, turn them south onto Washington Avenue. Or even next to it, where there’s a wide buffer between the road and 169 anyway. This road gently curves and becomes Mainstreet, so the rail line can naturally follow this.

3. The new Downtown Hopkins station can now be in downtown Hopkins. Right in the middle of it. No need to have customers hop a circulator streetcar to get to businesses. They’re right there. On their doorsteps.

4. The rail line can turn south at 17th Avenue and connect with the Shady Oak station, which doesn’t need to move anywhere, just get reoriented for the new north-south segment of the line.

It would look something like the green line (the current plan is in red):

We’re potentially spending $30 million to put a rail line down Mainstreet anyway. Why not spend it to put the main line there instead of building a smaller line to connect with the main line? Of course, the likelihood of such a plan happening is zero to nil. Political physics are in play here, and now that the plan to build the light rail line has been drawn up, there is a large amount of political inertia keeping it going down its current path. Just like the Minneapolis end, where there is no chance of the Met Council switching to the Uptown route despite the fact that the restrictive funding rules that pushed them to route the train through a vast expanse of nothingness no longer exist, the decision to put the “Downtown Hopkins” station a half a mile from the actual downtown shopping district is unlikely to change.

I suppose that I could just keep my mouth shut and make the most of the free circulator streetcar (or bus, I suppose) that will be ambling up and down Mainstreet.

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