By John Abraham-Watne
The transit woes to be found in the West Calhoun neighborhood are legion: cars blatantly running red lights on Lake Street, pedestrians threatened by fast-moving vehicles, and bicycles trying to cross multiple dangerous intersections to get to Lake Calhoun. Add to that the initial construction and engineering of the Southwest Light Rail project, and there seems to be a recipe for increased confusion and constriction. The city of Minneapolis has been aware of these myriad issues for some time and is planning a major study of the various ways its citizens travel these corridors.
The Multi-Modal Transit Study involves city traffic engineers in concert with two other firms: Short Elliott Hendrickson and Toole Design Group. This study came out of the recent Memorandum of Understanding among the various governmental entities working on the light rail project. According to the city website for this project:
“This is an area wide multimodal transportation study that is intended to assess opportunities to improve safety, access, connectivity, and mobility for all modes of travel surrounding the West Lake LRT Station area.”
According to a flyer handed out at a recent West Calhoun Neighborhood Council meeting, “the study is intended to assess opportunities to improve safety, access, and connections for all modes of travel, with an emphasis on bicycle and pedestrian modes.” The study aims to analyze the ways residents move around this area, the challenges to access they face, and how to improve these areas. The study area stretches up to Cedar Lake Avenue in the north, down to 32nd Street in the south, and spans from France Avenue in the west to Lake Calhoun Parkway in the east.
The study will take a close look at “access to and from primary destination points, movements within the study area including ‘last block’ segments, and consideration of travel through the study area.” City employees and people with the engineering firms have briefed various local stakeholder groups about this project, including the Cedar Isles Dean Neighborhood Association, the Minneapolis Bicycle Advisory Committee, the Minneapolis Pedestrian Advisory Committee, and the Hennepin County Bicycle Advisory Committee.
The first public forum on this study was held April 29th at the Jones-Harrison Residence in the CIDNA neighborhood. Area residents were invited to view maps of the project and to speak with city traffic engineers and those involved with the two engineering firms. Residents were encouraged to write directly on the maps provided their concerns about travelling in this area. Three stages of the project were announced at this meeting: “inventory and analysis” from April-June, “concept development” from June-September, and “final recommendations” October-January 2016. There will be two other community workshops taking place in “late summer” of 2015 and December 2015. There were many neighborhood association board members on hand to direct their concerns for this study to the city engineers, and this reporter found it to be a very engaging exercise. According to a flyer given out at this meeting, the study will look at “access to and from primary destinations such as the LRT station, Lake Calhoun, and area retail,” “movements within the study area to identify gaps and barriers to travel,” and “travel routes through the study area.”
I spoke with Nathan Koster, a transportation specialist with the City of Minneapolis and the main community contact for this project. Mr. Koster said the scope of the project will include “community engagement (including a walking tour of the area with key stakeholders), pedestrian/bicycle counts, recommendations for SWLRT and capital improvements.” The walking tour Mr. Koster mentioned took place April 21 with neighborhood board representatives and city officials. He also said this study should provide “depth and clarity” to the Southwest Project Office’s list of improvements for the area. I asked him why the focus on pedestrian and bicycle access. He described the current environment for those means of transit as “not very inviting” and said the goal was to focus on “last block” connections. He also described the “lack of pedestrian amenities” around the intersections of Lake Street, Excelsior Boulevard, and Market Plaza. He said one goal of this project is to “leverage the timing of the Southwest Light Rail project to enhance the pedestrian and bicycle environment.”
I then spoke with Allan Klugman, Senior Professional Engineer in the Traffic Parking Services Division with the city of Minneapolis about this project. Mr. Klugman has a background in civil engineering and had some good insight into how the city views this corridor. His sees the biggest challenges faced here as the “high density and activity,” “limited number of linkages,” and the fact that the “grid lacks full connectivity.” He said the city is striving to achieve “balance” among the various transportation types and hopes the new West Lake station will attract more development. He confirmed with me the city’s plans for the three open house events: the first to “gather input,” the second to look over “draft ideas” and the third to “present final ideas.” He also stressed that the engineering group will continue speaking to local neighborhood organizations and boards. I asked him about the city’s approach to traffic in this corridor. He stated that the “high traffic” demand here is “not going to change,” but the city still is looking at ways to “reduce the impact of vehicle traffic” and will place an emphasis on “pedestrian/bicycle safety and convenience.”
I also reached out to Ward 13 Council Member Linea Palmisano, who had a major hand in planning this traffic study for the area. Concerning the scope of this study, Palmisano said the goal was to “assess opportunities to improve safety and mobility.” She said that with the upcoming light rail project there will be multiple heavy vehicles trafficking the area and so it will need to be able to handle that level of movement. Concerning the focus on peds and bikes, Palmisano said there have been no “major investments” in these modes of transit. She also said the city needs to invest money to make these areas “traversable” and to allow more people to walk to various destinations, calling pedestrian connections her “number one priority.”
I brought up with Palmisano the clamor I’ve heard in the neighborhood over the years about the West Lake station being a community destination rather than simply another spot on the line to take the light rail downtown. The Council Member said she agrees this neighborhood needs some kind of “activity center” and that the parks around the lake are difficult to access. She said the West Lake station could be some type of “neighborhood center” or focal point. The Met Council confirmed with me that the proposed station design here is the “Town Square” type, which was described as having “longer, flat roofs and lantern elements that extend beyond the station canopy.”
I asked Palmisano about the type of community outreach she envisioned for this project. She said that both she and Ward 7 Council Member Lisa Goodman agreed that the “consultants have as much raw material as possible” and therefore wants these meetings to have constituents “inform the professionals of the conditions as they exist” in these corridors. She hopes the city and the engineering firms can get some “great data” from the citizen interactions at these meetings.
The Multi-Modal Traffic study is also the end-result of citizen engagement with this project. Just as residents of Eden Prairie agitated for the inclusion of a light rail end station in their city, the MMTS is an outgrowth of Minneapolis residents continuing to lobby their local government officials for what is needed in their part of the city. Residents who hope to affect the direction of this massive infrastructure project should attend the upcoming public meetings and are encouraged to contact their local elected officials about this important engineering project.
Project website: http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/cip/all/WCMS1P-138480
Next open house: Late Summer 2015
Final open house: December 2015
Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the May 2015 edition of the Hill & Lake Press.
John Abraham-Watne is a published author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. He is the author of two novels published by North Star Press. John conducts freelance journalism on local government issues for the news/entertainment website MinnyApple. His work has also appeared in the Southwest Journal and the Hill & Lake Press.