Interviewed by Fred Melo of the Pioneer Press for this piece: Should light rail get priority at St. Paul stoplights?
David Levinson, a professor of Transportation Engineering in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Civil, Environmental and Geo-engineering, says St. Paul had plenty of time to perfect Green Line traffic signals during six months of test trips.
He suspects the decision not to give the Green Line nearly as much priority at traffic signals as the Blue Line is mostly political. When the Blue Line debuted in 2004, cars queued up for lengthy wait times on Minneapolis cross streets. City engineers in St. Paul feared a repeat.
“I think the city could do more,” Levinson said. “I think the city knew about this for a very long time. I think the city was scared of the very long signal times on Hiawatha Avenue. … They were reluctant to give as much priority.”
Kari Spreeman, a spokeswoman with St. Paul Public Works, said the city is committed to making sure bicyclists and pedestrians can cross the avenue, cars can make left turns, and the light rail can go by. It’s a lot to balance.
“We have a team of traffic engineers working on the system every day and are continuing to work closely with Metro Transit to tweak the system,” Spreeman said. “Our goal is the same as it has been from the beginning — to strike a balance.”
Greg Hull, an assistant vice president with the American Public Transportation Association, said he’s seen other cities wade through similar questions about how to balance major transit investments with competing traffic demands.
“The challenges you’re facing in Minneapolis-St. Paul are not unusual for what you’ll find in most cities,” Hull said. “They become political decisions, and it becomes a matter of local jurisdictions needing to determine what’s in their best interest.”
Some transit engineers say the conflicts between cross-traffic and public transit aren’t always as significant as they are perceived to be. A 2003 study based in Fairfax County, northern Virginia, found that giving buses priority at intersections through extended green lights improved their reliability without significant impacts on traffic at cross-streets. In fact, the traffic queue on the side streets increased by one vehicle.
“It’s important to recognize there’s a trade-off,” Levinson said. “That said, there’s going to be a lot more people in a train than in a car at any time, so the trade-off should favor the train.”
Nate Khaliq, a former firefighter and neighborhood activist who lives in the Summit-University neighborhood, said he was surprised that the train doesn’t already get priority at traffic lights.
“I would have thought they’d have all this stuff together, when you put $1 billion into a public transportation project,” Khaliq said. “It certainly wouldn’t bother me to wait a little longer at stop lights.”
Comment: I did the interview over the phone while riding on the Green Line. We (the east-bound train, with me aboard) made the lights until we entered St. Paul. We were stopped at a Red Light at Berry Avenue, a street with very little traffic, the first light wholly inside St. Paul.