Neighbors, Council members critical of proposed Olson Memorial Highway’s design for Blue Line

Neighbors of the future Blue Line LRT extension project expressed concerns about the train’s potential impact on crossing times on Olson Memorial Highway and the loss of trees at a public hearing on municipal consent for the project before the City Council on Tuesday.

They also raised worries that the project could gentrify the area — making housing unaffordable in North Side neighborhoods along the line.

The proposed $1.48 billion project would link downtown Minneapolis with Brooklyn Park — a 13-mile route that would also pass through Golden Valley, Robbinsdale and Crystal. It would be the region’s fourth LRT line and open following the anticipated launch of Southwest LRT in 2020 — an extension of the Green Line linking downtown Minneapolis with Eden Prairie.

Service on the Blue Line Extension (Bottineau Corridor) is expected to start in 2021. From downtown, the line would head west from Target Station to Van White Boulevard Station and then Penn Avenue station along Olson Memorial Highway. It would then turn north and head to the Plymouth Avenue station near Theodore Wirth Park. 

Several people spoke before the City Council’s Transportation & Public Works Committee with frustrations about the plan for the line along Olson Memorial Highway. They said the current 30-second pedestrian crossing time for Olson is insufficient and also questioned why planners decided to keep six to seven lanes of traffic on the busy roadway.

Alexis Pennie spoke before the Council committee and said the decision to keep all of the lanes is a major missed opportunity. He said project planners need to do more to ensure that the area remains safe and meets the needs of neighbors. 

“The development along Olson Memorial Highway needs to embody the community’s vision — 30 percent affordable housing is what we are seeking,” he said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation, however, would not allow a lane reduction, said City Council Member Blong Yang (Ward 5).

Highway 55 (Olson Memorial) will be fully reconstructed from 1-94 to Theodore Wirth Park where the train heads north on a rail corridor, said Blue Line LRT project director Dan Soler.

Stations will be located in the middle of highway. The posted speed limit of this stretch of Olson Memorial will be reduced to 35 mph and lanes will be narrowed, Soler said.

Yang said he’s supportive of the project, but said he wishes more North Minneapolis residents had better access to the train.

“My only regret is that this line didn’t cut through more of North Minneapolis,” he said.

The Council committee passed a resolution granting municipal consent for the Blue Line extension, but Council Members Lisa Bender (Ward 10) and Cam Gordon (Ward 2) also expressed concerns. The full City Council will vote on municipal consent for the project Feb. 12.

Gordon said the proposed Olson design for the LRT line looks like something you’d see in the suburbs, not in an urban area. He said he had hoped that there would be a grade separation on Olson for the LRT and adjacent traffic to make it more pedestrian friendly.

“It still seems to me like it’s a very wide road,” he said. “I’m still concerned about that it’s not going to actually help connect the neighborhoods on either side of this.”

Bender said the design reflects the “status quo” — not a future that also prioritizes bikers and pedestrians and accounts for the environmental impact of heavy vehicle traffic on neighborhoods.

“I do think this project is not realizing its full potential for the city of Minneapolis. That’s because we’re still planning these huge transportation investments for too short a time window,” Bender said. “Our traffic models assume that people will continue to drive at their current rates, and we know that if we design our transportation system to make it easy and inexpensive to drive they will — it’s called induced demand.”

Minneapolis Downtown Council CEO Steve Cramer spoke in favor of the Blue Line extension project and said the Legislature needs to act this session to ensure there’s a more sustainable revenue source for transportation projects in the state.

“We need to provide more and better ways for people to get to and around downtown, and this is one of those steps,” he said.