Ride on – Streetcars one stop closer to return to Minneapolis, St. Paul

The romance of streetcars in San Francisco, Toronto and New Orleans came one stop closer to the Twin Cities this week, as the Federal Transportation Administration awarded a $900,000 grant to begin the final study of the first proposed Minneapolis line.

Minneapolis has been studying and preparing for streetcars for several years. A 2007 feasibility study identified 14 possible routes:  Broadway, Central, Chicago, Como, Franklin, Fremont, Hennepin, Lake/Midtown Greenway, Lyndale, Nicollet, Penn/Highway 55, University, Riverside, and Washington. According to the 169-page final report submitted to the city in March 2010:

More than a dozen North American cities have streetcar systems that have either been expanded or initiated operation in the past 15 years.  At least twice as many additional cities have new systems or new lines under active planning.  Streetcars have become popular because they provide cities with the ability to add visible rail service with a capital cost that is much less than the higher capacity light rail.  Streetcars are also popular because they are a good fit for densely developed, pedestrian-oriented, urban neighborhoods and activity centers.  Many cities, including Minneapolis, were shaped by early streetcar systems, whose remnants can be seen today in the way streets and neighborhoods are laid out.

The FTA-funded study will focus on a Nicollet-Central line stretching from South Minneapolis through Northeast. It’s not entirely clear, but it looks like that line combines two lines that were described in the March report. They both look good:

Nicollet Ave S

Short term: tourists, downtown workers and visitors to inner core, Convention Center and very dense downtown neighborhoods.

Long term: serves high density residential neighborhoods south of I-94 and all of Nicollet

Avenue S., connecting to regional routes at I-35W BRT 46th Street station

Prominent downtown circulator service on Nicollet Mall

Potential to reduce bus service once the line reaches Lake Street; could essentially eliminate buses on Nicollet Avenue once the line reaches 46th.

Potential for higher density development between downtown and Franklin

Avenue.

Opportunity to “knit together” Nicollet Ave at Lake Street with redevelopment potential.

Very high ridership potential, especially as buses are replaced.

Limited breadth and intensity of economic development potential downtown and south of Franklin (except at Lake Street).

Limited opportunity for maintenance and storage facility if line does not connect to Lake Street.

Dependent on SW LRT Corridor decision.

Requires significant capital costs to connect Nicollet to Lake Street (reconnection of Nicollet Avenue)

Central Ave NE

Short term:  tourists, downtown workers, visitors to entertainment district, East Hennepin residents and businesses connected to core

Long term: Residents and businesses along corridor; connecting regional routes at Columbia Heights transit center

Moderate economic development potential especially East Hennepin area and near Lowry and Shoreham Yards.

Opportunity to replace significant numbers of buses once the alignment reaches Columbia Heights transit center (if connected to Nicollet).

Maintenance and storage potential at Shoreham Yards.

Relatively modest ridership until bus replacement begins.

Bridge crossing required to reach downtown (likely Hennepin Avenue).

Needs to be connected to another corridor to serve significant ridership.

No special generators and limited mix of uses.

Meanwhile, across the river, St. Paul City Councilmember Russ Stark recently visited Portland and observed

… relatively seamless integration of light rail with streetcars, buses, bikeways, and even an aerial tram (like a gondola).  I was particularly impressed with how Portland has used the streetcar to revitalize economically depressed areas of the City and attract new housing and jobs back into the urban core. …

Portland uses the streetcar as a primary economic development tool, and the City touts the fact that along existing streetcar lines that cost $155 million to construct, they have seen more than $3 billion in private investment.

Stark is urging St. Paul residents to send him their ideas about possible streetcar routes.

Streetcars started as horse cars in the Twin Cities way back in 1872, with experiments in steam and even cable cars on steep hills on Selby Avenue and East 7th Street, according to A Brief History of Twin Cities Transit. Except for the two cable car lines, all of the streetcars ran on electricity by 1891, with 524 miles of track at their peak.

In other cities around the country, streetcars get more ridership than buses, attracting both tourists and commuters. Proponents say they encourage walkable cities and new development, as well as running cleaner and quieter than diesel-powered buses.

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