Get up to speed on streetcars and development


Central Avenue’s competing with Nicollet Avenue to be the first Minneapolis shopping area to see streetcars return. First Ward Council Member Kevin Reich held an informational meeting May 24 to help people understand streetcars and the economic development they may bring. He said he hopes active citizens and leaders will bring knowledge and enthusiasm back to their groups and keep streetcars in mind as they plan their initiatives.

Reich advocated to get and keep Central on the City’s list to eventually be eligible for federal funding for streetcars, half the project cost. And actually, Central Avenue (the “10”) and Nicollet Avenue (the “18”) —both referring to the current bus routes—would meet downtown and are seen as one route, but it’s assumed there won’t be money to build the whole route at once. So which end, and which part of which end, gets built first? Starting January 2012, an 18-month process will start, following federally-mandated procedures analyzing the alternatives.

Reich said, in an interview, “Two-thirds of the way through the process for the Access Minneapolis Plan,” which promotes all kinds of transit alternatives, “except for a few people, no one knew the City was doing this.” Once he and others “generated great awareness with the merchant class,” five merchants, two of whom also owned property, appeared at an Access Minneapolis meeting, and their voices were heard.

The goal of the May 24 session on Transit Oriented Development was to take care of the public’s learning curve before the alternatives analysis begins. “The more people know, the deeper the questions can be, and more probing.”

“It’s about making the case that this is a receptive community. Central Avenue’s strength is its development potential,” Reich said in an interview. “Nicollet Avenue may be stronger on the transit end.” He said, “Both routes are frequent and packed. The main ridership on Central is from the transit hub in Columbia Heights and the northern parts of Northeast, and then it picks up again right before the River. On Nicollet Avenue, ridership is light at the southern end, and then just before downtown, lots of riders get on, he said. “We want to be able to say this (Central Avenue) is the environment that is ripe and eager for the development part of it.”

“When you see one of these (streetcars) live, you just want to hug it,” David Frank, the city’s development official working on transit oriented development, said May 24. He lived and worked in Portland, Oregon for 15 years, six of that for the City of Portland. His job here is to contact developers about locating projects in Minneapolis, and talking to current property owners to see if they’re willing to sell. “One-third are generally open to it,” he said. His job is also, Frank said, “to advocate for more density, well designed, and as permitted by zoning.”

Reich explained more density means a broader tax base over which to spread costs. And “commercial activity and more of it. It indicates health. We had half a million in population (now we have much less) and people were civil then,” (not like the rats in an overpopulated cage, the image commonly conjured up by the word “density”).

City Transportation Planner Anna Flintoft showed a “primary transit network” diagram with the following performance criteria: bus or rail to come at least every 15 minutes, 18 hours a day, seven days a week, reliable, on-time and at at least 30 percent of the speed limit. She said “there are corridors that don’t meet that now,” and that “we won’t be able to match the speeds of light rail or highway in a mixed mode corridor” with stop lights.

Flintoft and some of the residents present talked about how streetcars operate. They run on, but don’t disable, a set lane of traffic. Other vehicles can precede or follow them, “they don’t gum up traffic” any more than buses do. The difference is, because the rails are fixed, businesses can count on the rail being there, and development rises up around the stops.

Riders also like streetcars, perceiving them as “cleaner” and “cool,” Reich said in an interview. He’s watched a streetcar rider in a wheelchair easily navigate, with the access at grade and doors opening wide.

“Riders of choice,” those who have cars but choose to take the streetcar, report they like the feel of the ride, the ease of paying, and “like the regularity.” They believe they can rely on the streetcar to be there when the schedule says it will be there.

To be notified by email of future transit meetings, contact Reich’s office at 612-673-2201.