Earlier this month, the city of St. Paul decided to move forward with a $250,000, year-long study, following sister city Minneapolis to determine whether or not streetcars are a good addition to the city’s public transportation grid.
The study will analyze what routes might make sense as well as looking at possible financing options for those routes — the end result, ideally: to create a cheaper, more alluring system that also has the potential to feed into the light rail.
“They offer many of the same benefits as light rail,” said St. Paul City Councilmember Russ Stark, in an email interview. “The permanence of tracks (as opposed to bus routes that can be moved around), the lure of riding trains, and high economic development potential along the route — at about 1/3 to 1/2 the cost.”
However, that’s not the only benefit, wrote Stark. In a city as built up as ours, it’s important to seek transportation methods that can coexist with other modes of travel, such as cars, bicycles, and even buses, especially on some of our narrow urban streets.
Streetcars have already become successful fixtures in several cities across the United States, including Portland, Tampa, Memphis and outside the states, in cities such as in Toronto, which may share the most similarities with our own two snow-bound cities.
While Stark believes it’s too early to talk about when and where a first line might be built, he does believe the streetcar system in St. Paul would be similar to Portland’s, the main purpose of which isn’t to connect the city to the suburbs, but rather to work as a method of circulation within the city.
Funding for the study is being provided by the city of St. Paul, the St. Paul Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative and Ramsey County Regional Rail.
And in Minneapolis
Over in Minneapolis, the streetcar study has already moved to Phase three, which will refine operating and financial plans, and focus on shorter segments of track called “shortest operable segments.” These short segments will run on between one and three miles of track, acting as building blocks for future long-term streetcar plans, or light rail lines, such as the Bottineau line — a plan to connect downtown Minneapolis with the northwestern suburbs.
According to Minneapolis Councilmember Don Samuels, the city has already decided to continue studying certain segments, such as lines that run down Central and Nicollet Avenues. However, he would like to see a North Minneapolis line bumped up in priority for consideration.
With the Bottineau line moving forward, Samuels is afraid the light rail will bypass North Minneapolis altogether, moving down Olson Memorial Highway before connecting with the Hiawatha line. Instead, Samuels proposes developing a streetcar line down West Broadway, to avoid neglecting an already excluded community from the benefits of an inclusive transit infrastructure. Click here for a detailed account of the West Broadway line.
Gary Cunningham, the Minneapolis Met Council representative agrees that putting a streetcar line down West Broadway “could spur much needed opportunities for that community.”
“I would hate to see an LRT line go through Olson Highway and the residents of North Minneapolis not benefit from this major infrastructure investment,” wrote Cunningham. “By committing to study Broadway for street cars we can assure that North Minneapolis won’t be left out and disconnected from our regions transit system.”
It’s not just a matter of logistical benefits to Samuels, though. It’s also a symbolic gesture to the community.
“When you put rails in the street its like buying rather than renting,” said Samuels. “It says, ‘We’re going to be here.'”
In 2007, the city estimated that a West Broadway line would cost $154 million. According to Samuels, under ideal circumstances, the line wouldn’t be built and operational for another five years.