Will street cars come back to Central Avenue?

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Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson fondly recalls hopping on Central Avenue streetcars with his buddies, back when he was just about 10 years old.

“It used to be kind of a slick way to go downtown,” Peterson said. “I grew up Northeast, and we took it back and forth all the time.”

Now, nearly a half-century since the city’s streetcar system was destroyed, the City of Minneapolis is considering building it up once again. Minneapolis received a $900,000 grant from the federal government to research installing electric streetcar service along Nicollet and Central avenues. This grant, along with $300,000 of the city’s own money, will pay for the 12- to 18-month-long feasibility study.

Several of Northeast’s elected officials say they’re in favor of pursuing the project, which would connect Eat Street businesses along Nicollet with the 4100 block of Central Avenue in Columbia Heights. Unlike the lines of days past, which ran down the middle of street, these lines would run alongside Central Avenue’s perimeter, next to the sidewalk on both sides.

Ward 1 Minneapolis City Council Member Kevin Reich said he’s been lobbying for streetcars along Central since before he was elected. He went on to say that compared with buses, which primarily serve riders without other transportation options, streetcars attract those who have a private vehicle, too.

“People just perceive them as a nicer, cleaner ride,” he said.

Of all the public transportation options, streetcars are the top driver of economic development, he added. In cities such as Portland, Oregon they’ve been shown to markedly increase pedestrian traffic, which would be a good thing for Central Avenue business owners, he continued.

Reich said the estimated $40 to $50 million cost for a four-mile line is only a tenth of what it would take to install light rail along the same corridor. (Much of the “heavy lifting” of paying that bill, he added, would come from the federal government). The long-term maintenance cost for streetcar lines, he continued, is cheaper than paying for road wear caused by vehicle traffic.

Not everyone, though, is convinced that the streetcar line is a good idea. Mayor Peterson said he’d personally like to see Columbia Heights be included in any plans, but he’s not confident his colleagues will support putting city funds toward the project. A recent public meeting on the topic attracted a  vocal opposition group, he said.

“When it comes down to the real nuts and bolts of it, the cost is prohibitive,” Peterson said.
Back in Minneapolis, Ward 3 Council Member Diane Hofstede supports the concept, saying it has worked well for other U.S. cities like Portland and Seattle.

She cited many of the same supporting reasons as Reich: streetcars are popular, reliable and better for the environment than most other forms of transportation.

Unlike Peterson, Hofstede doesn’t have any personal memories of riding Northeast’s streetcars-but she’d like to build some in the future.

“In a sense we’re going backward,” she said, “in order to go forward.”