More than 60 years after streetcar service was discontinued in the Twin Cities, a key advisory committee has recommended bringing the streetcar back — but in a much different form.
After three years of study and close to 100 public hearings, the Riverview Corridor Policy Advisory Committee voted Wednesday in favor of reviving "modern" streetcar service in the south and east metro.
A "modern" streetcar is much like light rail, except that it involves only one car and operates in traffic. Streetcar service is not now part of the Twin Cities transit network, although it is available in cities such as Detroit, Portland, Ore., and Kansas City.
The Riverview Corridor route would run largely along W. 7th Street, connecting Union Depot in downtown St. Paul to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America. After crossing the Mississippi River on a new bridge, the Riverview route shares Blue Line tracks beginning at the Fort Snelling LRT stop, where it would continue to the airport and Bloomington megamall.
"I really think the community will support this," said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega, who chairs the Riverview Corridor advisory committee. "There are a lot of concerns. Those concerns are real and something we will have to continue to address."
The committee's vote was 11-2, with the group's citizen and business representatives opposing the line. Pat Mancini, who owns the iconic St. Paul steakhouse on W. 7th Street, said he was concerned about the effect of prolonged construction for the streetcar on small businesses.
"Can we still have the historic nature and charm of W. 7th [with the streetcar]?" Mancini asked. "Or does it become big-box stores and fast-food restaurants?"
The project, estimated to cost $1.4 billion to $2 billion, will be complicated to build. Beyond erecting a new bridge next to the existing Hwy. 5 span, a tunnel would burrow under Historic Fort Snelling property.
The Twin Cities was once home to a streetcar system that stretched from Stillwater to Minnetonka. Its popularity peaked in the 1920s, but the growth of cars helped ensure its demise by 1954.
Planners say new transit options are needed as congestions grows, millennials eschew cars, and aging baby boomers look for transportation alternatives. As proposed, the Riverview line would span 11.7 miles, feature 20 stations and take 44 minutes from one end to the other. Passenger service isn't expected to begin until 2027 or 2028.
More than 4,600 people attended public meetings or offered comments.
While most agree transit service along the W. 7th Street corridor needs to improve, others worried about bike and pedestrian safety near an operating streetcar. Some feared the area would rapidly gentrify, squeezing out affordable housing options, and others wondered about personal safety on transit and increasing taxes to pay for the project. (The project will be funded with federal and local money.)
The National Park Service, Friends of the Mississippi and Minnesota Historical Society also expressed concern about the environmental impact on the Mississippi River and Fort Snelling.
In a resolution that was adopted by the group, Rebecca Noecker, the St. Paul City Council member representing the W. 7th Street area who sits on the committee, spelled out her concerns about safety, bike and pedestrian infrastructure, landscaping, ownership of the corridor and the project's budget. The corridor "has a unique character, it's not a highway," she said.
Ramsey and Hennepin counties, Bloomington, St. Paul and the Metropolitan Airports Commission will consider the project in coming weeks. If all approve, it will be forwarded to the Metropolitan Council for consideration in the Twin Cities' long-term transportation plan. Should that occur, an environmental study would begin, likely lasting three years.
The committee also recommended that a study be done on connections between the streetcar route and the Ford development site in Highland Park, as well as to the Blue Line LRT and A-line rapid-transit bus, which runs along Snelling Avenue.