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Mayoral candidates not wild about streetcar funding

Posted by: Eric Roper Updated: September 27, 2013 - 8:35 AM

Many mayoral candidates expressed skepticism Thursday night over a plan to divert more than $60 million in property taxes to pay for streetcars, which received unanimous approval from the City Council this June.

Though most candidates supported streetcars as a mode of transit, few were ready to endorse the state-authorized “value capture district” that would redirect taxes from several major development projects already underway across the city. They were speaking at a forum sponsored by the American Institute of Architects and Urban Land Institute.

Just this week, the city council endorsed streetcars as the transit improvement of preference along Nicollet and Central Avenues.

“I favor streetcars,” said former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew. “The mayor has lobbied me a little bit on the financing of it. I’m not quite there yet. We will have streetcars in the Mark Andrew administration."

Andrew said that transit development has been “too slow,” and that he would like to move forward on two – rather than one – streetcar lines. The other line would be along Broadway and North Washington Avenues, which Mayor R.T. Rybak has set aside money to examine in next year’s budget.

Independent attorney Cam Winton, who has been the most outspoken in his opposition to both streetcars and the financing of them, said the city should opt for bus improvements, which are significantly cheaper. He added that the “economic development benefits of [streetcars] are unproven at best.”

Park Board commissioner Bob Fine said he supports continuing development of light rail.

“One thing I oppose is something that’s way too costly, which is the streetcar proposal from Nicollet Mall which will probably end at the back end of K-Mart – which was really a bad decision by the city in the first place,” Fine said. “We’ve got to make things sensible and stop making those bad decisions.”

DFLer Stephanie Woodruff, who has been endorsed by the Independence Party, said she likes streetcars, but “I’m not a fan [of] the proposal in terms of how its financed.”

Council Member Don Samuels, who supported the streetcar plan, said Portland saw marked investment along its streetcar corridors, returning vitality to parts of the city that were empty.

“As mayor I’m going to champion streetcars and light rail and I’m on the implementation committee for the interchange also of the LRT lines,” Samuels said. “So I’m going to be continuing that work.”

Council Member Betsy Hodges, who supported the streetcar financing plan, and former council member Jackie Cherryhomes, did not directly address the streetcar funding in their remarks.

Panelists were simultaneously asked their views on density, which often tied into the transit question. Here are some of their thoughts on dense residential housing:

Hodges said the heart of her vision for growing the population to 500,000 people is transit and transportation. “That includes biking, walking, bus, enhanced bus, streetcars, light rail, the whole nine-yards.” She noted that objections to density are often directed at the density of cars, which transit alleviates. She added that transit helps spread development “all across the city” and ease pressure on neighborhoods.

Cherryhomes said that most anxiety about density could be addressed with better design, such as buildings not having a space for children to play. She said transit plans need to take into account biking and pedestrian uses. Overall, she said, the city needs a better plan to guide growth. “We need a visionary as leader of [the city’s] planning department to really help us think big.”

Samuels said that Minneapolis has room for 500,000 people, since it once had a population exceeding that. “We’re going to need to get people back if we’re going to keep services for this scale of a city at a level that works.” He said development along the Hiawatha light rail line proves that fixed rail transit, like light rail and streetcars, will be important in reaching that goal.

Fine said he would “sit down with the planning department” and examine revising “our entire plan for the city.” He said that density is important in “certain areas.”

Andrew said that transit should precede both the deployment of new housing and job development strategies. “Transit is fundamental to our growing the population.” He added that the population can be boosted by improving schools, so young families want to stay in Minneapolis, and creating a tax climate “that’s not busting the bank of household incomes.”

Winton said the city excels at attracting people in their 20s, but too often loses people in their 30s who are disappointed with “The property tax burden not in balance with the services they receive” – such as plowing, paving or school quality. He said the permitting process should be eased to incentivize developers building housing at all price points, rather than just the more high-end areas.

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