Twin Cities chase a desire named streetcar

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2012 - 8:49 PM

St. Paul follows Minneapolis in determining where best routes would be.

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Passengers got off a streetcar on University Avenue near Montgomery Ward in St. Paul in this photo taken about 1930.

Photo: , Minnesota Historical Society

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The only streetcar remaining in the Twin Cities runs around just a few city blocks near Lake Harriet, drawing mostly children seeking entertainment and tourists who want to touch history.

But now St. Paul is joining the Minneapolis quest for new streetcars by launching a yearlong $250,000 study to determine if and how streetcars would enhance the people-moving power of the Central Corridor light-rail line connecting the two downtowns.

Since 2010, when President Obama changed the evaluation criteria for transit, nine cities have received federal grants of at least $23 million to build -- not just study -- streetcar systems. The cities are Dallas, New Orleans, Tucson, Ariz., Portland, Ore., Charlotte, N.C., Cincinnati, Fort Worth, Texas, St. Louis and Atlanta.

The change: the Obama administration decided that transit projects could be evaluated for economic development and social benefits rather than just ridership and costs.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak's aide, Peter Wagenius, said the city regrets not being at the head of the line for the money. The city is just beginning a $1.2 million analysis of prospective lines on two corridors: Central and Nicollet Avenues.

The city identified those paths with a previous analysis akin to what St. Paul is launching.

St. Paul City Council Member Russ Stark took leadership on the issue after seeing last year on a trip to Portland how streetcars connected vibrant parts of the city with struggling areas.

He rattled off the benefits: the nostalgic allure, the obvious pickup and drop-off stations, obvious pathways and reasonable costs. "We should be thinking about how to build out the transit system," Stark said.

The idea is to extend the reach of light rail's Central Corridor, which opens in 2014. Streetcars would be designed to operate within the city but connect to LRT or suburban buses. St. Paul's study will look at whether routes should replace buses or follow the Portland model of a more circular path around the core.

"Everything's on the table as far as I'm concerned," Stark said.

Nancy Homans, an aide to St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, said the study also will look to attach potential funding sources to possible routes. The hope is Minneapolis and St. Paul will eventually be able to coordinate plans.

The project, though, is far from urban centric. Noting the strong economic growth in the western edge of the metropolitan area, Homans said the entire region will benefit. For example, those west-suburban jobs could become quickly accessible from Frogtown instead of involving the lengthy bus ride and multiple transfers required now.

Funding for the study comes from a $91,500 federal grant, and the city and county, as well as the St. Paul and McKnight foundations.

Zach Schwartz, manager of transportation public affairs at the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber supports looking for a wide mix of transportation options. The stability of streetcar lines could be good for business.

He expressed appreciation for the effort to reach into under-served areas, saying, "As St. Paul looks to expand and grow, that's a great place to start."

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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