St. Paul gives early approval to streetcar network

Fresh on the heels of the new University Avenue light-rail line, the City Council approved a tentative citywide streetcar network of seven routes and also backed an in-depth study of the first line that would be built — a 4.1-mile stretch through downtown along 7th Street, from the West End to the East Side.

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This is how streetcars used to look in St. Paul. A streetcar descends into the tunnel in 1951; the Wilder house appears above the streetcar, and the Cathedral is barely visible to the left.

Photo: St Paul Dispatch & Pioneer Press, Minnesota Historical Society

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Like that old shirt in the closet you just know will be back in style someday, streetcars — once given up as hopelessly dated — have become the latest fashion in transit planning in St. Paul.

Fresh on the heels of the new University Avenue light-rail line, the City Council last week approved a tentative citywide streetcar network of seven routes and also backed an in-depth study of the first line that would be built — a 4.1-mile stretch through downtown along 7th Street, from the West End to the East Side.

St. Paul figured in another transit development last week, when the Metropolitan Council endorsed plans for what will be the metro area’s first arterial bus rapid transit (BRT) line along Snelling Avenue. Construction for the $25 million project will start this year, with the line opening in late 2015.

The St. Paul council’s streetcar vote followed lengthy strides already made by Minneapolis, which approved a streetcar network of its own four years ago and is deep into planning for a 3.4-mile streetcar line that would travel Nicollet and Hennepin avenues between Lake Street and the Northeast neighborhood.

St. Paul doesn’t “want to just be a bedroom community for the job center which is right now, frankly, Minneapolis and the western suburbs,” said Council Member Russ Stark, a key streetcar advocate. “Minneapolis and the western suburbs continue to invest in transit … and we can’t afford to be left out of that. We really can’t.”

Streetcars use rails like light-rail transit but operate on city streets in mixed traffic, typically cover shorter distances and stop more often than LRT trains.

The estimated cost of the Minneapolis line is $200 million, while the proposed St. Paul streetcar line on 7th Street currently is priced at $250 million. The line must stay under that figure to qualify for up to $75 million in federal funding; other possible revenue sources include tax-increment financing, special assessments or entertainment taxes.

‘Mind-boggling’ costs

The high cost of streetcars helped pack the council chambers for Wednesday’s public hearing on St. Paul’s plans.

In the 15 minutes given them, 10 residents and business people bluntly told council members that streetcars are inflexible, unnecessary and a headache during construction, as well as far too expensive.

“You’re pricing people out of being able to move into St. Paul as young people, and you’re pricing older folks and folks who are in the lower and middle class out of the city itself,” said Andrew Wagner, a 24-year-old Summit Hill renter. “If you can look all of us in the eye and say that … all of the other necessities are met, [then] we can talk about things that are nice to have.”

Council Member Dan Bostrom calculated that the $250 million needed to build 4 miles of streetcar line could be used to strip and replace the asphalt on all 873 miles of St. Paul’s paved streets, many of which are rutted and years behind in repairs. And about $48 million would be left over, he said.

Streetcar costs “are really quite mind-boggling,” Bostrom said. “The city is running on automobiles. That is a fact of life.”

But other residents testified for streetcars, and city planner Michelle Beaulieu told the council that the majority of the nearly 300 pieces of feedback received at public meetings, online and through the mail was positive. Supporters said streetcars were dependable, saved on fuel and stimulated economic development, she said; opponents were appalled by high capital and operating costs and said streetcars lacked the flexibility of buses.

In the end, all council members save Bostrom (who wasn’t present for the vote) backed the proposed network and further study. Council President Kathy Lantry said it was a merely procedural step.

“We are not voting on spending $250 million here tonight,” she said.” We are not doing the alignments. We are not laying track next week. None of that is happening. There is a process here and this is part of that process. We’re just in the very beginning stages of this.”

Buses for W. 7th Street

Actually, the study that the council approved Wednesday is already underway, courtesy of the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority.

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