The contentious divide over streetcars landed at the Metropolitan Council on Wednesday night, kicking off a debate that will ultimately determine whether they are a worthwhile investment for the region.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have aggressively pursued streetcar plans, but the cities need additional signoff from the Met Council in order to seek critical federal funding for the projects. Streetcars have drawn more skepticism than light rail, however, since their service largely mimics local buses at a much higher cost.
“I very much would like to see streetcars considered as part of our [transportation] plan,” said Council Member Jennifer Munt after the council received its first in-depth briefing Wednesday. “I think it’s a mode that adds value to the entire region.”
Advocates have touted streetcars as a driver of economic development, but a consultant’s report presented to the council Wednesday said it is difficult to measure their economic impacts in other cities. The same report found that other projects nationally have lacked proper planning to pay for operations and maintenance.
Streetcar lines are typically shorter than light-rail lines. Unlike light rail, the vehicles run in general traffic and make frequent stops along urban corridors. The vehicles are similar to light rail, but they are not typically linked together.
The proposed Minneapolis line would stretch about 3.7 miles along Nicollet Avenue from Lake Street to downtown, continuing across the river on Hennepin Avenue. It would cost about $200 million.
St. Paul has backed an in-depth study of its first line, a 4.1-mile route that would run along 7th Street from the West End to the East Side. It would cost about $250 million.
Minneapolis officials received approval from the Legislature in 2013 to set aside $60 million in property taxes from several major development projects to help build the first line. But a city fact sheet produced in January says they still need an additional $75 million in federal money and $65 million from a higher metrowide transit sales tax in order to pay for the project.
Projects are costly
The consultant’s report made no broad recommendations about the wisdom of streetcars, but reviewed nine projects in other cities to examine their effects. Most of those projects were still in progress, however.
That analysis found that streetcars typically cost about $20 million to $68 million per mile to build — depending on variables like utility relocation and the presence of existing rail facilities. Operations and maintenance costs, meanwhile, ranged from $1.5 million to $6 million a year.
Five modern streetcar systems have launched since Portland, Ore., opened its first line. Three more will begin operations this year, while nearly 12 others are being planned, according to the Met Council’s consultant.
Cities’ experiences varied widely. Portland built a 14.7-mile line in several stages for $251.4 million and has seen massive residential, commercial and office development around the line. Others have questioned how much of that should be attributed to the streetcar, however, since the initial route was also the focus of a major redevelopment effort.
Projects in other cities have encountered significant delays and added costs due to problems obtaining vehicles and relocating utilities. Changing political winds have also been common: Arlington County in Virginia canceled its proposed line after nearly a decade of planning due to growing community opposition and changing politics on the County Board.
The report said that assessing the impact of streetcars on development — vs. accompanying city policies — “is elusive, and debatable” since it is hard to study transit impacts in isolation. Nonetheless, consultant Nick Thompson told the board, economic development “is often the driver that puts forward these projects, at least early on.”
Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ policy director Peter Wagenius told the council that development has become more integral to transit planning after the completion of two major rail lines in the Twin Cities. “We’re not just thinking about transit-oriented development after the fact,” Wagenius said. “We’re trying to build development-oriented transit that will inspire those investments.”
Streetcars are not a funded transit option in the region’s long-term transportation plan.
That plan would need to be amended to include a project such as Nicollet streetcar in order for it to secure federal funding. Such an amendment has not been presented to the Met Council yet.
Minneapolis is meanwhile in the midst of conducting an environmental assessment, which they hope to release for comment by midsummer 2015.
The city’s ideal schedule envisions the Met Council amending their transportation policy this summer and taking over the project as the lead agency in the fall.
Project consultant Charlene Zimmer told a meeting of the Whittier neighborhood Monday night that the project faces a lot of funding competition.
“I think our … challenge is that we have a lot of big transit projects going on in the region right now,” Zimmer said. “And the Federal Transit Administration is funding projects all over the country, so there’s a lot of competition for that.”
In July, the St. Paul City Council approved a tentative citywide streetcar network of seven routes and gave its support to an in-depth study of the first of those lines that would be built.
Streetcars are most likely to initially run down a 4.1-mile stretch of 7th Street, from the city’s West End through downtown to the East Side. But that route could be chosen for other transit options.
Opponents say a streetcar line is too expensive. Council Member Dan Bostrom has said the $250 million a streetcar line is expected to cost could be used to strip and replace the asphalt on all 873 miles of St. Paul’s paved streets.
A rapid bus line along Snelling Avenue is expected to start soon. The estimated cost of that line is $25 million.
Here is the consultant's report: