People traveling from St. Paul to the Mall of America could be riding streetcars or a bus rapid transit line in the next decade.
How long that trip will take, how much the transit will cost to build — from zero to $1.2 billion — and exactly what route it will follow have yet to be decided. But residents and business owners got some answers Thursday about what might be coming to the Riverview Corridor, an approximately 11-mile stretch that mostly runs along West Seventh Street.
The corridor should not have light rail or the type of bus rapid transit that requires its own dedicated lanes, an advisory committee decided. Many neighbors had pushed back against the idea of rail on the street.
"People should take note of what we're not moving forward. What we're not moving forward is two- or three-car [light rail] train," committee member Peter Wagenius said. "That is a sign that this group is hearing the community."
The committee whittled a long list of options down to six . The public will get a chance to weigh in on those choices at a series of meetings before the committee makes a final recommendation in December. The six choices are: building nothing and continuing current bus service, adding bus rapid transit that shares the road with other vehicle traffic (similar to the A line on Snelling Avenue now) or adding a "modern streetcar" on one of four possible routes. Those streetcars would run on tracks, but share the road with cars and be smaller than light rail.
Continuing with current bus service is the cheapest option, while adding BRT would cost $75 million and streetcar options could cost as much $1.2 billion, not accounting for inflation.
The committee's recommendation will go to the Metropolitan Council for consideration, and the Met Council could seek a grant from the Federal Transit Administration to help cover construction costs.
Mike Rogers, a Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority project manager, estimated they would be partway through construction around 2023.
Discussion about the future of the Riverview Corridor has carried on for years under the close watch of some neighbors and business owners who fear their properties would be affected. Kent Petterson, president of the West 7th Business Association, said Thursday he is happy that the committee ruled out light rail and he hopes it ends up sticking with the current bus service.
"I just don't sense right now that the businesses embrace streetcar or tracks," said Pat Mancini, who owns Mancini's Char House on West Seventh Street. He and City Council Member Rebecca Noecker were the only committee members to vote against the six options.
Ford site or Hwy. 5?
Noecker advocated for doing away with two of the proposed streetcar routes that would run on a Canadian Pacific rail spur parallel to West Seventh Street. That would cost more than putting transit on West Seventh, she said, and the railroad might not allow the land to be used.
"All of us need to ask ourselves why we would put more public dollars into studying two alternatives that are not the best alternatives, where the cons far outweigh the pros," Noecker said.
But using the rail spur could reduce some traffic congestion and it doesn't add a lot of money or time to study the option, Rogers said.
Other questions also need further study: Should the transit line run north to the former Ford assembly plant site before crossing the Mississippi River at Ford Parkway? Or should it continue south on West Seventh and cross by Highway 5?
Although the committee can recommend just one option for federal funding at this point, several committee members said they would like to have transit along both those routes.
They said they want to tell people at upcoming community meetings about that dual vision.
A streetcar that follows the Hwy. 5 option would have more riders and would get from St. Paul's Union Depot to the Mall of America in about 44 minutes, while the Ford site option would take up to 56 minutes.
St. Paul is planning an overhaul of the Ford site that will include a significant amount of new housing. Transit is "a key component to the development at that site," St. Paul Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann said, and would help alleviate future traffic.
If the committee doesn't make any changes to the corridor, the current bus service along the route is projected to have about 10,700 riders a day in 2040.
Bus rapid transit would serve about 11,100 people daily.
The streetcar options would have nearly twice as many riders.