Commuters took more than 10.5 million rides on the Hiawatha light-rail trains last year, a record for the 9-year-old line that runs from downtown Minneapolis to the Mall of America. Ridership has already surpassed projections for the year 2020.
Next year the Central Corridor line between Minneapolis and St. Paul will begin operations. Plans for the new Southwest Light Rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie are in the works, and there's talk of building the Bottineau Line from Minneapolis out through the northwest suburbs.
Then what? That was the topic Peter Wagenius, policy director for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak tacked at Tuesday's Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Summit.
In his keynote address, "The End of Light Rail and What to Do Next," Wagenius said streetcars and bus rapid transit lines will be necessary to keep Minneapolis growing and to bring people from the suburbs downtown.
"There are no new freeways coming to Minneapolis," he said.
If and when the four light rail lines are built and operating, the city won't be able to add additional light rail lines because there are no streets that can give up capacity to accomodate the trains. But, Wagenius said, the city could add streetcars because they can share lanes on streets with general traffic.
Streetcars and bus rapid transit lines, such as the one scheduled to begin operating on Cedar Avenue in the southern suburbs in June, could be added to the "transit tool box" and bring Minneapolis on par with its peers such as Denver, Dallas and other similar size cities and "succede at transit."
One vision has streetcars being added to Nicollet Avenue and another line heading through northeast Minneapolis.
Of course, cost is always an issue. But new federal reforms all cities to apply for money to build streetcar lines. Wagenius pointed to Portland, Ore., which used funds to build a successful streetcar line and now is in its fifth expansion. "That could be us," he said.
Wagenius advocated for streetcars and BRT lines saying that "people ride trains more than buses," he said citing that with lower floors and wider doors it makes for easier boarding and smoother ride." He also said rail is attractive to choice riders, people who could drive downtown but choose not to.