With future light-rail lines expected to largely bypass the heart of north Minneapolis, transit planners are finishing analysis on two other transportation options for the area: streetcars and rapid buses.

Planners showcased their work Tuesday on the two alternatives for West Broadway, the commercial spine of the economically depressed North Side. But funding — particularly for a $229 million streetcar line — remains elusive.

The study revisits a debate that occurred in 2012 as Minneapolis agreed to a route for the Bottineau light-rail project that followed Olson Hwy. at the southern edge of north Minneapolis toward parkland and ultimately the western suburbs. That was chosen over another, more logistically challenging route that would have traveled north from the Olson Highway up Penn Avenue, then west on West Broadway toward North Memorial Medical Center.

“Bottineau only has two stations in north Minneapolis,” Peter Wagenius, the mayor’s chief policy aide, told a gathering Tuesday evening. “And two stations in the middle of a highway isn’t usually the way economic development and job growth happens.”

That’s why the city pushed for the streetcar study, as well as an examination of new rapid bus service on Penn, Fremont and Emerson avenues. The most likely to be completed in the near future is the Penn Avenue rapid bus line, a new Metro Transit concept rolling out on Snelling Avenue this year, which is tentatively expected to be constructed in 2017.

A rapid bus line would feature fewer stops, preboarding payment, real-time arrival information at stops and traffic signal priority. Streetcar lines have similar amenities, but feature light rail-like vehicles running on tracks in mixed traffic.

Higher streetcar costs

According to the study, a West Broadway rapid bus line would cost about $40 million to build and $5.5 million annually to operate. The streetcar, meanwhile, would cost $229 million and $9.6 million to operate.

The streetcar would also serve 900 fewer riders than the rapid bus by 2040, the study found, partly because only the bus would extend to the Bottineau line stop in Robbinsdale.

The proposed streetcar route ends at North Memorial Medical Center because of funding constraints and recent road reconstructions in Robbinsdale, Metro Transit staff said Tuesday. The shorter streetcar route also requires maintaining more regular bus service, which also affected ridership.

The lack of available funding for streetcars has drawn concern from officials in the past. “I think this has crossed the line into crazy,” Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said at a meeting in August. “We’re going to show pictures of a streetcar and lots of great buildings around it and a development scenario around West Broadway without any plan to pay for it.”

But Metropolitan Council Member Gary Cunningham, a leader of the West Broadway study, dismissed the funding skepticism at Tuesday’s meeting.

“I know there are people out there that say, ‘Well, where are you going to get the money and all this kind of stuff?’ ” Cunningham said. “But I actually think the people of north Minneapolis, where I grew up … we can dream about what the future could be.”

Other streetcar priorities

If a streetcar is selected as the study’s preferred transit mode, it would not be Minneapolis’ first priority for constructing a streetcar line.

The city is already redirecting property taxes from several new developments — including downtown’s Nic on 5th and 4Marq projects — to help pay for a streetcar line on Nicollet Avenue.

And those funds would only cover about $60 million of the $200 million Nicollet Avenue streetcar.

“In essence, with [the West Broadway study] we’re asking the question: When the Nicollet-Central streetcar is built, presuming people like it, what might we do next?” Wagenius said. “Is it automatically assumed that we extend that line to the northeast and to the south? Or could we go in this direction?”

It remains unclear if a streetcar or rapid bus will be recommended for West Broadway. Supporters of streetcars believe they will attract more economic development.

“While developers generally believe both streetcar and BRT [bus rapid transit] could positively affect the corridor’s development trajectory, 6 of 9 developers interviewed believe a streetcar would be more transformative,” said an August memo drafted by consultants SRF Consulting Group for the study.

Catherine Fleming, a member of the community advisory committee at Tuesday’s meeting, was not convinced.

“I’m neither an opponent or proponent of the streetcar. I don’t see any solid evidence that it’s provided any additional economic development in the areas where it’s been,” Fleming said. “However, having said that, I think it’s aesthetically pleasing. It would give a sense of class to this area, which it doesn’t have right now. So I’m not opposed to it.”

She said North Side transit improvements are desperately needed, however, particularly a circulator-style neighborhood connector bus route. “We’re desperate for transit here,” she said.

 

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