Above: A rendering of the Nicollet-Central streetcar, in background, as it would appear on 26th Street and Nicollet Avenue.

Metropolitan Council officials will wade Wednesday night into the sticky debate over whether streetcars are a worthwhile transit investment for the region, responding to pressure from eager officials in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

The cities need the Met Council to adopt streetcars into their formal transportation policies in order to seek federal funds for the projects. Minneapolis’ streetcar plans are farther along, but the project remains far from certain because federal and state funding remains up in the air.

Unlike light rail, streetcar lines mimic local bus service by running in general traffic with frequent stops along urban corridors. The vehicles are similar to light rail, but are typically not linked together.

The Minneapolis line would stretch about 3.4 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.

Outside consultants will present the council a report outlining streetcar efforts in other cities. Among several conclusions, the report says that the economic benefits of past streetcars are difficult to measure – contrary to more conclusive statements from city officials.

“But measuring the actual impacts of streetcar investments on the local economy versus other City policies and development incentives is elusive, and debatable,” the report says. “There is no universally accepted methodology for estimating the economic benefits of streetcars in isolation from other public and private initiatives aimed at creating vibrant and sustainable urban areas.”

Minneapolis officials received approval from the Legislature several years ago to set aside $60 million in property taxes from several major development projects to help build the streetcar. But a city fact sheet produced this January says they will need an additional $75 million in federal funds and $65 million from an additional transit sales tax in the metro area.

The city is in the midst of conducting an environmental assessment, which they hope to release for comment by mid-summer 2015. They are also assessing how the project would impact properties with historic significance.

Project consultant Charlene Zimmer told a meeting of the Whittier neighborhood Monday night that the project has a lot of competition to receive funding.

 “I think our bigger 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. We do think this project performs really well compared to a lot of other projects, when you look at the criteria for federal funding. But we know it’s not an easy thing to get through that process and to be competitive.”

Here is the report: