Robert Street users will have to wait another four or five years to find out if a streetcar or rapid busway is headed their direction.
A study of transit needs on the road, from downtown St. Paul south through West St. Paul, ended with indecision. No mode of transportation or route was chosen. A streetcar could spur more economic development, but a rapid busway is much cheaper and easier to build, officials said last week at a final round of public meetings on the study.
"At this point we'll be putting the ball more in the court of the local cities, to kind of see what they want in terms of development on Robert Street," Dakota County Transit Specialist Joe Morneau said. "Unfortunately, there's going to be a bit of a pause."
West St. Paul is just beginning to revisit its comprehensive plan, which guides future development in the city and will determine what Robert Street looks like decades from now. The city has to update the plan by 2018. St. Paul is updating its master plan for West Side Flats, a neighborhood that will be greatly impacted by any Robert Street changes.
If the cities want a walkable streetscape filled with stores and apartments, a streetcar could help develop that vision, Morneau said. But it would come at hefty price.
It would cost $399 million to add a streetcar from Union Depot in St. Paul to Mendota Road in West St. Paul, according to the study by Dakota and Ramsey counties' regional railroad authorities.
Bus rapid transit along the same route would cost $29.2 million. Rapid busways are supposed be as reliable as light rail and operate faster than normal bus routes. A technical advisory group for the study, made up of state, regional and local government staff, recommended a rapid busway as the best option for Robert Street.
The rapid busway would draw the most riders, the study found. It was projected to have 3,100 people boarding on an average weekday in 2030. A streetcar would have 3,000 people — but it would stop at more stations, making it more accessible than the buses.
John Ramsay, who owns a business in West St. Paul, questioned whether either option is worth the cost.
"It makes more sense to me for that minimal of ridership to throw some more buses on the line," Ramsay said, rather than create a new line altogether.
Another transit option will help cut down the number of cars clogging the road, Morneau said.
Over the past couple years, West St. Paul has been focused on fixing up Robert Street. Reconstruction of the potholed roadway is scheduled to start this spring. In the city's redevelopment plan for the street, staff included some modifications to utilities, like sewer lines, that would make it easier to eventually add a streetcar, City Manager Matt Fulton said.
St. Paul completed a citywide study last year of possible streetcar lines. It ranked Robert Street among the three most desirable lines for St. Paul.
"The city's streetcar study showed that the communities along Robert Street had great potential to benefit from a streetcar line, both by serving new and existing transit riders, and by attracting economic development to this part of St. Paul," St. Paul City Planner Michelle Beaulieu said in an e-mail.
However, the streetcar study found a Robert Street line would have the highest annual operating cost per mile, at $2.6 million.
It would cost about $4 million annually to operate the bus rapid transit line and roughly $8 million a year for the streetcar, Morneau said.