After months of study about how to best connect south, downtown and northeast Minneapolis, a key City Council panel on Tuesday endorsed streetcars over less-expensive bus improvements because of their potential for driving economic development.

The unanimous City Council committee vote, subject to full council approval next week, caps a yearlong process that weighed the benefits of streetcars vs. enhanced bus.

The proposed 3.4-mile, $200 million “starter line” would run up Nicollet Avenue from Lake Street and eventually cross the Mississippi River over the Hennepin Avenue bridge.

Streetcars have widespread support from the mayor and council, but a recent poll shows that voters are split on idea. Council members believe that rails in the ground will play an important role in sparking growth.

“There’s no place where a bus system has been enhanced enough that people are paying more for the real estate near it, building bigger buildings, bringing more jobs and more residents,” said Sandy Colvin Roy, chair of the city’s Transportation and Public Works Committee. “It just doesn’t happen.”

The capital costs for enhanced bus are about a quarter that of a complete, 9-mile streetcar line, according to a staff presentation Tuesday.

Mayoral aide Peter Wagenius said the city did not do a similar enhanced bus calculation for the “starter line” length. The benefits analysis concluded that streetcars would have more riders and higher economic development potential.

Streetcars operate on tracks like light rail, but in general traffic with other cars. Under the proposed route, they would stop about every two blocks.

Enhanced bus, by comparison, involves deploying larger vehicles that make fewer stops, have faster boarding times and better shelter amenities than the current service.

The vote puts the city on track to seek the remaining funding for the deal, as well as to initiate an environmental review process.

City Hall plans to fund about $60 million by redirecting property taxes from several major development projects already underway across the city — a “value capture district” designated by the Legislature this year. The rest will come from as-yet unidentified federal or regional sources.

Wagenius said it is crucial for the Legislature to pass a metro sales tax for transit that would fund both capital and operation costs, in order for the deal to work. A transportation bill including that tax passed the Senate this year but died in the House. Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, the transportation chairman, said Tuesday that he plans to reintroduce it next session.

The City Council approved the “value capture” funding plan unanimously this July, but voters are less certain about spending $200 million on streetcars. A poll conducted for the Star Tribune this month showed that 39 percent of likely voters supported the idea, while 36 percent opposed it. Another 24 percent were unsure.

Mayoral candidate Cam Winton, the only opponent to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, said streetcars are not worth the high price tag. “I don’t doubt that your intentions are good for our city,” he said, “but respectfully, you have fallen for the emperor’s new clothes.”

Council members stressed that the streetcars go hand in hand with increasing the city’s density, a key goal of city leaders who hope to increase Minneapolis’ population.

“What we do with the robust transit network is create the possibility of the density of people without having to create more density in cars,” said Council Member Betsy Hodges, who is also running for mayor. “That’s a huge piece of what we can do here.”

The panel also endorsed sending the streetcars over the Hennepin Avenue bridge, rather than the Central Avenue bridge, because of lower costs and better bicycle and pedestrian access.

The 3.4-mile route would end somewhere around NE. 8th Street.

The “starter line” route is expected to be the first phase of a larger project that may eventually run about 9 miles, spanning much of Nicollet and Central Avenues.

Completing the analysis of different transit modes on Nicollet-Central is the farthest the city has come to creating a streetcar line, but other efforts are underway. A group is studying transit options for the Midtown Greenway, while Mayor R.T. Rybak announced in his budget speech this year that he was setting aside funds to examine a streetcar line along Washington Avenue N. and W. Broadway.


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