A decision four years ago to forgo a bus rapid transit line in favor of an unfunded modern streetcar continues to loom large in St. Paul, where city leaders say they are being left behind in the region’s growing transit network.
The Riverview Corridor streetcar line between downtown St. Paul and Bloomington is at least a decade from completion, and the exact cost is still unknown. Meanwhile, City Council members are lamenting what they say is a lack of transit investment in St. Paul.
Transit advocates say it’s no accident that St. Paul has fallen behind.
“I can understand where some current sitting council members are frustrated,” said Jessica Treat, executive director of Transit for Livable Communities. “But choices have been made that have put us in the situation we’re in.”
Local leaders have been talking about building a transit line along the Riverview Corridor for nearly 20 years. In July 2014, a group of city and county leaders asked the Metropolitan Council to hold off on plans for the B Line bus rapid transit along W. 7th Street until the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority (RCRRA) could study the best way to move people along that corridor.
In a letter to then-Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh, RCRRA Chairman Rafael Ortega, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Council Members Chris Tolbert and Dave Thune and St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce President Matt Kramer said “any enhanced transit investment in the Riverview Corridor should be the product of a coordinated and thoughtful study regarding the most appropriate transit investment to address both current and future transit needs in the corridor.”
Local leaders are standing by that decision. In December, RCRRA finished its study and concluded that a modern streetcar line would provide about twice as many daily trips as local bus or an arterial bus rapid transit line, said Mike Rogers, RCRRA transit projects manager. In March, the St. Paul City Council chose streetcar as its preferred mode for the Riverview Corridor.
Unlike light rail, a streetcar would operate on tracks in the street, use single-car vehicles and smaller platforms, and allow for more frequent stops. Other cities using modern streetcars include Portland, Ore., and Kansas City.
The estimated service start date is 2028, although that’s subject to change, Rogers said. In the meantime, local leaders and transit advocates are pushing for smaller transit improvements along the corridor, including an expansion to Route 54 bus service, which will start June 9.
The extended route, which will connect downtown St. Paul and the Maplewood Mall Transit Center, will provide much-needed service on the East Side of St. Paul, said Bill Lindeke, who chairs the St. Paul Planning Commission’s transportation committee. But he added that there are other areas of need — along Robert Street on the West Side, for example — with no solution in sight.
“It seems like in the cities where transit works really well, it’s like a really finely grained net that supports you,” said Council Member Rebecca Noecker, whose ward includes the West Side. “Here, it feels as though the net just has huge gaps in it, and you might easily find yourself stranded without service, without a connection at the time that you need it.”
Major additions to St. Paul’s transit system are still years away. The Met Council’s Transportation Policy Plan, which guides long-term transit investment in the metro and is now being updated, includes two dedicated bus rapid transit lines — the Gold Line and the Rush Line — connecting St. Paul to the eastern suburbs. The Riverview Corridor will likely be added as an amendment, according to Met Council staff.
Meanwhile, seven projects, including five bus rapid transit lines, are planned on the western side of the river. Some are partially funded.
“To Minneapolis and Hennepin County’s credit, they’ve been planning for this stuff,” said Tolbert, who represents St. Paul on the Met Council’s Transportation Advisory Board. “We need to, too. We have the need.”
The Transportation Policy Plan does not include expansions to local bus service in St. Paul or anywhere else in the metro — something that Noecker raised concerns about when Met Council staff presented the policy plan update to the City Council in March.
“We can’t just let this go without saying it is a critical need,” she said.
The main challenge, according to the Met Council, is that there’s no sustainable funding source for expanding local bus service. Federal money will fund the Route 54 expansion up front, but Metro Transit will have to find other funding to keep it operating.
Still, there are ways to make small fixes. The Met Council often partners with cities to figure out ways to improve individual bus routes, said Multimodal Planning Manager Cole Hiniker.
“Minneapolis is pretty gung-ho about trying to improve some of their local routes or trying to test some route improvements,” Hiniker said. “If we get some examples of that, we could work with other cities and apply that concept, but I haven’t heard any specifics from St. Paul yet.”
Transit advocates in St. Paul are beginning to turn their attention to local bus service. The group East Metro Strong, founded four years ago to advocate for transit investment, recently started meeting to discuss needed bus system improvements, said Executive Director Will Schroeer.
St. Paul leaders acknowledge that they could do more.
“We need to be advocates for ourselves,” Tolbert said. “We need to push for our future.”