The dream of Minneapolis officials to run streetcars along Nicollet and Central avenues and down the Nicollet Mall is picking up stream.

A study set in motion by the City Council on Friday should give the city by mid-2013 the answers that streetcar enthusiasts hope will allow them to lobby federal officials for construction money.

The council authorized the first step in hiring a consultant in January to analyze how streetcars compare with both existing bus service and souped-up bus service on the two streets. That alternatives analysis is required to win a federal contribution toward construction. It also would be used by the city to lobby regional officials to put their support behind streetcars, said city transportation planner Anna Flintoft

The route along Nicollet and Central would ultimately stretch 9 miles from 46th Street in south Minneapolis to a transit station just outside the city in Columbia Heights. But a shorter starter section probably would be built initially, Flintoft said, with its endpoints determined by budget and transit service factors.

The study is mostly paid for by a $900,000 federal grant awarded late last year.

Unlike light-rail transit, Minneapolis streetcars would operate in mixed traffic rather than within reserved space, and probably stop more frequently than light-rail but not as often as buses.

"There's a tremendous amount of interest in the communities I represent," said Council Member Robert Lilligren, who represents part of the route.

However, the city has yet to persuade the Legislature to authorize one potential financing tool for the local share of construction costs. That's allowing the creation of long, skinny districts along the streetcar route where the tax increases from development on designated properties could be captured to help finance building streetcar lines and other transit, along with associated pedestrian improvements.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438