Ashley Weed bought Jandrich Floral in 2010 from a florist who had been in business 48 years, in a shop that had been selling flowers for at least three decades before that. But Weed is convinced the long-lived shop on St. Paul’s W. 7th Street would not survive the construction of a streetcar line out front.
“I have no off-street parking,” Weed said. “Months of construction would kill me.”
Dan Galles, too, has done business along the West 7th Street corridor for years. Unlike Weed, he welcomes the improvement he said the Riverview Corridor streetcar would provide. The project is what St. Paul needs to more efficiently get workers to work, he said, whether at the airport, the Mall of America or his small manufacturing company, Watson, Drake & Co.
“If we are to have a regional transit system, St. Paul has to be a part of that,” Galles said. “We’ve got to get the people who need the jobs to where the jobs are.”
The Ramsey and Hennepin County boards, the St. Paul and Bloomington city councils and the Metropolitan Airports Commission all have designated a streetcar running from downtown St. Paul out to the airport and the Mall of America as their preferred transit alternative for the Riverview Corridor. Next up: years of engineering, environmental impact studies, station planning and community engagement. If approved — and funded — construction could begin in 2028.
But for those who live and work along the route, the discussion has miles to go. Everything from whether the federal government will pony up half the 12-mile line’s $2 billion cost to concerns about construction impact and how to best link it to the still-to-be-developed Ford site remain hot topics. While officials say most area residents are enthused about the efficiency of a modern streetcar, others remain tepid at best.
“If they’re going to put something in, I’m happier with the idea of a trolley than I was with light rail,” said Pete Klein, owner of 7th Street Barbers, where barbers have wielded scissors since 1894. “But you’ve got to do it delicately. You don’t want to put locals out of business.”
Rafael Ortega has never had any doubts. The Ramsey County commissioner and chairman of the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority said a streetcar outperforms bus service — even a rapid bus like the A-Line on Snelling Avenue — in terms of ridership and spurring economic development. “You’re really not leapfrogging to the future,” he said of calls to bolster bus service as a cheaper alternative. “You’re getting a Band-Aid for the next five years.”
If the goals over the next 20 years are to get more people out of their cars, reduce traffic snarls and more efficiently move people to work, home and entertainment, Ortega said a streetcar on West 7th is the best way to go. Daily ridership is projected to reach 20,400 by 2040. Doing a better job of staggering construction schedules would mean less hardship on business owners, he said.
“When you start talking particulars, the fear goes away,” Ortega said of what he believes is 2-to-1 support for a streetcar.
Tyler Blackmon is a supporter. After growing up in Georgia, he moved here for a job after college and uses transit “a lot.” But the often-packed Route 54 along West 7th to the Blue Line at Fort Snelling is an unpredictable slog, he said.
Improved transit, by way of a streetcar, would connect better with light rail and make it much easier for St. Paul residents who don’t want a car to live without one. “If we want to be an attractive place for millennials to come to, we have to seriously look at transit,” Blackmon said.
Kevin Gallatin, president of the Highland District Council and an A-Line daily rider, said he likes bus rapid transit. But he said that by adding a streetcar in a major corridor like West 7th, “you would unlock a much higher capacity on that line.”
He said he’s an enthusiastic supporter of a streetcar and is excited by the prospects of connecting it to a redeveloped Ford site. “I know people in Highland want better transit, especially those who work at the airport,” he said.
Pat Mancini is unconvinced. Mancini’s Char House has been feeding the West 7th neighborhood for 70 years. He spent two years as a business representative on the committee studying ways to improve transit and has ridden the streetcar in Kansas City. “It seems to be working for them,” Mancini said.
Mancini’s has a massive parking lot. But he worries that months of construction of a streetcar line, leaving sections of West 7th chopped up and impassable, will be a death blow for smaller businesses.
During the three years it took to build the 11-mile Green Line, more than 100 businesses either closed or moved, officials said. At the same time, according to the Metropolitan Council, more than 120 other businesses opened along the $1 billion project.
“There are a lot of Ma and Pa businesses, there’s an independent drugstore, funeral homes, a lot of little places,” Mancini said about West 7th. “That’s my concern: We are going to lose a little bit of Americana.”
Then, he said, there is the question of whether the federal government will ever put up half the money to build the line.
“They’re talking 2028, which I think is a pipe dream,” he said.
Weed said she would be delighted with federal inaction. “I hope they look back at the price and say ‘No,’ ” she said.
Ortega and the other champions of rail are undaunted. After all, he said, he helped shepherd the Blue Line and Green Line into existence during the administrations of three previous presidents and not-always-supportive state leaders.
“Our vision has to be realized by us,” Ortega said. “Not by the president of the United States. We’ve got to make sure we develop a plan that deals with all the obstacles in order to make it happen.”