Greenway streetcar gains support, faces transit rivals

More than half the neighborhoods along the Midtown Greenway support an historic streetcar system in the trench, according to the Midtown Greenway Coalition. The group hopes that passing a City Council resolution will solidify an overarching commitment to reviving a city streetcar system.

Coalition Executive Director Tim Springer said his group advocates a streetcar to run next to the pedestrian path from Chowen Avenue South to the light-rail transit (LRT) corridor at Hiawatha Avenue. The streetcar’s tracks, known as turf tracks, would be embedded in grass. He said a greenway streetcar route could be a starting point for a city system.

Still, Springer said it’s imperative the greenway streetcar be installed soon to be a transit alternative when Lake Street is reconstructed in 2005.

In addition, he said if a streetcar system were in place, it could influence numerous construction projects starting along the greenway. Springer said new developments could work the streetcar into their designs, decreasing auto use.

Springer said Southwest neighborhood groups supporting the streetcars include the Lowry Hill East (Wedge) Neighborhood Association, East Calhoun Community Organization, East Isles Residents Association, CARAG, Lyndale Neighborhood Association and Whittier Alliance. He said other neighborhoods are pondering the matter, and so far no group has said no.

The streetcar idea faces some competition, however.

The Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority owns the trench; on Dec. 16, the Hennepin County board approved further study of a ggreenway line connecting the Southwest suburbs to downtown that focuses on LRT. More public meetings are being scheduled for May.

Study Manager Katie Walker said that while LRT is the centerpiece of the study, the county is still considering an historic streetcar as a connector through the greenway. "We’re looking at both — the pros and cons of each technology," she said.

Walker said there are similarities; the streetcar and LRT could run on the same tracks, with the only major difference being the overhead wire technology. She said LRT cars have an advantage because they’re more handicap-accessible and no transfer from other LRT lines would be necessary. However, she said the streetcar model is cheaper.

Springer said a trench streetcar’s maximum estimated cost is $53 million in 2005 dollars, with annual operating costs estimated between $1.47 and $1.83 million. A coalition study estimated LRT capital costs at $123 million in 2005 dollars. Who will pay has not been determined.

Meanwhile, City Councilmember Dean Zimmermann has floated the idea of Personal Rapid Transit (PRT), a monorail line of three- to five-person cars for the greenway that could snake deep into surrounding neighborhoods, downtown Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota. He touts PRT’s cost as lower than LRT’s, though no comparison to streetcars was available. Zimmermann also believes PRT could be privately financed.

In January, Zimmermann introduced a Council resolution to study PRT, which could complicate the political critical mass for streetcars. Councilmember Gary Schiff (9th Ward) then proposed a streetcar resolution that, but for the mode of transit, was virtually identical to Zimmermann’s resolution. A Council committee has postponed both items; Springer said Councilmembers wanted time to research the technologies.

Still, Springer said the Council competition is not holding up the greenway Coalition, which is already exploring other city trolley options.

Springer said a trolley connection between the Como-Harriet (Lake Harriet) Streetcar line and the greenway has been discussed, as well as a future connection along 3rd Avenue to the greenway, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, then downtown to the Convention Center, the Hennepin County Government Center and City Hall.

For more information about the coalition or the proposed trolley system, visit www.midtowngreenway.org and for more information about the County’s study, visit www.co.hennepin.mn.us/tcw/Southwest/swhome.htm.