Streetcar network: Not a question of if, but when

A plan is officially in place to create a six-line streetcar network. Now what?

The City Council last month voted unanimously to approve a streetcar plan actually first presented to them more than two years earlier. It wasn’t because of a lack of enthusiasm that it didn’t get pushed into motion in February 2008; blame a lack of known funding.

But that was before the election of Barack Obama and before the federal government showed more interest in streetcars. Now Minneapolis is finding itself in competition with a lot of other U.S. cities wanting to do what it’s wanted to do for almost a decade.

Here’s an overview of what the council’s decision means for the city’s plan to bring streetcars back after a half-century drought.

What was approved?

Essentially, that Minneapolis is committed to a plan to build a long-term streetcar network of six lines. Five of them would replace existing bus lines, while a sixth would provide a new connection, linking the Hiawatha and in-the-pipeline Southwest light-rail lines through the Midtown Greenway.

See the map for more details.

Does this mean construction on streetcars is close?

Far from it. There are a number of lengthy hoops for the city to jump through before construction can even begin, one of the biggest being figuring out how to pay for the project.

What funding options are available?

Several. More than in any recent year, actually, which is one of the reasons the City Council approved the streetcar plan now rather than in 2008.

In the original report, staff projected that the city would have to fund the project largely through local means. There was a federal program called Small Starts, established in 2003 to fund smaller-scale local transit projects, that was seen as a possible outside source of money, but its primary criterion for project approval — cost effectiveness — favored bus plans over streetcars.

That was under a different federal administration, though. And in January, the U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Transit Administration announced a policy shift that decreased the influence of cost effectiveness and put in motion efforts to broaden criteria — adding livability, congestion relief and social benefits to the mix — that should make streetcars a more likely funding target.

Small Starts would offer as much as $75 million per project.

Another funding option is Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER). A federal stimulus offshoot, the grant program in February sent $160 million to four cities’ streetcar projects.
A second round of TIGER funds, about $600 million, is expected to open up for applications in September, with the requirement that construction begin by February 2012.

Although there is no cap on how much in TIGER funds could go to a project, grant amounts are expected to be smaller than they were for the first round. Portland, Ore., was tapped for the most money in February — $75 million.

Are there other considerations when it comes to funding?

Yes, the biggest being competition. When Minneapolis’ plan was drawn up two years ago, streetcars were less in vogue. Now there’s a growing number of cities who want to build lines, and many want federal help.

Another factor is timing. Minneapolis will have to scramble to meet a September deadline for TIGER funds. According to a March funding study, “It does not appear at this time that the City can meet [the] requirements in time for an application in Fall 2010.”

How does Minneapolis compete?

The city is expected to have to secure about half of the project’s funding from non-federal sources. There is talk of partnerships with local businesses along potential routes, as well as working together with the Metropolitan Council and the state.

City staff also identified three local funding tools of which at least two are recommended be used. Those are increasing parking meter fees and parking space surcharges, tax abatement and special assessments.

Which lines would be built first?

That’s up for debate.

City staff currently is gathering data to help guide the council to choose its top two or three preferred corridors sometime this summer. Those will then be further studied so that one can be chosen before heading to the federal government.

What’s more likely: a short or long first line?

The positive of starting off the city’s network with a shorter corridor would be the lower cost, according to staff. However, a longer line could have a more impactful opening with higher initial ridership.

Of all of the lines, the Midtown Greenway is projected to be the priciest. Under any projected funding circumstances, the corridor would still run a deficit of about $4 million per year.

After a line is chosen, then what?

The city would follow up with a funding plan, which would open the door to a lengthy federal process.

What are City Council members saying?

Many on the council have high hopes for streetcars as a supplement to the growing light-rail network. There is a definite expectation that Minneapolis will see streetcars again.

“It’s not a matter of if,” Council Member Kevin Reich (1st Ward) said, “but when.”

Council Member Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) said she hopes Minneapolis someday will rival Portland’s popular network.

“I want their streetcars,” Glidden said.

Are plans available to the public?

Yes. All related studies can be accessed on the city’s website. Go to