Nicollet streetcar plan coming together

A six-year-old plan to bring streetcars back to Minneapolis for the first time since 1954 is coming together quickly this summer.

The City Council has two key votes coming up before the end of the year. One is a vote on June 25 to authorize a property tax revenue capture from five parcels along the Nicollet-Central corridor. The other will likely come later this year to choose a more precise route of where the line will go. 

Details of a first phase of a streetcar system are gaining clarity. While the city has hopes of building a 9.2-mile line that runs all the way from 46th Street and Nicollet to where Central Avenue meets Columbia Heights, it has turned its focus to a 3.2-mile stretch known as Kmart to Kramarczuk’s, or roughly Lake Street to University Avenue, with a pass through Nicollet Mall.

Construction of that line will cost $200 to $225 million, according to Mayor R.T. Rybak’s policy director, Peter Wagenius. Wagenius is the city’s point man on the project.   

The city has been given the authority by the Minnesota Legislature to capture revenue from five parcels along the 3.2-mile stretch. Four of those properties are either under construction or have construction planned. Wagenius said the city estimates that the five parcels combined could generate $6 million annually, allowing the city to sell as much as $60 million in bonds to fund a local portion of the project.

The federal government under President Barack Obama has showed a willingness to spend money on streetcar projects in other cities, like Portland, Charlotte and Dallas.

Wagenius said setting up a revenue capture from the five parcels will send a message to the federal government.

“It’s not that we’ve answered the finance question, but when you suddenly go from zero to the capacity to potentially issue $60 million in bonds, people know you’re not kidding around,” he said.

Sources in City Hall say the vote to authorize the parcels will have overwhelming support.  

In August, the City Council will get to see a “locally preferred alternative” for the streetcar line, which should members them a rough sketch of where the line would go and a more precise cost estimate. That locally preferred alternative study was made possible by a $900,000 grant from the federal government.

Because planning is easier for streetcars than light rail — the right of way for streetcars is already built as a road — Wagenius said streetcars could be operating before 2020, though he noted that it’s hard to make a guarantee until all funding is secure.

“This could be built much shorter and much cheaper (than light rail).”
 Wagenius said. “If everything lined up, we could be building in 2016 or 2017.”

City leaders have a long-term vision for streetcars that includes Chicago Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, Washington Avenue, West Broadway Avenue and some type of rail in the Midtown Greenway. Wagenius said a first stretch of the Nicollet-Central line would be a catalyst for those other lines.

Not everyone is sold on streetcars.

Mayoral candidate Cam Winton, a Republican running as an independent, is promoting enhanced bus on Nicollet over light rail.

At $2 to $3 million per mile, an enhanced bus line can be built at less than 10 percent of the cost of streetcars, according to data the city analyzed from other cities.

Enhanced bus has not been used in the Twin Cities yet, although the Met Council is planning a line on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul.

Enhanced bus offers some of the same benefits of streetcars. Passengers can pay their fare at heated boarding stations and the buses are bigger and easier to board than regular buses.

“Enhanced buses are the only way to meet transit needs in a responsible way,” Winton said at a recent press conference he held on a city bus. “Minneapolis does not need a streetcar.”

Wagenius says the mayor’s office supports enhanced bus on many corridors, but a select few should have streetcars.

He noted some advantages of streetcars: The provide a level board platform for handicapped passengers; they’re clean and electric; they aren’t delayed by weather; they’re predictable and comfortable; and developers are more confident building on streetcar corridors because they know they’re permanent.

“Let’s look at what people do, not what they should do. They ride rail more than they ride buses. It’s a fact. It’s called rail bias,” Wagenius said.

The southern half of the line would run through Council Member Robert Lilligren’s 6th Ward.

Lilligren said he expects streetcars to lead to dense development near Nicollet and I-94 as well as Nicollet and Lake Street. 

“These are areas that with the addition of streetcars on Nicollet I think we redevelop to the density to the city would want to see, a higher density.”

Eat Street, Lilligren said, would also benefit from added customers from downtown events and conventions.

“For visitors and conventioneers, it gives them confidence that if they get on a streetcar and go down to Eat Street to enjoy a restaurant, they can get back on the streetcar and it brings them to where they were,” he said.

The other mayoral candidates have been supportive of streetcars, based on campaign statements and comments from forums.

City Council Member Meg Tuthill (Ward 10) said she wants to see the study released in August before she weighs in on streetcars. 

“I am interested in anything we can do to get people out of their cars and to use more mass transit, more biking, more walking,” she said. “But by the same token, we need to weigh environmental issues with it, costs with it, what’s going to work and what isn’t going to work.”

Modern day streetcars

Streetcars are 67 feet long. Buses are 40 feet long and light rails cars are 94 feet long, but usually travel with 2 or 3 cars connected.

Vehicles share the road with streetcars and can drive on top of rails.

Streetcars are electric powered and connect to an overhead power line. 

Modern streetcars won’t look like the ones you see in San Francisco. They are enclosed and look more like a light rail train than a trolley.

Streetcars provide same-level boarding for handicapped passengers. They line up with the sidewalk for easy on- and off-access.