Finance & Commerce: A Desire Named Streetcar

By Burl Gilyard, Finance & Commerce (12/28/2010)

Minneapolis wins grant to analyze routes for a modern version

The Como-Harriet Streetcar Line in south Minneapolis – a tourist attraction rather than a transit line – offers a glimpse of local streetcar history. (Submitted photo)

Local streetcar operations ended a mere 56 years ago, back in 1954. But city of Minneapolis planners are working to bring streetcars back.

Last week, the city landed a $900,000 grant from the Federal Transit Administration to study modern streetcars as a transit option.

“The real impact of streetcars is on economic development — that’s why cities have pursued streetcars,” said Peter Wagenius, policy director for Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. The mayor’s office is an advocate of returning streetcars to Minneapolis.

The money will allow the city to study Nicollet Avenue in south Minneapolis and Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis, two streets seen as “long-term streetcar network corridors” by the city. The study will cost $1.2 million, including $300,000 in city money.

Minneapolis is among several cities pursuing modern streetcars as a transit alternative. According to the city, the U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded $408 million in the last 14 months for streetcar projects in 10 cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and St. Louis.

The Minneapolis effort, officially billed Nicollet-Central Urban Circulator, will study transit options including streetcars and enhanced bus systems. Modern streetcars would coexist with traffic on the street and be powered by an electric line above the cars.

The city completed a feasibility study for streetcars in 2007, and the Minneapolis City Council approved plans for a long-term streetcar network in March 2010. Other areas envisioned for streetcars include West Broadway Avenue, Hennepin Avenue, Chicago Avenue, the Midtown Greenway and University Avenue Southeast.

“Instead of just studying this, we’re now entering the federal process and doing things according to their process, which would lead to getting construction dollars – which is our ultimate goal,” Wagenius said.

A funding study completed earlier this year estimated that all of the currently envisioned streetcar lines in Minneapolis would cost an estimated $663 million. The working assumption is that the federal government would cover 50 percent of the costs.

But it’s not yet clear how streetcars would be folded into the existing transit system. The Metro Transit bus system and light rail transit (LRT) are operated by the Metropolitan Council. The streetcar lines are primarily envisioned for existing bus corridors.

“We welcome this more in-depth study of streetcars in those corridors to see if they have an application,” said Steve Dornfeld, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Council. “The question is whether they have enough transit benefit to justify the investment.”

The Met Council’s 2030 Transportation Plan appears to be lukewarm on the potential arrival of streetcars. It outlines a number of if-then scenarios:

“The Council will collaborate with local units of government to determine where and when streetcars may be appropriate. If it is determined that streetcars provide positive, significant and cost-effective transportation benefits beyond alternative bus, BRT or LRT investments, capital costs for streetcars might be funded by a combination of local and regional funds and may compete for federal transportation funding.

“If streetcars do not provide an optimal transportation solution and are pursued primarily for development outcomes they should be funded locally and should not compete with other regional priorities for federal and state transportation funding sources. Regardless of funding source, streetcar service would be expected to integrate seamlessly with the regional transit system.”

Wagenius said that sorting out issues with the Met Council remains a “work in progress” and said, “We definitely have a preference for working with them rather than going it alone.”

The city of St. Paul is also exploring streetcars, but is not as far down the planning line as Minneapolis.

“I would say we’re kind of a half a step behind Minneapolis. We think it would be an important new addition to our transit system,” said Nancy Homans, policy director for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office. “We’ve been talking and working together between the two cities.”

Homans noted that the city of St. Paul made an application to the feds for funding related to streetcar planning but was not awarded any money.

One U.S. company saw an opportunity to get into the streetcar business. United Streetcar LLC is based in Clackamas, Ore., a suburb of Portland, and bills itself as the only domestic manufacturer of modern streetcars. The company is a subsidiary of Oregon Ironworks.

“We track well over 50 cities around the United States who are thinking about streetcars,” said Chandra Brown, president of United Streetcar.

But Brown acknowledged that transportation planning is a very long-range process.

“No one really calls up and says ‘I want 10 cars tomorrow,’ ” Brown said with a chuckle.

The company is currently building 13 modern streetcars: six for Portland, Ore., and seven for Tucson, Ariz. The company expects to begin delivering streetcars in 2012.

Brown said the only streetcar lines currently in operation are in Portland, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. She added that Washington, D.C., has modern streetcars, but the line is not yet open. Other cities such as New Orleans and San Francisco operate historic streetcars.

A rough estimate for the cost of a single modern streetcar is about $3.5 million, she said.

Brown said that when the city of Portland opened its line in 2001, it bought streetcars from the Czech Republic.

“There’s streetcars all over Europe and Asia … our competitors are mostly foreign,” Brown said.

Wagenius said that at this stage, it’s tough to make estimates about when a proposed local streetcar line could be up and running. But he’s optimistic.

“Could we be breaking ground in a couple of years? Yeah, I think we could,” Wagenius said.

By the numbers

$663M
Estimated cost of currently envisioned streetcar lines in Minneapolis

Source: The Minneapolis Streetcar Funding Study Final Report, March 2010

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