» With approval on Friday, council will endorse 30-year proposal for street-running rail after neglecting the project for a year. The city is expected to move forward with one route in the fall.
When Minneapolis released its seven-line network plan for urban streetcars back in 2007, the city appeared to be at the head of its game, likely to follow Portland as one of the first U.S. cities to develop a modern trolley system.
Unfortunately, when the economic crisis hit and the lack of interest from the Bush Administration made clear to the city’s leaders that the only way their project would be built would be to sponsor it entirely with local funds, the program was “filed” away, to be revived at some more prosperous time. In the meantime, after Ray LaHood took reigns of the federal Department of Transportation, Detroit, Dallas, Tucson, Portland, and New Orleans received millions of dollars for their respective streetcar lines and other cities have applied for $130 million in inner city circulator grants the DOT expects to reward later this year.
All of which leaves Minneapolis a little behind in the game.
Nevertheless, tomorrow the City Council is expected to approve the 30-year vision for local rail transit corridors first laid out in 2007 and passed by the Public Works and Transportation Committee last week. In addition, it will take the first step in readying one “starter” corridor for further planning later this year, with plans to eventually ask Washington to fund 50% of construction costs.
The Minneapolis streetcar route network would extend the reach of the region’s existing and planned rapid transit lines by connecting stations in the city’s dense urban core.
Three routes would run along Hennepin Avenue through downtown, allowing a transfer to the Hiawatha Light Rail line at 5th Street and extending south to Lake Street along Hennepin Avenue, north to 44th Avenue along Central Avenue, and east to the University of Minnesota along University Avenue, connecting to the planned Central Corridor light rail line.
Three other routes would also connect to the light rail line at 5th Street and transform the existing Nicollet Transit Mall into a streetcar route. Lines would extend south along Nicollet Avenue to 46th Street, southeast along Chicago Avenue to 38th Street, and northwest along Washington Avenue towards Crystal Lake, linking to the planned Bottineau Transitway.
These routes are well-designed because they don’t duplicate existing or planned light rail lines and they limit themselves to the city’s densest areas — exactly where streetcar lines should go if they’re going to attract adequate ridership and spur increased development. Six of the seven lines would directly replace popular bus routes. If constructed correctly, the lines could make up for some of the region’s bad decision-making in route alignments for light rail lines.
The seven-corridor network described by the city’s planners, however, is a long way off, primarily because its several-hundred-million cost is out of reach. As a result, the city has developed a series of starter lines that could be implemented more quickly, short segments with respective construction costs of $100 million or less that could be built in a few years and extended later on. Each would provide access just to the city’s downtown and not be long enough to replace any existing bus service.
The council will narrow the potential lines to two or three this summer after conducting further research on the project and then select one line for investment this fall. None of the corridors could be built today unless the federal government steps in with significant monetary support. If the city commits adequate financial aid for the project and if it is capable of submitting an application by September, it seems likely to win a grant from the National Infrastructure Investment Program (formerly TIGER) for construction beginning in early 2012.
A funding study released last week indicates that one line could be funded if the city increases revenues through a 12.5% increase in parking fees downtown as well as either through a dedicated TIF tax-reallocation district in affected areas or a special streetcar benefit zone assessment. The latter two options would encourage the construction of streetcar lines through the wealthiest areas of the city since it would rely on moving any increases in area property tax receipts from the city’s general fund to streetcar construction. The parking surcharge, which would increase the cost of downtown spaces by about $50 a year, would require state legislation to be implemented.
Minneapolis could advance its status among a large field of competitors for limited federal streetcar funds by proving that it has a reliable local revenue source. (A majority of urban areas demanding grants have made no such commitment.) Once it has settled on a preliminary route, the council should approve such a financial device quickly. Of course, long-term financing for the entire network is not assured.
Initial planning documents show that the city is likely to pursue a combination of the Hennepin Avenue and Central/University Lines, a 2.3-mile alignment that would cost about $100 million to construct and which would link the Walker Art Center southwest of downtown with the East Bank of the Mississippi River, via downtown. Other routes are either too short to provide adequate benefits and provide a model for future expansion, or, in the case of the Midtown Greenway, too expensive to implement without an additional revenue source (because of the lack of adequate property tax revenues).
The Hennepin Avenue line is an appropriate selection for a starting segment, running roughly perpendicular to the existing light rail corridor downtown and reaching some of the city’s busiest neighborhoods. A Nicollet Line, the other serious contender for initial construction, would likely disrupt bus service along the downtown mall, not necessarily a good idea. But, if selected, the Hennepin project should be prioritized to reach the vibrant Uptown Midtown district south of existing route plans as soon as possible; it may even make sense to build that southern link before connecting the line north over the Mississippi, in opposition to current proposals.