Minneapolis Advances Streetcar System Plan

» 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.

A final corridor would renovate the Midtown Greenway by adding east-west streetcar service from the Lake Street Hiawatha Line Station to the planned Southwest Transitway just west of Lake Calhoun.

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.

39 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Confused on one point:

    “But, if selected, the Hennepin project should be prioritized to reach the vibrant 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.”

    The second phase of the Hennepin line would go south to Lake Street in the Uptown, not Midtown area. Midtown would be the area served by the Chicago Avenue streetcar.

    But assuming you do indeed mean Uptown, I’ll second that. The area is extremely dense by Minneapolis standards, and the single biggest destination for commuters is the CBD. The whole Hennepin corridor south of the Walker is targeted for more infill development as well. It’s a bit surprising that this part of the network is currently slated to be built dead last.

  • Constructing a line along Hennepin downtown would have more of a construction impact to bus service than building a line along Nicollet Mall would. Completion of the dual bus lanes along both 2nd and Marquette has alleviated a lot of the bus traffic along Nicollet Mall.

    I’m a bit disappointed that a line along Chicago Ave isn’t a contender for a starter line. To be fair, there isn’t much in the way of redevelopment potential along Chicago, but a streetcar line along that street connects together several medical institutions (HCMC, Childrens, Abbott Northwestern) and the Chicago-Lake area. It also alleviates the Route 5 bus, which is the busiest bus line in the Twin Cities.

  • D.R.

    So the Midtown Greenway is grade-separated, could be extended to (and maybe even across) the river, but was pushed by the community instead of the Met Council… and it’s not the first priority? The Greenway and a line along Hennepin OR Nicollet would be heavily used, but they’re quibbling about funds when money is being offered to overcome such problems?

    Typical. It’s taken the Twin Cities over 40 years to agree on where to build their first LRT line; the second was easy to agree because it gave something to St. Paul. But now it’s back at square one: who gets the next lines — whether LRT or streetcars?

    Don’t hold your breath for a quick resolution: Saint Paul will surely rattle the sword for a line or two of their own at the last minute; and, maybe even Bloomington and Richfield will insist they need lines to serve the mall/Best Buy HQ/whatever. Add in that the Met Council has a great history of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and one sure-to-be-angry Phil Krinkie.

    Nope. I’m looking forward to riding the streetcars on opening day… when I’m in a nursing home.

    • Nathanael

      Actually, St. Paul remains focused like a laser on getting St. Paul Union Depot back into operation. They’ll probably demand, rather than their own streetcars, extra funding for that project.

  • Cameron Slick

    Running trains downtown Nicollet Mall is incredibly stupid. Not only is it slow but it would permanently disrupt a successful pedestrian zone.

    The Chicago Avenue route (5) is extremely busy and the street has just been rebuilt, and I think it’s streetcar-ready.

    In the Streetcar Feasibility Study, the additional cost for trolleys on Hennepin Avenue has to do with actually building center-lane platforms. So eventually, they could restrict traffic in those lanes to just trolleys.

    And D.R., Richfield & Bloomington could justify service by extending the Nicollet Line to the cement plant near 60th Street, where there is a little-used railroad spur that runs between Nicollet & Lyndale.

    Sadly, in all likelihood, very little of this will come to fruition until we get something more like the Interstate Highway & Defense Act.

  • Dreww

    As a daily Metro Transit customer and a former resident of the Walker Arts Center area, I have to say this starter line would be an under utilized mistake. Three bus lines already connect the Walker, Downtown and North East Minneapolis at a 5 minute rush hour frequency. The vast majority of those transit customer’s journies start either south or north east of the proposed termini. During construction the users who will receive no benefit will see their service decline.

    Froggie is right about a Chicago Ave line. Running a street car down Seventh Street or Eighth Street would provide a nice southern east/west service spine through DT. Extending down Chicago Ave to Lake Street wouldn’t likely be much more expensive than the proposed Hennepin Avenue stater line. A Chicago Ave line could also be easily extended into North Minneapolis, supplying the two most transit dependent residental communities in the city with high quality transit service.

    • 8th Street would be better, plus the city in their Access Minneapolis plan envisions 8th becoming a downtown transit spine.

      • Cameron Slick

        8th Street would be a downtown transit spine for North Side- South Side buses (Penn N, Broadway, Fremont, Lyndale N to Bloomington, Cedar, Chicago avenues, etc.)

        With one contra-flow lane for buses. 8th Street was not going to work for trolleys or LRT because of too many skyways too close to the street for power lines to fit (Access Minneapolis).

  • Dreww

    Minneapolis would be better off with less expensive bus upgrades along Hennepin. Utlizing enforced bus only lanes, constructing better shelters and adding off vehicle payment along Hennepin between the Mississippi River thorough Uptown and down to 36th street are relatively inexpensive easy to implement upgrades. Such improvements would benefit all transit users in Southwest Minneapolis not the absolutely tiny group whose destinations are along the short prosed line.

  • Dreww, where do you get your costs? It seems like they’re pulled from thin air.

    My bigger gripe is with your assertion that MetroTransit could easily and cheaply implement dedicated bus lanes or pre-payment on the Hennepin Ave corridor. Hennepin isn’t going to get any wider than it currently is; traffic (between 25,000 and 31,000 AADT) is too heavy to eliminate general-use lanes.

    And if you think for one minute that business owners along the corridor–and the City Council Member who comes from their ranks–will accept the elimination of all on-street parking, think again.

    Parking restrictions that already exist during peak congestion hours are almost worthless because the street isn’t wide enough for buses to safely operate in that lane. I’ve never seen any bus on Hennepin drive even half a block in the empty parking lane.

    This points to one of the major problems with this streetcar plan, though: how effective will it be if average vehicle speeds are lower than already-creeping bus routes?

  • mulad

    I’ve puzzled about putting anything down Hennepin — I just don’t see how any rails along that road would do anything but impede traffic and cause frustration for both drivers and transit riders. I think a line on Hennepin either has to be elevated or underground.

    I missed the discussion of streetcars in Minneapolis back in 2007, so I’m pretty excited that they actually have something planned for Central Ave in Nordeast. In contrast to Hennepin, I think Central has perfect dimensions to have streetcar rails on it again.

  • Dreww

    Anders – You’re probably right about Uptown business owners opposing transit improvements if it affects “free” on street parking in their neighborhood. Uptown real estate developers and the like are perfectly willing to Nicollet into a frontage road with SWLRT but would certainly balk if their upper class suburban raised 25 year old condo customers aren’t able to drive their car from Lagoon Ave and park right within fifteen feet of Chipotle on 26th.

    • Alurin

      It seems remotely possible that some of these businesses rely on customers who live outside of walking distance and not on the proposed streetcar line.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I wounder when this is built would the streetcars share the same track gauge and line voltage so that two systems could be linked up with the Light rail.

    • Track gauge and configuration is more critical there … the Hiawatha is 750 Volts, DC, and some places balk at streetcar trolley wire above 600 volts, but dual voltage is not a tremendous hurdle to overcome. If the Germans and French can make dual electric / hybrid diesel tram-trains, and dual 25kV AC / 600 vDC tram-trains, running onto heavy rail passenger rail corridor, in , they can make dual 750volt/600volt Rapid Streetcars.

      • Max Wyss

        Actually, it would be most reasonable to design the streetcar vehicles for 750 V, and they can operate easily under 600 V. Keep in mind that these voltages are nominal values, and in reality, 600 V can be anything between 500 V and 700 V, depending on the location and power drawn from the grid.

        It may not quite be relevant, but the Swiss Blonay-Chamby railway museum operates vehicles designed for 600 V to 1000 V under 850 V, and so far, I haven’t heard of any problems.

      • mulad

        The old Twin Cities streetcar system used 600 V, so it might be nice to have the new lines use that voltage and allow vintage cars use the tracks. However, only about five of them still exist in the area, so it may not be worth the effort. Some have suggested extending the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line (about 3/4 mile of track running between Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun) to the Midtown Greenway, though there basically isn’t any room for it anymore.

      • dejv

        AFAIK, new trams/streetcars/LRVs are actually designed for 750 V and run at 80% power under 600 V.

        @Max:

        It may not quite be relevant, but the Swiss Blonay-Chamby railway museum operates vehicles designed for 600 V to 1000 V under 850 V, and so far, I haven’t heard of any problems.

        Interesting. I’ve heard that vintage trams designed for 500 V or less can’t go to local tram network due to insufficient insulation and some thyristor-based traction equipment can’t cope with voltage over 800 V.

  • Looking at the proposed map and nothing else, I think this plan is pretty good. The streetcars have some one-way pair sections, but they’re mostly on two-way streets. Ideally there would be a joint plan for streetcars in St. Paul, and maybe also for a northwestern circumferential line, but the corridors create an okay system within the inner-urban area, and the Midtown Greenway will probably become an important crosstown artery.

  • William H

    It appears that this website is primarily for transportation engineers. So some readers may know this already, but streetcars used exist on Hennepin Ave. in the 1920s up to the 40s I believe.

    • Allen

      William H, without knowing the exact details, it’s likely that street cars in the horse drawn form on Hennepin Ave back to the 19870s or early 1880s. There may have been some years with steam power by by some time in the 1890s they would’ve converted to electric powered street cars.

      The Hennepin line along with many of the other core MPLS lines would’ve been the last to be converted to bus service, probably in 1953 or 1954.

      Personally I don’t expect much of anything to materialize of these plans. There isn’t going to be money for this sort of thing short of the city slashing a lot of other programs to come up with it. And, as others have pointed out, the rest of the metro is not going to be interested in paying for some fancy trolleys to be running around in MPLS when they have more pressing needs themselves.

  • Dreww, for god’s sake, Nicollet was going to be a tunnel, and in any case, it never even got to engineering. Drop the hyperbole, please. You’re not doing your argument any favors by caricaturing condo owners, either — especially since Hennepin Ave actually has a huge number of small, independent businesses. Let’s keep this discussion focused on facts, not mean-spirited insults of people eager to live in condos in dense, urban neighborhoods.

    As for Hennepin, it’s true that the optimal solution would be a separate right-of-way, ideally submerged. But if a streetcar is going to be *equally* slow as a bus, I say take the streetcar; the whole corridor is ready for the resultant infill development (and city policy is supportive).

  • Dreww

    Well, I agree the street car could serve as a potent development tool but don’t see how a street car would positively impact transit in Uptown and Southwest Minneapolis. Currently the 6, 17, and 12 (weekday peak) buses travel through Uptown on their journey south. If the streetcar replaces some of these buses, service south of Uptown would be negatively affected. Bus improvements, while not as flashy, offer substantial benefits for all transit lines serving Uptown and Southwest. Politically difficult dedicated bus lanes offer the best potential as they speed transit for Uptown residents and those to the south and west. Smaller, more feasible, improvements like off bus payment, eliminating a few stops, and traffic signal holding would, imo, provide a bigger bang for the buck than the street car.

    • Why would the streetcar replace the bus services? If they are effective in promoting transit oriented development, it seems like demand for the buses would increase.

    • I don’t know how competent Minneapolis’s transit planners are. But the map suggests they know what they’re doing. So they’re probably going to revamp the bus system to feed the new light rail and streetcar lines, possibly with timed transfers on routes where frequency isn’t very high (say, more than 10 minutes).

      By the way, bear in mind that many of the improvements associated with BRT, such as proof-of-payment, can be done systemwide for local buses, and in fact have been done in multiple cities in the world. The same is true for signal preemption. Once the technology exists to implement those on one route, the incremental cost of a citywide rollout is small, especially when compared to physically separate bus lanes.

      • Cameron Slick

        Minneapolis Transit Planners are competent. So are county & regional planners. But the Met Council is run by people appointed by the Governor, which is Do-Nothing Republican Tim Pawlenty. Therefore, effective implementation of most plans is moot.

      • Alon: there would be some revamping of the bus system involved with this streetcar plan, but I’d like to point out that the streetcar lines were chosen in part for operational effeciency…many of these streetcar lines would replace existing bus routes because they follow the same general path. For example, the streetcar lines along Chicago Ave and up to Robbinsdale (what Yonah listed as the “Washington Streetcar”) would enable replacement of the 5A (terminates at 38th St, same as the Chicago streetcar), and 14R (terminates at the Robbinsdale Transit Center). The Central Ave streetcar would enable replacement of the 10C (terminates at Columbia Heights transit center, same as the Central streetcar).

        This is significant and could go one of two ways: it frees up buses for Metro Transit to apply elsewhere in the system, or by retiring those bus lines, they realize operational savings since streetcars have a lower cost per passenger mile than buses.

  • Scott

    Anything that isn’t grade separated on Hennepin or Nicollet south of the CBD will fail. Slow (think 8mph or less on Hennepin) trip times and the general political climate of not eliminating car lanes makes this a bus on rails. Movement to all-hybrid or modern trolley busses in the core city or trolley busses should provide a higher quality ride while these vehicles could use both lanes rather than being ‘stuck’ behind traffic in middle lanes.

    Also, has anyone done an EIS on trolley wire clutter in minneapolis? I’m guessing that this will be a huge fight in some areas (nicollet south of chicago).

    Establishing automated headway based scheduling and preemption (ie: LA metro rapid) and proof of payment all-door boarding (cash front, passes other doors, go with 3 to 4 door systems like the like the van hool AG300 T or Hyb) should help eliminate speed problems on busy routes.

  • Cameron Slick

    The Met Council does have a “Arterial BRT” program and 3 routes have already been implemented. Route 54 (Downtown St. Paul to Airport & Mall of America), runs every 15 minutes and limited stop down W 7th Street (don’t ask about the St. Paul street grid). University Avenue, Central Avenue and Lake Street have their own peak-hour limited stop service. So all this talk about BRT improvements should be taken with a jurisdictional grain of salt. Several other limited stop routes are planned, including Nicollet & Broadway which are listed above for streetcars.

    The Streetcar Plan is being administered and, if ever, implemented by the City of Minneapolis & Hennepin County, and will be done to catalyze development in the short term. Arterial BRT is being done by Met Council, which administers Metro Transit, and is implemented when funds are made available, usually through cutting service elsewhere in the system.

  • Allen

    “and is implemented when funds are made available, usually through cutting service elsewhere in the system.” – Carmeron Slick

    @Cameron, do you have a source for this claim?

  • Duncan Allen

    Relative to Mr. Wyss’ observation of April 2, the Halton County Radial Raiway (a museum outside of Toronto) operates a 1200 VDC car at 600 VDC, and the Shelburne Falls Trolley Museum in MA operates a 600 VDC car at (hold onto your hats) 220V. NOT recommended for ‘real’ applications, and SLOW even in museum operation – but provides an idea of how far undervoltage one can be and still move a car.

  • Lawrence

    About time. The destruction of the Twin Cities once amazing trolley network was one of the most short sighted, idiotic, and corrupt curses that have ever been inflicted upon the people of Minnesota.

    And considering that it is near impossible to get anywhere in the Twin Cities during rush hours, not to mention that there isn’t anyplace to park once you get there, the new trolleys will be hailed as THE premiere means of transportation for decades to come.

  • DDT

    Great finds, Matt. Such a loss for the city. Streetcar transit was so much more elegant, not to mention more sustainable than bus transit.

  • Matt

    I keep thinking back to this. Ideally I could see Nicollet Mall through downtown and across the Hennepin Ave bridge to be a great NE/SW LRT spine in addition to the NW/SE spine which will be shared by Central/Southwest and Bottineau/Hiawatha.

    Yet, if we are going to use streetcars, I think Nicollet would be a great spine for this as well. They should route the Hennepin streetcars over to Nicollet just north of Loring Park, and six of the seven lines could interline on this stretch. You could route Chicago-Broadway, Hennepin-University, and Nicollet-Central along this stretch.

    I really don’t see the advantage for having one line run up Hennepin and two lines on Nicollet. Move them all to Nicollet, remove buses from the mall,and life is good.

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