From Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate

Streetcars could be returning to Minneapolis or Saint Paul in the not too distant future.  Both cities have studies underway to determine the feasibility of streetcars in several different corridors.  In Minneapolis, focus is on Nicollet Ave and Central Ave, with discussion as well about lines along the Midtown Greenway and in North Minneapolis, along Broadway. Specific corridors have not been identified in Saint Paul, but it is likely they would intersect with the Central Corridor LRT and/or be on corridors with very high bus ridership.  

Streetcars are similar to light rail transit vehicles – both are powered by overhead electric – but streetcars are considerably lighter and cheaper to build than light rail vehicles. Today’s new streetcar lines typically are 1 to 4 miles long, travel in the road with other vehicles, make more frequent stops (every few blocks) than LRT trains, but carry fewer people than light rail.

Streetcars are particularly attractive due to their ability to spur economic development.  The 3 mile Portland Streetcar, located in the downtown Pearl District, cost of $57 million to build and led to more than $3.5 billion in new development within two blocks in less than a decade after opening in 2001. Development within a block of the streetcar accounted for 55% of all central business district development since 1997. Combined with a major brownfield redevelopment, excellent pedestrian facilities, and decreased parking, Portland’s first line led to an average density of 131 housing units per acre.

220px-PortlandStreetcar5A car of the Portland Streetcar system at the eastbound Portland State University stop.

Interestingly, the FTA New Starts and Small Starts program (which provides matching funds for light rail and streetcars) has funded nine streetcars in the last five years. New Streetcar lines are under construction in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Portland, Saint Louis, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and Tucson. Charlotte, Dallas and Tampa have recently received funding from the Federal Transit Administration to pursue streetcar lines.  

Recent proposed changes to the FTA New Starts/Small Starts program will increase the likelihood of federal funding for a local streetcar project.  The challenge for streetcar enthusiasts in the Twin Cities, however, is the lack of a local funding source.  Often new streetcar lines are funded with municipal funding sources like property taxes, parking taxes, or development fees.  Neither the ¼ cent regional sales tax for transitways (administered by CTIB) nor Metro Transit’s revenue sources (e.g. motor vehicle sales tax, general fund) are envisioned as likely funding source for streetcars.

The potential of streetcars to create neighborhoods where reduced (and no) car ownership is practical, and to complement a regional system of bus and rail, should engage the attention of local policymakers.  Streetcars, like the impressive potential of rapid bus, call out the need for expanded investment in public transit.  TLC will continue to advocate for increased transit funding for regional and local transit, including streetcars.

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