Streetcars in the City

By Dave Van Hattum, Senior Policy Advocate, and Teresa Roark, TLC Intern

Energy around a streetcar revival has been steadily building in the Twin Cities—and with good reason. The modern streetcar is far more than an ode to the dominant transportation mode preceding today’s ubiquitous car culture. Streetcars provide a valuable transit option uniquely suited to dense urban settings and with strong opportunities for new commercial and residential development. But are streetcars likely to make a major comeback here in Minnesota?

Streetcars (referred to as trolleys outside North America) have been part of the U.S. transit system since the late 19th century. By the 1920s, they were commonplace, even spawning the term “streetcar suburb” for their notable influence on development patterns and commuting habits.

As local authors John Diers and Aaron Isaacs describe in Twin Cities by Trolley, many older Minnesotans fondly recall riding the 520-mile streetcar network that once stretched from Stillwater to Lake Minnetonka, with dense grids of track serving Minneapolis and Saint Paul.


Passengers boarding a streetcar at Hennepin Ave. & 9th St. in Minneapolis, part of the extensive network that once served the Twin Cities metro area.

After declining in the 1940s and 50s for a variety of reasons, including growing suburban development and the emergence of rubber tired buses, streetcars are reappearing in more and more cities across the country—not only as a way of moving people from one place to another, but as part of a comprehensive development plan.

Peer Cities Embrace Modern Streetcars

Today, modern streetcars operate in Charlotte, NC, Portland, OR, and the Seattle-Tacoma metro area.. New streetcar service will launch in Dallas and Washington, DC, later this year, and is under construction or procurement in Atlanta, Cincinnati, and Salt Lake City. Historic streetcars still operate in Boston, Memphis, New Orleans (replica), Philadelphia, and San Francisco.  

Passengers about to board a modern streetcar in Portland, OR.

These streetcars operate in urban cores and make frequent stops. They are smaller and less expensive than light rail vehicles, but larger and more expensive than buses. Popular models can accommodate 41 seated passengers and 100 standing passengers. They can either operate with autos on existing streets or, like LRT, on their own rights of way.

Key Differences from Light Rail Transit (LRT) Key Differences from Buses
Less capacity (see graphic below) More capacity (see graphic below)
Can operate in mixed traffic Higher visibility
Shorter routes, more frequent stops Often spurs more development
Less construction Impact Electric powered
Less expensive

  • $30 to $60 million/mile vs. $100 million/mile for LRT
More expensive

  • $30 to $60 million/mile vs. $5 million/mile for arterial BRT

*Sources for cost estimates: Streetcars 101, City of Saint Paul website; LRT based on cost of Hiawatha, Central, and Southwest LRT cost, Metro Transit Arterial BRT Study.

Credit: City of Minneapolis

Streetcars, with their high visibility and fixed routes, encourage economic development and mixed-use land development. For example, since streetcar service began in 1996 in the historic South End of Charlotte, NC, property values have increased from $20 million to $360 million. The streetcar is now considered “the spine of the district.”

Portland, OR, first began operating Central City Streetcar in 2001. Since then, there has been $3.5 billion in development within two blocks of this streetcar line (over 50 percent of total downtown development). Much of this development has been mixed residential and commercial, with residential properties averaging just 0.6 parking spaces per unit. Not long after opening a streetcar line, Portland birthed United Streetcar, the only manufacturer of modern streetcars in the U.S.

It is easy to see why many American cities are choosing to invest in streetcars, but will the Twin Cities join them?

Studies are underway to evaluate streetcar feasibility and determine the best routes for streetcars in both Minneapolis and Saint Paul.

In Minneapolis, an Alternatives Analysis (AA) has narrowed the most feasible routes to a single starter line. From downtown, the line would travel south on Nicollet Ave. to Lake St. and northeast on East Hennepin and Central Ave. We imagine this starter line will have strong potential for future development and would attract visitors and downtown workers to a wide variety of restaurants, shops, and other attractions. The AA will also examine a longer route—from 46th St. South to 41st St. North—that may follow a successful starter line.

Other promising routes include a streetcar along the Midtown Greenway connecting the Hiawatha LRT and the future Southwest LRT (a project being studied by Metro Transit) and a streetcar along West Broadway serving North Minneapolis. Particularly given that the proposed Bottineau LRT route skirts North Minneapolis, a new streetcar on West Broadway could bring welcome reinvestment potential to that area of the city along with more frequent transit service.

These potential streetcar routes and many others are simultaneously being assessed as possible rapid bus corridors.

Saint Paul is also studying streetcars. By the end of 2013 when the City’s streetcar feasibility study concludes, it will have identified one to two priority corridors for implementation. Over a dozen corridors are currently being examined, including Snelling Ave., Payne Ave., Lexington Pkwy., West 7th/East 7th St., Rice St., Ford Pkwy., Robert St., Grand Ave., and several others. Evaluation criteria include ridership potential, development potential, and transit-supportive land uses.

Streetcar Funding

Both Saint Paul and Minneapolis still need to identify a funding source for any future streetcar lines. Streetcars are not currently identified in the Metropolitan Council’s Transportation Policy Plan, nor eligible for funding through the Counties Transit Improvement Board (1/4-cent metro area sales tax for transit), or by Metro Transit, which has had very limited resources to increase bus service over the past decade.

Given the potential of streetcars, however, a variety of new funding sources are being explored. These include: 1) allowing streetcar construction and operation as one use of an increase in the metro area sales tax (HF 1444), 2) value capture legislation (HF 617), which would allow Minneapolis to secure a portion of capital costs by borrowing against future property tax increases in locations served by a streetcar, and 3) federal funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s Small Starts program.

Want to get involved and learn more? Weigh in on bringing streetcars back to Saint Paul. Stay informed about ongoing Minneapolis streetcar planning efforts and upcoming opportunities to participate: Nicollet-Central or Midtown Corridor.

Find more on Portland’s streetcar system and development-oriented transit here.