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Streetcars endorsed for Minneapolis’ Central-Nicollet transit line

City of Minneapolis
A rendering shows how a streetcar might look in Northeast Minneapolis.

Streetcars for the first phase of the proposed 9.2-mile Central-Nicollet transit line won the endorsement Tuesday of a Minneapolis City Council committee.

The Transportation and Public Works Committee unanimously chose to approve the starter line for the $393 million streetcar project [PDF] over the much-cheaper alternative — enhanced bus service, which would cost about $94 million.

During the public hearing, mayoral candidate Cam Winton, a vocal opponent of streetcars, pushed for enhanced bus service.

“We’re going to be back here in five years scratching our heads and asking why we allowed this boondoggle to proceed,” said Winton, who calculates the cost of the 3.4-mile start-up project at $52.9 million per mile.

“The streetcar line is more expensive and moves fewer people than the enhanced bus at a time when our neighbors in North Minneapolis don’t have street lamps because a tornado knocked them down,” he said.

Winton was not the only mayoral candidate in the room. Council Member Betsy Hodges serves on the committee that conducted the public hearing.

“Streetcars are about economic development,” Hodges said. “They’re about growing our population, they’re about growing the services that go to that population and they’re about growing our property tax base.”

Council Member Sandy Colvin Roy, who is not seeking re-election, argued that streetcars with permanent construction are a stronger catalyst for development than the movable route of buses. She also thinks they are a better fit for crowded city streets.

“They will carry more people through a smaller space … and one thing that Minneapolis can’t grow is more land,” said Colvin Roy. “I have been skeptical of streetcars from the beginning. I’m not skeptical about the value of their ability to move a lot more people through this very limited space.”

streetcar map
City of Minneapolis
The proposed streetcar route.

The proposed transit route would run along Central Avenue from 41st Street in Northeast Minneapolis, cross over the river into downtown and continue south on Nicollet Avenue to 46th Street.

The project’s first phase would cover about one-third of the line — from Central and Eighth Street Northeast to Nicollet and Lake — at a cost of about $200 million.

Daily ridership for the 3.4-mile starter route is expected to be 9,200 trips with annual operating expenses of $10.6 million. The line would cross the Mississippi River via the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, which is newer than the alternative Central Avenue Bridge. Hennepin also has bike and pedestrian lanes.

The entire City Council is scheduled to vote on the matter Oct. 4 and send its recommendation to the Metropolitan Council.

Downtown fight could be brewing

The committee also approved a $6.5 million budget for the Downtown Improvement District, a public-private partnership between the city and the Minneapolis Downtown Council.

But many of the district’s members, particularly those in the Warehouse District, are unhappy with the 2014 assessment level.

Operating funds are generated by special assessments on 650 downtown properties in a 120-square-block area. The funds provide enhanced cleaning, security and such spruce-up efforts as decorative plants. The special assessments are charged to business and commercial properties but not residential properties.

Earlier this year, a group of Warehouse District property owners complained that their assessments were too high and that they did not receive the same level of service as properties in the downtown core. The Warehouse District, west of Hennepin Avenue, includes 17 square blocks.

“The Downtown Improvement District exists to raise the standard of care and behavior in downtown,” said Betsy Buckley, interim CEO of the Improvement District and the Downtown Council. She told council members that 60 percent of the district’s current property owners have agreed to continue their assessment for 2014.

State law specifies that the district will cease to exist if 35 percent of its members veto continued assessments for the year ahead. Under the law, the district could not be re-started for five years, and members have the option of seeking relief in court.

The Warehouse District Improvement Association is seeking to have its assessment cut by 50 percent in 2014. Businesses on the east side of downtown currently pay 50 percent less than those in the core city.

“Some larger property taxpayers pay 1 or 2 or 3 percent extra tax,” said James Erickson, attorney for the Warehouse District group. “Some of my clients pay 5 and 7 and 9 and 19 and 21 percent in extra taxes to fund the Downtown Improvement District.  That’s not fair.”

A third group of business and property owners, who did not speak at the public hearing, are said to be in opposition to retaining the district.

Following the meeting, Buckley said she is contemplating options for continuing the Improvement District but wanted to hear what was said at the hearing before making any plans.

Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/25/2013 - 11:25 am.

    My guess is that the streetcar line will remove most of the curb parking on “Eat Street”. And the adjacent streets can’t absorb that many more parked cars. A cascade of effects from this plan yet to be forseen.

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 09/25/2013 - 12:31 pm.


      The detailed analysis goes over parking impacts along the corridor. Numbers are only estimates at this point, but the maximum estimated loss of parking between Grant St and Lake St is ~56 spaces. By my estimation there are roughly 500 on-street spaces in this stretch (by taking a look at Google Maps). Both these estimates would have to be off by an order of magnitude to state that “most” of the curb parking will be removed.

      Beyond that, the claim that adjacent streets can’t absorb that many spots is beyond false. Most, if not all of the on-street capacity outside of Nicollet is uncharged. Spilling parking meters (with perhaps a 5-10 year period of parking permits for current residents in which new permits are not issued as time moves on) in to local neighborhoods will help charge market rates for car storage based on price sensitivity of how far people are willing to walk to their final destination. The space in front of houses/apartments on streets should not be off-limits to patrons of nearby residents, nor should it be subsidized for patrons or residents. However many spaces are removed, the plan should account for this (while also accounting for the increased number of people who will choose to use the new line to reach destinations rather than drive).

  2. Submitted by Haddayr Copley-Woods on 09/25/2013 - 11:51 am.

    This makes no sense whatsoever. It will encourage development and business? Nicollet Mall is already lined with thriving businesses. It will get more people through a smaller space? How is that? It’s clearly a waste of money and won’t do anything buses can’t do better. What is this REALLY about?

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 09/25/2013 - 01:45 pm.

      We need a nuanced discussion.

      It’s a false claim to say streetcars won’t do anything buses can’t do better. Rail provides a much smoother, quieter ride (even compared to hybrid-electric buses). Less lateral g-forces, smoother acceleration and braking, and less noise (inside and outside the vehicle), and less vertical bumps thanks to the lack of rubber tires hitting imperfect pavement. While capacities are close, a streetcar does have more room and flexibility for different riders inside the vehicle. Rail will guarantee the vehicle floor will be within inches of the platform every time, regardless of snow buildup, approach path, and vehicle operator skill. Streetcars can also keep operational cots lower if ridership grows with the ability to add a second car on (vs a bus which requires another vehicle and therefore driver during operating times). Operating solely on electricity from overhead wires, streetcars also emit near zero local emissions, which is great for the residents and patrons along the corridor (though obviously generation of the electricity still does pollute). These are all reasons there is a real rail bias in our region (and most others) that increases ridership (all other things held equal).

      That said, buses obviously have advantages over a streetcar. Flexibility in using the bus on other routes, using existing maintenance facilities, and being able to add buses from the whole system during events that have higher ridership. The ability to pass a parking/stuck/crashed vehicle. And obviously, a lower capital cost.

      Stating streetcars are a ‘waste of money’ ignores the real benefits they provide to users. It boils the conversation down unproductively. With that said, I agree that in this instance, the proposed design of the corridor leaves much to be desires. Frequency of vehicle arrival will be the same as it is today. End-to-end speed will be roughly the same (with the slight improvement being due to off-board payment, rieduced number of stops, and signal priority, all of which are present in both the Enhanced Bus and Streetcar options). So yes, I think that investing in a 3 mile streetcar at double the price of the full Enhanced Bus is a poor choice. But that doesn’t mean streetcars are always bad, or that any rail project is a waste of money. In fact, I would really like to see a grade-separated (ideally underground) line running from at least Lake St to Hennepin/Central with limited stops to truly reduce travel time from key nodes along the corridor. It could then run at-grade (but with dedicated ROW) along Nicollet and Central Aves at slightly reduced speeds (due traffic lights, etc) to serve populations outside the denser core. A local, mixed-traffic bus would then operate at street level with the proposed off-board amenities (payment, better shelters, etc) to serve shorter trips as they do today.

  3. Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 09/25/2013 - 12:33 pm.

    I believe

    The article is incorrect in stating the committee recommended the full 9-mile corridor. I believe the approved the plan to move forward with the “Starter” line at roughly $200m. There’s no guarantee the full line would be built (although it’s likely that would eventually happen).

  4. Submitted by Don Effenberger on 09/25/2013 - 01:11 pm.

    Good point, Alex

    I’ve clarified the wording to make it clear it’s the first phase.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 09/25/2013 - 01:51 pm.

    I’m sure that…

    …the city counsil gave this proposal the same rigorous financial impact analysis that the gave to the new Vikings stadium. In other words, if was off the chart on the fun and cool scales and that’s all that counted.

    • Submitted by Matt Touchette on 09/25/2013 - 03:11 pm.

      The City Council hasn’t taken the issue up yet…

      @Bill, I really hope you realize that, at the moment, your statement has no meaning, since the City Council hasn’t even heard the streetcar proposal.

  6. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/25/2013 - 02:48 pm.

    Based on my experience

    people who refuse to ride the bus WILL ride the streetcar. It doesn’t have the “low class” image that buses do. I don’t get that mindset, since I’ve never had any scary experiences in years of riding buses in various cities, but it does exist.

    Also, people who fret about parking don’t realize that the streetcar would reduce the need for parking, since many people, especially out-of-town visitors, would take the streetcar instead of driving.

  7. Submitted by Roy Everson on 09/26/2013 - 12:41 am.


    ……”would run along Central Avenue from 41st Street in Northeast Minneapolis”

    No, it’s 41st Avenue in Columbia Heights.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/26/2013 - 08:47 am.

    Minnesota and cars….

    Sometimes the auto-centricity of Minnesotan’s is funny. We talk about street cars and people complain about parking ha! The whole point of street cars and light rail is that they eliminate the need to drive and park. The more transport alternatives you provide, the fewer people will drive into these areas.

    The only thing I don’t understand is why this won’t connect to a transit center in Uptown where you could get onto the SW corridor Light Rail… or will it?

    • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 09/26/2013 - 09:20 am.

      Midtown Corridor

      There is a Midtown Corridor under analysis by the Met Council that will run as an ‘enhanced bus’ on Lake St, a Streetcar (more likely a light rail vehicle for future flexibility) in the greenway with stops every 1/2 mile, or both between the West Lake station (SWLRT) and the Midtown Blue Line stop. Current documents for the trench rail are mostly double track while still retaining the bike and walking trails. These 2 projects would provide a transit connections within the greater Uptown area.

    • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 09/26/2013 - 09:54 am.

      Not necessary

      I’m not sure an LRT connection in Uptown would be necessary. The starting-point where not having that connection would be most inconvenient would be at the very end of the streetcar line and even at Lake and Nicollet, you’re only 2 miles away from the 5th street station on Nicollet Mall but still 2.5 miles away from the SW Corridor’s future Lake & Chowden stop. If you’re already at Lake and Nicollet, you’d just take an East-West route over to Lake & Chowden. At 25th and Nic, right in the middle of Eat Street, you’re 3 miles from Lake and Chowden and only a mile and a half from the Nicollet Mall LRT platform. From Eat Street, you might as well either just go north to 5th or take the 17 at 24th. Anywhere north of that, it would just be common sense to make the transfer at 5th and Nicollet.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/26/2013 - 10:46 am.

        Richner’s tunnel vision

        Correct me if I’m mistaken, seriously if I’m mistaken let me know, Mr. Richner has been a frequent commenter on the transport issue here. His comments as I remember them are thoughtful and informative so I’m not attacking anyone here, but there seems to be a major flaw in his thinking.

        As I remember them the comments seem to center around the fact that there is already sufficient bus access between Uptown and Downtown, which there may well be. The problem is THAT’s not the issue. What we’re discussing here is a comprehensive regional transportation system, not simply getting people from uptown to downtown. This is why a SW rail line that bypasses Uptown is a problem. You can’t assume that all commuters using the light rail just want to get downtown, and everyone in MPLS who wants to go out west wants to depart from downtown. Uptown is a significant MPLS destination, it’s where the lakes and Art Fair is etc. As it is, the system is designed so that light rail users have go past Uptown, to downtown, and then transfer to some other transport and go back out to Uptown. This is why people like myself keep asking if there’s some kind of DIRECT connection between Uptown and the SW light rail. It’s silly to make people back track.

        The designs I’ve seen for the greenway rail are cool, but they end at Henn Ave don’t they? What we would need is something that continues on past the lakes to Kennelworth connection. Poor planning is killing us here. There WAS all kind of available land in the area for a transit center but most of has now been built upon at this point, recently at that.

        • Submitted by Joseph Senkyr on 09/26/2013 - 01:57 pm.

          Greenway Terminus

          The plan as laid out in the AA above shows the Midtown Streetcar/LRT continuing past Hennepin between the lakes with another stop at Thomas Ave and a final stop at the West Lake SW LRT station. It also ends in the east at the Lake St./Midtown Blue Line station.

        • Submitted by Andrew Richner on 09/26/2013 - 04:21 pm.


          Mostly I disagree with running the light rail through Uptown because I don’t think grade-separated rail is appropriate for routes like Hennepin. Generally I tend to think of LRT routes as best appropriate where you could imagine putting a four-lane highway. Hiawatha works, it’s got 55 right there. University was at one time a highway as well, though that’s replaced by 94 now, the rule still works. Kenilworth already has a rail corridor there so it’s also a natural choice, though that may leave the Lake Street station a bit further West than ideal for direct access to Uptown (but you would nonetheless have excellent access to the lakes).

          As far as a streetcar connection from the West Lake Station to the Nicollet route I just don’t see why you’d run that route over to the West after it runs a pretty straight-forward North-South course. I would rather see a full East-West route like a Lake Street or Greenway route than shoehorning a swerve over from Nicollet to the West Lake station onto the end. If anyone was proposing a streetcar on Hennepin (Loring Park to Lakewood?), I would definitely be on-board.

          • Submitted by Alex Cecchini on 09/27/2013 - 01:15 pm.

            See above

            The Midtown Corridor is its own streetcar/LRV line running from West Lake to the Blue Line. The Nicollet-Central Corridor as proposed would stay at-grade, running north-south, not turn west in the Greenway.

  9. Submitted by mark wallek on 09/26/2013 - 09:22 am.

    In the future…

    maybe we can rip them out after a confab between Goodyear, Standard Oil and GMC, in favor of electric cars and a revisioned american ego. Now that we will be spending even more on the urban core, I wonder if we here on the Northside, a neighborhood beset with the problem of absentee landlords draining assets from the neighborhood, not investing in their properties beyond the barest minimum, never bothering to vet the “renters,” will ever see these landlord held to account. Everything I do to maintain and improve my property as a resident owner is offset by the absence of same from the investment owners. They, on the other hand, pull down my property value by doing nothing in terms of improvement and about as much in terms of upkeep. A transit line downtown? I’d rather see my neighborhood brought back to life and these carpetbagger property owners made to keep the standards resident owners maintain.

  10. Submitted by Bjorn Awel on 09/27/2013 - 09:44 am.

    For nearly $200 million that builds you a “starter” line you could build 2 full enhanced bus lines. So, you could build up and down Nicollet and Central, plus another corridor such as Broadway or a line into North Minneapolis. A recent report noted enhanced bus could have as much or more redevelopment potential. The analysis of the city is heavily biased toward streetcar. The fact is that getting the economic development benefits is more about how you approach redevelopment around a bus, streetcar or LRT line. I’m not against streetcars per se, but you can get a lot more bang for your buck right now with enhanced bus. I would start with that and consider streetcar later.That way, you can get development and investment going on multiple corridors.

  11. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 09/27/2013 - 11:50 am.

    A little off-the-rail but

    …and a little off the map here too, but somewhere back in time I remember and am mildly curious about the corridor around the lakes past the Linden Hills area. Probably no longer exists…it created a corridor/cathedral effect of overhanging trees and backyards; an alley behind the backyards of homes along that route. Little brother’s Cat Chester ran away for two weeks found him down the corridor as we rode home on the Oak-Harriet line after a Saturday movie at the State downtown…he was licking his matted fur in the window ledge of somebody’s garage with two dead pigeons beside him draging one home later in the day to admire his self sufficiency I suppose?

    Probably it’s a bike route by now but street cars ran all night and a few street prone characters would ride on occasion finding a nocturnal/terminal sleeping place in the back seats for those old cars which would shake, rattle and roll in a gentle relaxing beat…could carry you all the way over to university and St Paul etc. So much for street cars past…

    The pragmatic is the focus here, but slick, design pure, metal street cars do not evoke the same sense of ‘comfort’ maybe, which those old style ‘carriages’ did in spite of emissions etc. Their fate was to be discarded; demonically burned or some, recycled as cabins or abandoned in the woods somewhere…

    Will the future street car image now, create the same memory pocket…how does time itself elevate the slick street car image into something to recall… would it evolve over time carrying its own poetic storyline sometime in the future?

    Back to the past becomes back to the future as more time passes and what new, pragmatic transport vehicle will propel us to another future time far beyond one’s ‘mildly curious’ imagination?

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/30/2013 - 10:33 am.

    Street cars and footprints

    You don’t need the space of a four lane HWY to do street cars. I was in The Hague a few years ago taking some photos of a church from what I thought was a sidewalk and suddenly this street car wizzed by a few feet away. I hadn’t even seen the tracks. I wish we cold post photos in comments so I could show you. I think you could run some street car designs down a street without taking up much more space than a bike lane.

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