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Streetcars endorsed for Minneapolis’ Central-Nicollet transit line

A City Council committee unanimously chose the $393 million streetcar project over the much-cheaper alternative — enhanced bus service.

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

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“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.

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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.

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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.