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Why streetcars are losing their appeal as a mass transit option

Courtesy of Portland Streetcar, Inc.
An image of a streetcar in Portland, Oregon.

There seems to be a requirement somewhere in the catechism of America’s streetcar advocates: that once a day they must genuflect in the direction of Portland, Oregon.

The Northwest city is the case study for why returning streetcars to places that tore up their tracks decades ago will boost economic development and rebuild neglected urban cores. Just last week, when Dallas opened its 1.6 mile starter line — the nation’s latest — Portland figured in a quip by one of the politicians at the ribbon-cutting, which was held under overcast skies.

“Wouldn’t you know it,” said Oak Cliff City Council Member Scott Griggs, according to the Dallas Morning News. “Once you get a streetcar, you import Portland weather.” 

Yes, Portland was first, unveiling its extensive streetcar system in 2001. And so far, it’s also been the most successful, thanks in no small part to how it complements a regional light rail network. The city claims that there has been $3.5 billion in development around its first streetcar line, in the city’s Pearl District. 

Today, five additional cities have streetcars lines running. Three more — including Dallas — are set to open this year, while a dozen more are being planned (though Arlington, Virginia, just pulled the plug on the planning for their line), including lines in both Minneapolis and St. Paul. All hope for development to follow the rails, as it did in Portland. 

But these days the catechism of streetcar salvation is being challenged by some transit agnostics — and even some who were once believers.

Only in Portland? 

Some conservatives have always condemned streetcars as a waste of money, doing the same work as buses but at many times the cost. But now more urbanists have begun to question their utility, worrying that scarce transit dollars will be sucked up in a service that moves too slowly, costs too much and carries too few people.

And now comes perhaps an even more heretical act — a research report that asks if Portland might be an anomaly rather than a roadmap. What if the development outburst that followed the opening of that first section was due to a combination of factors, not just streetcars? Might that explain why a bunch of cities that spent a bunch of money expecting similar results as Portland — Tampa, Florida and Little Rock, Arkansas, for example — aren’t getting the boon they were hoping for?

Portland multi modal hub
Courtesy of Portland Streetcar
Portland multi modal hub

According to the authors of “The Purpose Function and Performance of Streetcar Transit in the Modern U.S. City,” streetcar planners should look at the Portland model with caution. Portland had a unique combination of factors such as existing land use that supported development, a healthy downtown real estate market, a route alignment through an area with strong population growth, employment centers and other government investments.

“The reality is much more complicated than it seems to appear in many … reports or consultant studies that have considered Portland’s experience,” concluded the report, which was put together by a team led by Jeffrey Brown of Florida State University and done for the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.

The report comes amidst a series of news articles questioning the spread of streetcars, articles shared widely with streetcar fans and foes alike. “Streetcar Revival Is Wavering in Some Cities,” wrote the New York Times. “Are streetcars a fad, or the future?” asked Urbanful. Or as the Guardian wondered, “Streetcars of desire: why are American cities obsessed with building trams?

In the Twin Cities, the wisdom of streetcar planning was called into question after a report on the issue was delivered to the Metropolitan Council. “Streetcars’ Benefit ‘Elusive and Debatable’ According to Study,” wrote City Pages.

The study didn’t quite say that. The quote, taken as a whole, says this: “But measuring the actual impacts of streetcar investments on the local economy versus other City policies and development incentives is elusive and debatable.” In other words, Parsons Brinckerhoff, the planning and engineering firm who compiled the report, didn’t conclude that economic benefits were elusive and debatable — because it couldn’t find enough evidence either way to reach such a conclusion.

The Mineta Institute report said much the same thing, lamenting the lack of solid research into the economics that would allow planners to isolate the effects of streetcars from other economic factors.

A critical time for streetcars in the Twin Cities

Streetcars are also coming under attack from what might otherwise be a natural constituency —  new urbanists who endorse more density and better transit. In a article republished on MinnPost in October, Nick Magrino might have summarized the opposition in a single sentence: “The specifics will vary from city to city and project to project, but at its core the entire concept of ‘modern streetcar’ is to trick middle class people into getting on board with local route bus-quality transit service.”

Peter Wagenius, policy director for Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges, said the mayor would rather not be critical of people whom she generally agrees with, but that she does believe that traditional buses are the answer in 95 percent of the transit corridors: “But in a few corridors you never will get the same level of investment with buses,” said Wagenius.

And as for those “middle-class people” Magrino referenced, Wagenius said: “There are people who only ride LRT and they don’t ride buses. These people exist. We’re not judging them. They’re just there.”

As to the Parsons Brinckerhoff report, Wagenius said it cites many of the same benefits and challenges raised during the lead up to the Blue Line and Green Line light rail projects. “The benefits are the same, the challenges are the same, and quite frankly the critics are the same,” Wagenius told the Met Council in February.

Still, the fresh research and the reconsideration come at a critical time for streetcars in the Twin Cities. Both St. Paul and Minneapolis are considering what are known as “modern” streetcars, a term used to distinguish them from vintage and replica trolleys. New streetcars can carry more passengers than bus rapid transit (BRT) vehicles and are usually more expensive than BRT, but less costly than light rail. The proposed starter lines in the two cities carry price tags between $200 million and $250 million.

The reason they are considered by some planners to have a larger development impact is because the routes and stations are fixed, giving developers confidence that they won’t be relocated later. But without a dedicated lane, they can be slow. The speeds of streetcars elsewhere are also hampered by too many stops and a lack of signal prioritization.

St. Paul’s hopes for a streetcar are on hold until a study of light rail along the Riverview Corridor is completed. Nancy Homans, policy director for Mayor Chris Coleman, said the studies have asserted that there are no “fatal flaws” in the plans and the council has approved a starter alignment on E. 7th and W. 7th between Arcade Street and Randolph Street, part of the same route being considered for a potential Riverview light rail line between Union Depot and the airport.

Long-Term Network
City of St. Paul
The development of the Long-Term Network began with the development of a long list potential streetcar corridors that included nearly all major arterial corridors in Saint Paul. These corridors were identified and selected through the work of the project team, the project’s advisory committees, and input from other stakeholders.

Minneapolis is further along with planning and funding. A locally approved alternative route for the Nicollet-Central line has been approved. And it even has a partial funding source from a “value capture” assessment on five properties that had already been set for development. An assessment on the increased value could support a $60 million bond issue.

But Minneapolis planners know the local funds will not be enough. The project would need to win money from the Federal Transportation Administration and be allowed a place in line for regional funding through the Met Council. Until the Met Council agrees that streetcars are part of the regional plan, it can’t even get in that line and it can’t apply for federal help.

For Homans, the questions for the Met Council are whether streetcars should be part of the regional system and therefore eligible for regional and federal money, or “does the region want to shunt them off to the side?”

‘Transportation first’

The Mineta Institute study isn’t all cold water for the aspirations of streetcar boosters. It doesn’t conclude that Portland’s economic results are impossible to duplicate, just hard to isolate. Planners should look realistically at what Portland accomplished and how it succeeded, the authors stated. First among those factors was that while Portland’s system began as a development catalyst, its planners made sure it served as a transportation system as well.

“The authors strongly believe that a transportation investment should be primarily about providing transportation service.” While that seems intuitive, the researchers found that many streetcar projects were primarily development tools, driven first by developers and downtown interests. Poor ridership, therefore, was downplayed in other cities “because the streetcar was not seen as primarily a transportation investment but instead as something else.”

In St. Paul, Homans said the city expects any streetcar to be a “workhorse” and to tie into other regional transportation corridors: light rail, bus rapid transit and regular buses. Wagenius too has been stressing the transportation aspects of the proposed line that will run from Nicollet Avenue in South Minneapolis through downtown and into Northeast.

“Don’t go right to economic development,” Wagenius recalls being told by Portland planners. “Make sure you only look at projects and only look at corridors that make sense as transportation first and then put economic development on top of that.”

Minneapolis Council Member Lisa Bender, a streetcar supporter, said the corridor along Nicollet to Lake is “a transit agency’s dream.” It is dense, walkable and in an area people choose because of its access to transit. It also has voters who support the types of land use rules that encourage even more density.

Minneapolis has a lot riding on its streetcar proposal. Hodges included it in her State of the City speech as an important economic development program. Bidders to build on the former Nicollet Hotel block downtown were required to accommodate not only a streetcar track, but one that could allow the tracks to transition from Nicollet to Hennepin Avenue. And last fall, in response to demands by some residents that governments increase the equity impacts of Southwest LRT, the city promised to keep pushing for streetcar and bus rapid transit lines that will connect the city’s poorer neighborhoods to existing and planned light rail routes.

“We can’t have inclusive growth without a transportation system that works for all,” Wagenius told the city council last fall.

And then there’s the issue of money. Specifically, a lack of money for everything the Met Council already would like to build and maintain even before streetcars are included in the regional Transportation Policy Plan.

Arlene McCarthy, director of Metropolitan Transportation Services for the Met Council, said staff is studying streetcars, but doesn’t expect the council to consider an amendment adding them to the plan until next year. “Sooner or later it has to get into the plan,” McCarthy said. And to be in the plan there must be funding already identified.

Both Wagenius and McCarthy say the Legislature would have to approve increased transit funding before streetcars could ever be in line for state and regional matching funds. Gov Mark Dayton has proposed increased revenue for regional transit projects, but Republicans in the Minnesota House have not, and have proposed funding changes that would reduce money for operations of the existing system.

“Streetcar is in no different position that all the other transit projects out there,” Wagenius said. “Until the Legislature chooses to pass a bill, funding for all kinds of project will sit and wait. Our goal has always been to be ready when the region decides to fund more transit.”

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Comments (51)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/20/2015 - 10:27 am.

    Here’s the formula we should be using

    If the benefit is questionable, or even debatable, and it’ll cost hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money then it should be abandoned. Let’s consider the taxpayer for a change.

  2. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/20/2015 - 10:59 am.

    Just plunking a streetcar down any old place is useless

    What a lot of cities lack is a vision for the future and how each mode of transit fits into it.

    Where do people actually go? How can we make it easier for them to do so without a car? Yes, much of the passenger load will be people going back and forth to work, but they don’t all work in the downtown area. What about other concentrations of jobs? And what about people who because of income or disability or whatever other reason do not drive at all? How can a transit system help them to live a fuller life?

    Those are the real questions, not trains versus buses versus streetcars.

    If I were Transit Czarina, I’d start by figuring out what the major destinations in the metro area are, starting with those in the core cities and first-ring suburbs, and make sure that there were adequate ways to reach them with frequent service. Then I would extend service to outer communities that have traditional downtowns, like Hopkins and Wayzata, and running frequent express service to them. In fact, I would change the route of the proposed Southwest Light Rail Line so that it started farther into the North Side, bypassed Eden Prairie (who moves to Eden Prairie because they want to take transit, and why should Metro Transit be in the business of attracting cheap labor for that area?), and terminated in Excelsior (another community with a traditional core) instead.

    Think in broad terms and think of the future instead of just adding another line to the spaghetti tangle on Metro Transit’s map.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/20/2015 - 11:25 am.

    Excellent questions

    I don’t think I can improve on Ms. Sandness’ comment, which seems to me right on target.

    Mr. Tester’s concern is not without merit, but I suspect that, if that same view were applied to a new highway, much of his concern would disappear…

  4. Submitted by David Markle on 04/20/2015 - 11:25 am.

    Our present example

    We have a billion-dollar streetcar here, the Green Line, a light rail train made to serve as a streetcar line with few stops. St. Paul got its way in getting it placed on the middle of University Avenue where it cannot run fast as a train should. The unelected, unaccountable, unresponsive Met Council must be held responsible for approving such an obvious mistake.

    Thus we end up with something resembling Boston’s antiquated Green Line created in the 19th Century!

    Trouble is, folks here don’t seem to recognize the difference between a train and a streetcar.

  5. Submitted by John Ferman on 04/20/2015 - 11:36 am.

    Streetcars, Buses, LRT

    The streetcar network was born in an era where it was the only travel option that did not use hooves. As the lines built out the people followed and built houses. The times have changed and so must our view of streetcars. What is needed is a broad overview of our areas transportation needs. Is the objective to guide future build out of housing or is it to serve the metro community as it is now or is it something in between. Within this overview, the travel mode must be designed as a system. LRT, buses, streetcars and PRT all have their role in mutual support of the system. What we have now are planners laying out lines hiccup-style in which mistakes are to be expected but difficult to renedy. We need a roomful of visionaries.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 04/20/2015 - 11:38 am.

    How people want to get around

    Most places in the United States, there is only one convenient option for people for getting – driving. Think about how much money we spend to fulfill their wishes. The automobile and truck have completely transformed how we live. However, we have reached the point in our major metropolitan areas, that the traffic congestion is horrible – and it is hugely expensive and difficult to build more and bigger highways. Even still, there are those conservatives who feel like their needs are being served, carry little about people who cannot afford or aren’t able to drive, and have no vision of the future who think we don’t need expanded transition options … because they are “too expensive.” Let’s forget about them for a second, because they are wrong.

    This article is just another discussion by experts. There was absolutely no information from the people who use transportation systems – just a disparaging reference to middle class people who would take a streetcar, but not a bus (assuming the bus was “high quality”). If you want to disparage anyone, how about those wouldn’t be caught dead in any form of transit – and want to cut transit services.

    The article missed the one obvious reason streetcar interest varies by city – egalitarianism.. Portland isn’t a city that puts on airs. It is not a place hung up on social status. It is more racially and economically tolerant. Compare it to the old South. They used buses, but it was whites up front. If people are more tolerant and less fearful, they will ride transit. Midwesterners need to go east to see this – Washington, New York, or Boston. You will see more genuine diversity in a half hour on a bus or subway than in a month in the suburban Twin Cities. If you are interested in people, it is quite a show. Think of light rail and street cars as “training wheels” for transit – or like the shallow end of the pool. They are a way to get used to it if you are starting at an older age.

    As most kids take transit to school, they are used to it, they see it as a real option. Some go as far as not buying cars until it is absolutely necessary – which might be never. On the other end of the scale, seniors may lose the interest, economic means or ability to drive. They either stay home, bum rides or use transit.

    The experts may be dimly aware of the needs of both groups, but they understand how the current options (combined with fear) keep many seniors house bound. As much as they talk about all the money that can be made through great transit projects, are they thinking of transit as a way to address social isolation of seniors. From what they bring up in this article, it isn’t apparent.

    Before any expensive transit project is under taken, my hope is that policy makers actually consult with the people who could use transit (all of us) before they start drawing lines on paper. Are there a group of people who will be the pioneers of transit – change how they are willing to get around if options other than cars and buses are available? It is those people you need to please, because if they like their experience and share it with others, that will get more and more people to try out new transit options, before our major roads are in permanent gridlock.

  7. Submitted by Susan McNerney on 04/20/2015 - 11:55 am.

    Having just gotten back from Portland…

    Here’s what they’ve got:
    – Metro-wide high density residential planning to a degree Minnesotans would probably find shocking (but in my opinion, it works quite well)
    – They went all-in on rail in the 1990’s and haven’t looked back. Once early battles were over, they didn’t give in to naysayers, they (to quote a Portland area company) Just Did It. And continue to do it. A new streetcar line is about to open in the next couple of months.
    – They spend actual money on it and don’t freak out, even when times are tight.
    – They are (don’t tell them this) essentially a suburb of the Silicon Valley, which is directly driving a lot of their growth. Silicon Valley companies are setting up factories, companies, startups, etc to get out of the high real estate costs and labor costs further south, and the slowly expanding tech industry has allowed them to continue their investments even as other natural resource industries have declined. This appears to be a long term trend.
    – Seamless transit experiences between light rail and streetcars. I rode the rails for 5 days last month and found it clean, timely, useful and enjoyable.
    – They didn’t abandon buses. Plenty to be had.
    – They have a far busier downtown than either Minneapolis or St Paul after 5:00pm.
    – Their suburbs have booming transit villages (Orenco Station, for example).
    – Their trains are busy all the way through the day. Trains to the far suburbs are in some cases overcrowded during rush hour.
    – They are not nearly as racially segregated as the Twin Cities, though they used to be more so than they are today, and there doesn’t seem to be the cultural “transit fear” I notice in some of my neighbors here in the MN suburbs.
    – On that same note, people who live in the suburbs are, with only a couple of cities as exceptions, are massively in favor of transit; they vote for it, they want it.

    Does that all add up to Portland being some sort of rare bird? With the exception of the silicon valley connection, I don’t think so. It just demonstrates what can happen when a region unifies enough to commit to real, robust transit. Minneapolis and st paul have some advantages that Portland doesn’t – geography, for one (no mountains), the U of M as a ready user base, much larger than Portland State, and a larger overall population. But we have regulatory hurdles – to many people with veto power, not enough real authority to plan metro-wide growth, and political ideologues who will always oppose transit. Portland just doesn’t have nearly as many of those obstacles anymore.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/20/2015 - 11:09 pm.

      You’re making me nostalgic

      However, there is racism in Portland, although it’s directed more at Latinos than at the small African-American community nowadays.

      Back in the middle of the twentieth century, though, Oregon had the largest Ku Klux Klan outside the South and very discriminatory laws.

  8. Submitted by Gerald Abrahamson on 04/20/2015 - 11:58 am.

    Streetcars are not are a viable option.

    Self-driving cars are the future. They are the ultimate PRT (Personal Rapid Transit) and can replace most other forms of local transportation at a lower cost and offer greater convenience. I see light rail being removed and a good road replacing it.

    Streetcars used to be good alternatives because they were universally accessible throughout the area.The only alternative that meets that near-universal accessibility model is the self-driving car.

    Light rail pulls people close to it in order to access it. Thus, businesses tend to locate along light rail because the workers need the light rail to get to work. If self-driving cars exist, people and business are not required to be on the same rail system. The people live wherever they choose and the self-driving car takes them to work–wherever it is located. It is cheaper overall because the cost of the infrastructure is already “built in” to the system–the road system. Simply maintain/improve it.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/20/2015 - 03:05 pm.

      I agree totally

      The PRT is the future for those who can no longer drive but need to get to places on a regular basis where the *FIXED TRACK* system doesn’t go.

      People who think in terms of fixed track solutions don’t get it, are a hundred years behind in their thinking and have caused me to reflexively oppose them and their ideas because of their inability to recognize the inherent weaknesses in fixed route systems and a lack of empathy for the elderly and others who aren’t interested in using transit as a civic fashion statement.

      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/20/2015 - 04:27 pm.

        PRT is the transit system promoted by people who hate transit

        No one has ever even created a workable computer model for how a system covering an entire metropolitan area with multiple lines would work without causing pile-ups of pods at the various stations and interchanges.

        The only working PRT systems are ones with no more than two lines, and most of them resemble the aerial tramway at the State Fair more than anything else, just a single line.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/20/2015 - 05:12 pm.

          We don’t need a PRT “system”

          Self-driving cars don’t need “stations” or “interchanges” and don’t run on a track. Google’s self-driving car can be programmed to go from Point A to Point B and use technology that enables them to avoid collisions along the way.

          The beauty is it can be owned and operated by private individuals or a fleet of them can be owned and operated by a taxi cab company, with no government involvement required. Which the real reason its opponents are opposed to it, I suppose.

          • Submitted by richard owens on 04/21/2015 - 09:18 am.

            Self-driving cars,

            I have read, read traffic signs and obey speed limit signs.

            I don’t know about where you and others drive, but the roads I am on every day people travel 5-7 MPH faster than the posted limit.

            Cursing at the slow guy blocking traffic will be for naught- his driver is a machine that must obey the law.

  9. Submitted by Peter Roethke on 04/20/2015 - 01:31 pm.

    Citing Flawed Research

    It is misleading, at best, to point to the heritage tourist trolleys of Tampa and Little Rock and extrapolate therefrom any meaningful conclusions about the merits of streetcars in general. It’s like comparing a Metro Transit bus to one of those “hop-on, hop-off” buses and saying that poor farebox recovery on the tourist bus shows that buses just aren’t a viable transportation mode. The study cited by the author also examines Memphis – again, only a heritage tourist trolley. To say that the authors had a negative ideological bias would perhaps be putting it mildly.

    Like other lengthy and skeptical articles dissecting the merits of streetcars, this article mentions the supposedly cheaper BRT option. Recently, the Star Tribune noted how the Red Line BRT, which cost an initial $112 million (plus an additional $9.7 million, so at least $120 million), “did not hit its first-year target of 975 daily rides until August” 2014. ( 975 rides! The laughably poor results for the Red Line are probably the result of the fact that the line travels through an area with a development pattern that is fundamentally hostile to transit. Still, more such exurban BRT lines are in the works in the Twin Cities; for instance, the ‘Orange Line’ bus is costing over $150 million ( and may not be a stellar performer either. To say that streetcars are an expensive distraction from more deserving projects is oftentimes just not true.

    Modern streetcars (not heritage trolleys) that run through walkable, urban areas (not exurban auto centric areas, like the Red Line) have demonstrated benefits which are touched upon, but not really discussed in this article. The Nicollet-Central streetcar is a proposal for a modern system running through some of the most walkable areas of the Twin Cities metro area. It connects well with the existing LRT system and bus routes. To say that the failure of fundamentally different systems in the dissimilar cities of Tampa, Little Rock, and Memphis has some lessons for Minneapolis is, I think, pretty silly.

  10. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/20/2015 - 02:25 pm.


    people just don’t want mass transit?

    I look at the map of potential St. Paul streetcar corridors and shudder to think that we might actually build a system focused on downtown that stops at the city limits. Really, folks, it’s time to look at where people actually go rather than where you want them to go.

    If this network were built, I would have to change streetcars 3 times to go the 4 miles from my home to my last place of employment, to which I can drive in 10 minutes. I’d have to change lines twice to go where I buy my groceries (a 5-minute drive) and 2 or 3 times to get to my clinic (a 10-minute drive). The only place I go with any regularity that could be reached with a single line would be one of the two theaters in town. The other would require at least one change..

    What, I wonder, is the average additional time people are willing to spend to travel by streetcar? Double my time and I’ll likely drive.

    • Submitted by Jim Buscher on 04/20/2015 - 04:47 pm.

      People may want to have a car and not use mass transit as you suggest. But many in St. Paul have no choice. There is a 20+% poverty rate in the city, there are elderly, handicapped, college students, etc. Mass transit is there only option. Without a more extensive system, however imperfect it may be to some, those people are SOL. Is that acceptable? I don’t think so.

    • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 04/20/2015 - 05:29 pm.

      Average additional streetcar time

      “What, I wonder, is the average additional time people are willing to spend to travel by streetcar?”


      • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/20/2015 - 11:04 pm.

        Speak for yourself

        I hate driving. Absolutely hate it. When I had a chance to give up my car in Portland in 1993, I did it gladly, and I lived that way for ten years. One of the downsides of the Twin Cities is that the inadequate transit system that forces people either to drive or to live a very limited life.

        One of the advantages of streetcars and trains is that you can sit and read or work or knit or listen to music and not worry about watching the road. It’s also less isolating than driving alone.

        When I gave up my car, a lot of people thought I was crazy. But within the next ten years, five of my friends also gave up driving when they saw how convenient and inexpensive the alternative was.

        • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 04/21/2015 - 09:00 am.

          “how convenient and inexpensive the alternative was”

          Thanks to hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

          • Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 04/21/2015 - 09:44 am.

            You are talking about roads, right?

          • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/21/2015 - 10:21 am.

            Well those “hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars,”

            some local and some federal, (and each line has cost less than *one* fighter jet) were spent by Portland’s Metro Council, which is elected by the voters of the three-county metropolitan area.

            Anti-transit types keep running for the Met Council out there, and they are typically defeated 2 to 1.

            Not everyone is a car potato.

            Those who are employed or subsidized by the auto and oil industries see transit as a threat to their livelihoods. They know that when transit is extensive and reliable, a certain percentage of people will use it instead of cars, and the better the system is, the more people will do so.

            When I lived in Portland, the best way to convince people of the merits of the MAX light rail system was to get them to ride it. You could almost see the light bulb coming on in their head. “Oh, I can go to shop/to attend an outdoor festival/to see the Trail Blazers play/to my appointment at the Kaiser clinic/to the Zoo concert/to my class at Portland State/to whatever without getting stuck in traffic or worrying about parking.”

        • Submitted by John Smith on 04/21/2015 - 09:48 am.

          You speak for yourself…

          …and pretend your opinion is the only one that matters and should drive all policy. How absolutely typical leftist elitist. There is a commuter train several miles from where I live and it costs about 4.00 one way. The problem is that the actual cost of the ride is at least 18.50. I have no doubt that the cost you pay is 1/5 to 1/4 of the actual cost. The only place I can get to using the train is downtown Mpls, and I have no reason to go there. Who cares if your commuting lifestyle is an extreme outlier?

          • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/21/2015 - 10:31 am.

            I have never ridden the North Star, and I was opposed to it

            since it made no sense as a transit option. It seemed like an expensive passive-aggressive means of “demonstrating” that transit doesn’t work.

            You accuse me of being a “leftist elitist,” and I wear that label proudly. Yes, I believe that crony capitalism is out of control in this country and needs to be reined in, and I believe that our country should strive to be the best in the world instead of the most militarily aggressive and solipsistic.

            The attitude of the right-wing commentators here is “The status quo works for me, and if it doesn’t work for others, then there’s something wrong with them, so they don’t deserve to benefit from tax dollars. Only I and people like me and the causes that I like deserve to benefit from tax dollars.”

            • Submitted by John Smith on 04/21/2015 - 11:23 am.

              Streetcars/trolleys are a waste of time and money

              My wife’s grandfather was a streetcar conductor. When they were removed, he became a bus driver. The streetcars were removed because the ridership was dropping dramatically. People were moving to the suburbs because they wanted more land, bigger houses and more freedom to go where they wanted to go, when they wanted to go and take things with them. Quite simply, more freedom of choice in travel. The willingness of some to restrict their freedom of choice in traveling and where to live should absolutely not become the limiting factor for those who wish to keep the freedom they have.

              • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/21/2015 - 01:24 pm.

                The office park pundits talk as if having a real transit system

                would “force them out of their cars,” to use a favorite phrase of the right-wing media.

                That makes about as much sense as saying that no further Asian restaurants should be built because their availability will force people to stop having sandwiches for lunch.

                Highways and cars and suburban home buyers have been tax-subsidized like crazy, the former for ninety years and the later for seventy years. (You may also want a history lesson on what happened to the Twin Cities streetcar system.)

                In the meantime, three, perhaps four, generations have grown up in car-oriented suburbs. Some of them like that environment just fine. I and many others found it isolating, boring, and irritating.

                Your choice has enjoyed billions, perhaps trillions, of federal and state subsidies in the form of outright grants, low-interest loans, and tax deductions. When a light rail line costs less than a single fighter jet (and will not prevent you from driving), it seems unreasonable to indulge in hyperbole that boils down to “I don’t like it, so no one should have it.”

            • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/21/2015 - 01:17 pm.

              North Star was fine it just should’ve gone somewhere.

              Had North Star gone all the way in St. Cloud, and been given absolute track priority to maintain its schedule it would be fine.

        • Submitted by Ken Bearman on 04/21/2015 - 02:04 pm.

          Zero for streetcars

          Karen Sandness: “One of the downsides of the Twin Cities is that the inadequate transit system that forces people either to drive or to live a very limited life.

          “One of the advantages of streetcars and trains is that you can sit and read or work or knit or listen to music and not worry about watching the road.”

          I say it’s zero possibility of people taking extra time to ride streetcars because we have buses running now where They want to run streetcars. Buses are an alternative to driving, too. What you can do on a Portland streetcar — read, work, knit, listen to music — everyone else can do on a Twin Cities bus.

          Buses run where people are, not just where tracks are in the ground. And unlike streetcars, they can be rerouted if populations shift.

          • Submitted by John Smith on 04/21/2015 - 03:54 pm.

            100% correct

            Build roads and everyone and every type of ground vehicle can use them with total freedom of route and time. Building new tracks is a complete waste of time and money. They are useful only for moving the single minded egos of their supporters.

  11. Submitted by Sheldon Gitis on 04/20/2015 - 05:42 pm.

    It’s not about transportation or economic development or any other public benefit; it’s about vested interests getting and spending as much as they can. The asinine concrete project initially called The Central Corridor Project and later labeled the “Green” Line, was a $100M road construction project that a group of vested interests turned into a billion-dollar LRT line. Vested interests in banking, insurance and government have been forming coalitions to get money for road construction projects, like the Hwy 55 road construction project in Minneapolis and the University Avenue road construction project in St. Paul, since Robert Moses began using the strategy in NYC in the 1930s. In NYC, Moses’ roll came to end in the 1960s, when a project to build an expressway through Manhattan failed. Unfortunately, 50 years later, the Moses modus operandi is alive and well in places like Minneapolis and St. Paul.

  12. Submitted by Rodgers Adams on 04/20/2015 - 06:01 pm.


    This is a lively and valid debate. What is discouraging are the commentators who seem to feel their questions have not already been asked and considered carefully. And those who advocate starting over from scratch on some radically different vision. What is more useful is an acceptance of the fact that transit panning is, for good or bad, already an established process, with projects in place or far along in planning. The serious questions are about how we move on from this point: What future plans need to be modified? What new experiments should be tried or avoided? What better future can be imagined, given the realities of what already exists and what options are politically possible.

  13. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 04/20/2015 - 09:06 pm.

    Getting personal

    Quite a few good points made by several.

    Barely touched upon so far is the distinction between what the area needs to thrive, economically and socially. Let me get personal…

    In my far northwest corner of Minneapolis, there’s no viable public transit, though dozens of buses pass through the neighborhood and there’s a transit “hub” (with zero parking for those who might want to use transit instead of a car) about a mile-and-a-half away that appears to get frequent use by Metro Transit buses. How can this seemingly contradictory situation exist?

    In my case, if I want to go downtown to a Twins game, I can catch a bus a couple blocks away, though the sign simply says “Stop,” with no useful information about which routes stop there or what their schedules might be). If I manage to catch the right bus, I can get to Target Field by making only (?) two transfers to different buses. According to the relevant schedule(s), it will take me 3 hours to get there, including the layovers between buses when I must transfer. Returning home is another 3 hours. If I wanted to shop downtown – I don’t, but let’s just suppose – it would take me even longer, *each way*, starting from a different stop with similarly uninformative signage, and including at least one transfer, to shop at the downtown Macy’s.

    If I’m willing to drive a few miles to Fridley, I can catch the NorthStar train to Target Field for the ball game, but no light rail line is being proposed that would be more convenient (for me) than having no light rail at all. Should the Bottineau light rail line be constructed, I will need to drive nearly as far to the west to make use of it as I have to drive to the east to catch the NorthStar now. At present, then, I can drive to Target Field in less than half an hour, and much the same for downtown shopping, the theater district on Hennepin, or the Guthrie. Taking the bus triples the travel time, at a minimum, that I have to allow for that travel, and light rail is simply not available, nor is it likely to be in the future. That’s simply unacceptable. I’m 70 years old. I like to think I’ll still be a competent driver at age 90, but nothing I read supports that assumption. What are my alternatives, aside from asking relatives to drive me places?

    It’s this situation that has me thinking Karen Sandness has the best handle on what ought to be done, though that’s far from a guarantee that what ought to be done will, in fact, be what’s done. Highway congestion here, which may pale by comparison to L.A., is nonetheless enough to paralyze the roads for a couple hours every morning and afternoon. Mr. Tester opposes rail transit on principle, and I think he’s quite wrong in doing so, but criticism of rail transit that focuses on its inflexibility is not without merit. If you live in the corridor, it’s great. If you don’t, it’s simply someone else’s amenity that your tax dollars are paying for.

    As more than one commentator has mentioned, there’s precious little consultation with the people who might actually use – or not use – ANY sort of new transit mode or system. When Denver was doing the initial planning for their multi-line light rail expansion, their regional governance group (DRCOG – Denver Regional Council Of Governments, usually referrred to as “Dr. Cog”) held *dozens* of widely, repetitively-publicized public meetings in neighborhoods along each of the proposed routes in both the central city and the suburbs. I went to many of them, some as participant, some as observer (at the time I was a planning commissioner for one of the cities through which a new line would pass). I don’t see nearly enough of that happening here. I have no quarrel with the Met Council being appointed rather than elected – too much encouragement for partisan parochialism if Met Council members are elected – but the Met Council, at least from what I’ve seen in my 5+ years here, does a genuinely terrible job of public outreach. It’s a flaw in attitude and execution that makes a whole bunch of other things that need to be done, like truly public, truly effective transit, much more difficult to accomplish.

    • Submitted by Dan Landherr on 04/21/2015 - 10:02 am.

      Your alternative is to move closer to the transit line

      Not a great alternative but it sounds like your home is in a transit dead zone.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/21/2015 - 12:34 pm.

      In London England…

      The Bus stops have little electronic information boards that tell you what buses are arriving and where they’re going, it’s really nice. The routes are also very well organized and of course you also have the subways. I think an organized system also gives you a more compact bus pattern which makes finding a bus a lot easier.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/21/2015 - 09:12 am.

    Bloody obvious as insight

    Don’t be stupid when you install transit systems. Thanks.

    Little Rock? Are you kidding me?

    Obviously transit is transit. If it doesn’t make sense as transit, it’s not going to work as development. Duh. And I hate to tell you this, but as long as transit moves people, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you get development. Amsterdam has an excellent street cars system that moves thousands of people around the city all day. I didn’t see any obvious signs of transit related development along the canals of Amsterdam… that’s not the point.

    Now, it’s true that modern cities that are equipped with efficient transit systems have a variety of economic and cultural advantages over those that do not, but those advantages stem from the fact that people can move around easily, safely, and affordably. I’m not saying there’s no such thing as transit related development, but the cart always follows the horse.

    These bizarre conversations seem to emerge from a society that’s been to automobile centric for too long. We can’t discuss alternatives to cars merely as transportation, we have imagine some OTHER argument, i.e. development, reducing freeway congestion, etc. These arguments obscure the discourse and sometimes promote stupid transit decisions. It’s the “transit” stupid. Other benefits will emerge from having a decent transit system, but only if the transit system is well designed and appropriate for the location.

    No one’s talking about restoring the 500 miles of street cars that used to run from Stillwater to Minnetonka, and that would be silly. The biggest problem we face with out transit planning in America is funding, and the political nature of the funding. How did Little Rock get funding for street cars? Funding crunches force our transit corridors into doable routes rather than the best routes, but that’s not going to change any time soon for a variety of reasons.

    As for “Urban Planners” changing their minds, UPer’s have always been a fickle lot and as an intellectual discipline UPing has yet to rise to the dubious rigor of even psychology or sociology. Locally I’ve come the conclusion that “Urban Planning” is little more than Urban Chauvinism with a little data thrown in now and then. UPer’s were all over Light Rail like a cheap suit until we finally decided to build LR out into a suburb in a serious way. UPer’s were all about moving people until we decided to move people in and out of the city instead just from one part of the city to another. Above ground rail became passe’ when we planned a route close to a wealthy MPLS neighborhood. Build a LR line to move tens of thousands of people in and out of the city and suddenly UPer’s are all about “equity” and “density” and “TRD” and building subways instead of street cars. Yeah, Callaghan doesn’t mention that does he? UPer’s aren’t just losing interest in street cars, they deciding that transit only makes sense if it’s “grade separated”… i.e. a subway. Whatever. You think a subway in Little Rock would be better?

    Near as I can tell nobody really listens to Urban Planners anyways so in some way’s their fads are irrelevant. Meanwhile it looks to me like the routes we’re planning and building makes sense as transit routes, and will be successful. So far our lines have all exceeded ridership projections, and consequently spurred development. Even the Blue Line through the wasteland of Hiawatha has exceeded development projections. If someone suggests we build a streetcar down Minnetonka Blvd I’ll be against it, but the lines currently being proposed make sense. And street cars in MPLS and St. Paul make sense.

  15. Submitted by Mike Worcester on 04/21/2015 - 11:20 am.

    It’s Not Just Street Cars

    Having visited Portland a few times (have family there), I was impressed by their approach. Not always does regional collaboration work well though. Anyone who has taken the I-5 bridge across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver can relate.

  16. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 04/21/2015 - 06:07 pm.

    Headline thesis doesn’t match article content

    This article has a David Levinson feel to it in the editorialized negative generalization about streetcars and reference to a 400 page study which no layperson would just casually come upon and read in its entirety.

    Aside from that, trying to establish this supposed “loss of appeal” by referring to the study (whose obvious flaws in comparing tourist trolleys with modern streetcars, as several others pointed out), a couple news articles (which aren’t actually wholly critical nor written by experts), and some critical coverage on Levinson’s own group blog ( and painting that as some sort of transideological groundswell is, in short, not compelling.

    Levinson is notorious in his vociferous opposition to rail, and in particular streetcars, and many on share his view or are somewhat sympathetic to them, having either studied under him or sharing his libertarian viewpoints and activism.

    On top of that, much of the article itself hedges away from strong assertion in the headline.

    Then, unfortunately and predictably, the comments section is littered with an abundance of pre-thought, non-sequitur nonsense, mostly bashing public transit in general. Too many Americans feel that since they actually move through space in some manner that makes them an expert on mobility, not unlike someone believing they’re a culinary expert because they eat.

    As with most things of substance in life, one needs to examine instances and applications when evaluating issues. Each transportation mode, the systems in which they’re embedded, and the mechanisms which reinforce their place in society have an effect in how people live and even how they think. Witness the inanity of asserting a mode, in general, is ineffective because a specific instance of it doesn’t work well for a specific individual’s specific trip. Or that because one mode/system is dominant in this society (motor vehicles and roads) that somehow other modes shouldn’t even exist. It’s an insult to intelligence to even read such things.

    Streetcars clearly can and do work in plenty of cities in Europe, in Toronto, in Portland, in Boston, in San Francisco, and elsewhere. Whether they are a worthwhile investment in specific cities, on specific routes, and the extent of a system those cities envision and how it connects with the rest of its mobility network is something that needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis. And of course how these projects are funded and the incentive structure created by those funding mechanisms also effects the degree to which a given application of it makes sense.

    Streetcars aren’t “losing appeal” as much as Congress is held by Republicans and thus funding support for mass transit rail might not be as it has been over the past 6 or 7 years with New Starts/Small Starts or TIGER funds. Covering those changes might actually be a useful article instead of trying to dissuade people from support of streetcars based on some loose evidence that somehow the tide has turned against the mode itself as an idea.

  17. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/22/2015 - 09:12 am.

    Street cars work just fine, and in they are better alternative

    Street cars are a better alternative than buses on some routes that have predictably high and consistent ridership. As Willemssen points out street cars are running quite successfully in cities all over the world, as well as in Portland. And there are some places where subways may be a better alternative than streetcars as well, we also very successful subways systems in cities all over the world. Buses also work well. Well duh. Of course a transit mode of any kind will “fail” in some way if it’s stupidly deployed. Street car lines are no different than any other project in that regard. Look at Ayd Mill road in St. Paul.

    The whole point of transit planning is to have the proper mix of transit options for a given metropolitan area. When did anyone other than car potatoes argue for one and only one transit option (i.e. buses)?

    This article targets a straw man when it implies that someone somewhere promoted the idea of building nothing but street car lines. If such a silly person ever existed, the fact that some common sense may be emerging in their minds isn’t an indication that “enthusiasm” for street cars is fading. We simply see that some silly people are maybe not so silly anymore.

  18. Submitted by Bob Sharpe on 04/22/2015 - 09:47 am.


    I think that Toronto, not Portland, is the example to emulate. I was there last year and rode buses, heavy rail and streetcars. Streetcars are more pleasant than buses in Toronto. I don’t know why. They just are.

    This is not a new system. It’s the old system that was never removed and it is the largest streetcar network in North America. It is remarkably efficient and no frills. It is focused on moving people, not economic development. To me that’s the key. It works really well and feels like transit instead of a tourist train. I think that most places that choose to emulate the Toronto system would be successful and have widespread buy in. Here’s what it looks like:

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/22/2015 - 03:05 pm.

      I can explain why streetcars and trains are more pleasant

      than buses.

      They offer a smoother ride, they are less likely to get stuck in traffic, and there are no exhaust fumes leaking into the passenger compartment. I speak from extensive experience in a system that makes use of both.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/23/2015 - 08:39 am.


      As permanent features they just seem to be more predictable and reliable. You know where any given street car is going whereas at a bus stop, you can get on the wrong the bus and end up way in the wrong place. When your visiting an unfamiliar city street cars, subways, and LR are a huge advantage. You can still have buses but you should equip the bust stops with displays like the one’s I saw in London, they tell you what bus is arriving and when, and where that bus is going… in real time, it’s not just a chart or map glued to a board.

  19. Submitted by David Markle on 04/23/2015 - 08:52 am.

    An overview

    John Ferman is correct, I think, in thinking we need a room full of experts to develop better plans. The Met Council has not filled that role, neither as a regional governing body nor as a professional bureaucracy. It may have been an interesting experiment to have a major level of government headed entirely by appointees, but it hasn’t worked. Many, including the Legislative Auditor, have long called for reform.

    The logical next step is to make the Met Council Board of Commissioners an elected body consisting of regional and at-large representatives. Sure, it would bring partisan politics into the mix, but what we now have is nothing more than a clubhouse, most of whose members are apparently political hacks or political contributors. No wonder some counties are trying to work their way around the edges of such a form of regional government.

    How many ordinary citizens can name their Met Council commissioner? Have you ever contacted the Met Council with a concern and gotten so much as an acknowledgement, let alone a meaningful response? An elected council would bring greater accountability, better transparency, and more responsiveness. And it would have justifiably greater authority to take the steps necessary to make a transportation system that does what needs to be done.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/23/2015 - 10:29 am.

      One problem with these discussions…

      Is that they become a magnet for all kinds of related gripes from partisan quarters. Republican’s are anti choo-choo and transit almost by nature, and they by extension they’re launching attacks on the Met Council as well. So when these discussion arise about transit policy you can get these weird alliances between granola liberals who complain about poor density policies, and libertarian/small govmnt republicans who think sprawl is God given right.

      As a planning organization the Met Council does a much better job than elected bodies in other metro areas and a far better job than metro areas with no met council at all. The Met council isn’t perfect, but they have an incredibly difficult task with a lot of built-in hurdles. The experiment with the Met Council haws actually been successful, it’s just that some people don’t like it.

      As for rooms full of experts… the Met Council does more to promote that approach than any elected body. We have currently have elected bodies that seem to be downright allergic to any kind of competent expertise of an any kind.

      I recommend that people go to these open houses and information deals that the our transit planners organize… talk to these people. You’ll find that a lot of thought, research, and intelligent decisions are actually going into this planning, all within the confines of political and economic restrictions.

      It’s funny, we actually start making some really good transit and development decisions around here and all of the sudden everyone wants to get rid of the folks making those decisions, or turn them into political hacks.

  20. Submitted by David Markle on 04/26/2015 - 09:09 am.

    Good decision?

    Sorry, Paul, the Met Council’s decision to run a train down the middle of University Avenue was just about the worst transportation planning decision I’ve ever seen around here. As I’ve said elsewhere, trying to get through to them on that question before they made they made the mistake and spoiled the billion-dollar project was like trying to influence a Masonic Lodge within the Vatican.

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/27/2015 - 08:41 am.

      Yes, good decision…

      “Sorry, Paul, the Met Council’s decision to run a train down the middle of University Avenue was just about the worst transportation planning decision I’ve ever seen around here. ”

      What? 30,000 people a day are riding that stupid decision? Something like $2 billion in transit related development so far? Housing, retail, etc? The line is a success by any objective measure. I’m not saying you have to like it.

  21. Submitted by David Markle on 04/27/2015 - 09:25 am.

    The big picture

    And how many of those Green Line riders would have driven the freeway without it? A train should have been fast enough to entice drivers off the freeway. This one isn’t and won’t. Congestion on I-94 grows, and it still takes a long, long time to go where you need to go via the Green Line. Of course, people ride the Green Line; it’s generally an easier, more pleasant ride than the bus. I ride it over relatively short distances. But it’s a huge, foolish failure as an LRT or as an answer to urban traffic congestion. Mayor Coleman himself admits it was placed on the street to promote development. (And it hasn’t proved very impressive in that respect as well.)

    Getting back to Callaghan’s point, a streetcar line would be well suited to University Avenue. A modern streetcar has ease of boarding and exit comparable to a light rail vehicle, a more pleasant ride than the bus. A streecar line could have run every five minutes. A streetcar line would have had many, many more points of access than the LRT. The cost of making a streetcar line would have been 1/3 that of the Green Line.

    Ideally we should have aimed for, and gotten, both a University Avenue streetcar line and a fast LRT along the freeway with tunnels in downtown areas.

  22. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/27/2015 - 11:08 am.


    You don’t build transit to clear roads. You build transit to move people. The Green Line is moving a lot of people. Traffic congestion is a feature of every modern city regardless of transit. Transit is for the people who use it, not the people who choose not to use it.

    “Ideally we should have aimed for, and gotten, both a University Avenue streetcar line and a fast LRT along the freeway with tunnels in downtown areas.”

    Maybe. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and the Met Council lives in the same world we live in. Doing the possible doesn’t mean your doing it wrong or stupidly.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 04/27/2015 - 04:53 pm.

      Very true

      All large cities have traffic congestion, even Tokyo, which probably has the world’s most comprehensive and usable transit system, made up of buses, subways, surface trains, neighborhood shuttles, and one streetcar line (the others were replaced by subways) and extending far beyond the city limits to locations that are as much as 60 miles out of town (e.g. Tsukuba, a “new town” built in the 1960s around a university and a set of national research institutes). Add to that the taxis. I have a 60-second video of the intersection in front of my hotel in the summer of 2014, and during those 60 seconds, twelve, count ’em, twelve cabs pass through the intersection.

      Before the train to Tsukuba was built, I took a bus out there to visit a friend. It took us fully an hour to reach the Tokyo city limits (which isn’t even the limits of urban-style building patterns), due to the stalled traffic. Taking the train a couple of years later was so much faster and more pleasant.

      I don’t know why anyone drives in Tokyo. But if they do, it’s a choice, not a requirement. When I lived in Portland, I used to listen to people complain about traffic, parking, and gas prices, but I had made the choice, which would have been just as available to many of them, to forego the alleged convenience of driving for freedom from traffic, parking, and gas prices. Here in the Twin Cities, I don’t really have that choice.

  23. Submitted by Lou Rugani on 05/13/2017 - 02:52 pm.

    This Lockstep Libertarian-slanted article is all wet. For starters, San Diego began its streetcar re-revolution in 1981 — twenty years before Portland in 2001.
    And Kenosha was the first 21st-Century American city to rediscover streetcars in June of 2000, ten months before Portland.
    And New Orleans, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto and untold cities around the world had nothing to rediscover, as they’d never quit.

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