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Streetcar desire: transit options for Riverview Corridor may not include light rail — but they do include rail

policy advisory committee
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
On Thursday, a policy advisory committee eliminated light rail transit from the list of options.

When it comes to choosing a way to get people from downtown St. Paul to the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport: rail is dead, long live rail.

On Thursday, a policy advisory committee of elected and appointed officials charged with picking a route and a mode of transit for what is dubbed the Riverview Corridor eliminated light rail transit from the list of options, largely due to the opposition of those who feel the construction of another LRT line would be too disruptive, especially in the West 7th Street area of St. Paul.

But to say rail is no longer an option for the 11-mile corridor is a misstatement. Four of the six options for modes and alignments that will be studied by the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority and its consultants between now and December would use what are called modern streetcars: shorter electrified trains that would run amid existing vehicle traffic for much of the route and — critically — not eliminate as much parking in business areas along the way.  

While modern streetcars are not currently used anywhere in the Twin Cities, the mode is used in other parts of the country with some success — and some criticism. It is expensive compared to all other transit modes except light rail, though it’s still considered “attractive” to potential riders who don’t use buses. Because routes often run amid other street traffic, it’s also slower than light rail.

Still, planners say a trip from downtown St. Paul to the Mall of America, which would be at the end of the line, would be nearly as fast as light rail: about 44 minutes if a shorter route over the Highway 5 bridge is used, and 55 minutes if a route through the Ford site and over the Ford Bridge is used.

Either way, a Riverview streetcar would be designed to share existing tracks with the Blue Line LRT once it reaches Minneapolis, and would complete the trip to the airport and the mall on existing tracks.

Different alignments

The four streetcar alignments differ on the route through St. Paul and their connection to the Blue Line. One would travel mostly on W. 7th, cross the Mississippi River on the Hwy. 5 bridge, and then, most likely, tunnel beneath Fort Snelling to a Blue Line connection at the Fort Snelling Station. A variation of that route would use a Canadian Pacific Railway right of way for part of the route.

The two other possible routes for the streetcars would run through the Ford site, over the Ford Parkway Bridge and hook up with the Blue Line at either the 43rd Street or 46th Street stations.

The costs for the Riverview Cooridor options range from $1 billion to $1.2 billion, though rail authority staff warned that those are 2015 dollar estimates. By the time any line is under construction, the project would likely be a half billion dollars more expensive. And while crossing at Hwy. 5 is a shorter route, any savings from that are negated by the costs of a tunnel under Ft. Snelling — something likely to be insisted on by the federal and state entities that manage it. Hoped for funding sources for the project include: half from the federal government and half from Ramsey and Hennepin counties, which would use a recently adopted quarter-cent sales tax increase to fund their portions. 

Of the non-streetcar options, one alignment would use arterial bus rapid transit similar to the current A-Line, which runs from the Rosedale mall to the Blue Line's 46th Street station at a cost of $75 million. According to the planners, that route would attract far-fewer riders than streetcars even though it would be the fastest way to the airport and MOA. The final option is a no-build alternative, which would have the area continue to rely on the No. 54 Metro Transit bus line.

Characteristics of alternatives carried forward
Key Characteristics#1
No-Build (Route 54)
#2
Arterial BRT
#4
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th
#6
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th - Ford Site
#8
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th - CP Spur - Ford Site
#10
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th - CP Spur
River CrossingHwy 5Hwy 5Hwy 5Ford PkwyFord PkwyHwy 5
Length12.4 miles12.4 miles11.7 miles15.7 miles15.8 miles11.9 miles
Number of Stations262620272720
Travel Time (Union Depot-Mall of America)41 min39 min44 min56 min54 min43 min
2040 Daily Ridership
 Total10,70011,10020,40019,00018,40019,600
 Transit-DependentN/A3,2004,6004,4004,2004,500
 New RidersN/A2002,7001,8001,5002,200
Capital Cost (2015$)N/A$75M$1.0B$1.2B$1.2B$1.1B
O&M Cost (2015$)N/A$10M$24M$28M$28M$24M
Cost per RiderN/A$4-$6$10$12-$13$12-$13$10

A long process

Mike Rogers, the project manager from the rail authority, said that while the process — what's known as the Pre-Process Development Study — has taken three years, the committee has made progress. “It may seem we still have a lot of alternatives on the table, we started with 60,” Rogers said. “We’re getting there. This process is wrapping up.”

Some disagreements remain, however, and they will become more obvious as the committee tries to agree on one mode and one alignment in time for public hearings in late fall. The first issue is whether the streetcar is worth the expense for both its construction and operation. If it is, another question will include whether to use the Canadian Pacific spur for part of the route and whether to serve the Ford site or leave that for a later addition. And if the route does goes through Ford, can it tie into the Blue Line in a way that doesn’t make an already awkward interplay of road and rail even worse? 

Peter Wagenius, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges’ transit aide, said the city wants to solve those problems because it has an interest in a high-capacity transit connection between Ford and the city. “We have a lot of people on the west side of the river who recognize that Ford is going to be redeveloped and they understand and appreciate that residents of Minneapolis are better off if the residents at the Ford site can take transit of some sort,” Wagenius said after Thursday’s meeting. “Every 40 people on a transit vehicle is 39 fewer vehicles.”

St. Paul City Council Member Rebecca Noecker said she doubts the group will choose either of the alignments that use the CP tracks near the river because of cost and distance from riders. Yet the possibility is causing anxiety among neighbors. Therefore, Noecker said, why not eliminate them now and save time and anxiety? In the end, the group decided to study all six just in case the alignments that rely more on W. 7th prove unfeasible.

Proposal No. 8
Riverview Corridor Pre-Project Development Study
Proposal No. 8: Modern streetcar from West 7th to Canadian Pacific Spur to the former Ford site.

St. Paul Deputy Mayor Kristin Beckmann said Mayor Chris Coleman prefers one of the alignments through the Ford site. The city is under pressure from neighbors in the Highland Village area to respond to concerns about added traffic, something that makes enhanced transit a necessity.

But planners noted that because no one lives on the site yet, and may not for some years, the project would score worse with the Federal Transit Administration when projects are rated and dollars are distributed. That led Noecker to argue that the final choice  — known as the locally preferred alternative — should not pick between serving Ford or serving the area between W. 7th and the Hwy. 5 bridge around Davern Street that would be bypassed if Ford is chosen. She said she thinks the LPA should include both, even if some future request for funding from the FTA is one or the other.

Business concerns remain

There remain concerns among businesses on W. 7th Street in St. Paul, but Pat Mancini, a restaurant owner who serves on the policy advisory committee, said they are lessening. “I’ve talked to a lot of people in the business community and streetcars are appealing,” he said, “and I hear a lot from the business community how light rail was a negative and this is probably an alternative that is less obtrusive to our businesses.”

But Mancini also said a visit to Kansas City to see its new streetcar line showed him that business support was vital, and he doesn’t see the same support yet in St. Paul.

John Regal, representing the St. Paul Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the group supports the plan as it is moving forward. “For the businesses that we represent, we see this as a workforce development issue...a robust transit infrastructure in St. Paul and East Metro that connects downtown and the Mall of America and the airport is a fundamental need for many of the employers in downtown St. Paul.”

Mancini voted no on the motion to move the six alternatives forward because he said he has unanswered questions about streetcars. Noecker was the other no vote because the six includes two alternatives that depend on the Canadian Pacific tracks.

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Comments (13)

Two nits to pick

The CP Spur does not cost more if we assume that Ramsey County is going to buy the CP Spur in the end, no matter what happens to this project. And we should assume that because it is an ideal bike /walk trail, if nothing else.

The other detail that is confusing to me is that any river crossing going along the West 7th / Highway 5 route would involve the construction of a new bridge next to the existing Highway 5 bridge. I had previously understood that that would not require a tunnel to be built also... but the latest report is a bit confusing. At any rate, a rail option would not use the existing bridge, that much I am pretty sure about.

Trolley Buses

I fail to see why trolley buses were not considered. With the advantages of flexible driving and electrical power from overhead catenaries, no major investments are required, existing buses can probably be adapted, no right-of-way needed other than a buses and turning cars only in right lanes.

Only the no-build option makes any sense to me.

I'll set aside the question of whether one can reliably predict ridership for any of the options 23 years in advance and focus solely on the other numbers. I'll also ignore the related issue of where these riders are supposed to come from and be going to, other than to say all of the options appear to assume a renewed and continuing vitality for downtown St. Paul, a goal that has proved elusive for decades.

What does one get for one's money when comparing these options to no-build? In all but one case (ART), a longer transit time. In two cases, fewer stops, two cases one more stop, and in all but one case (again ART) fewer stops per mile.

Compare, too, the capital cost per new rider for each of the options: ART, $375,000; Hwy. 5 streetcar, $370,370; Ford Parkway streetcar, $666,666: CP Spur - Ford Site, $800,000; CP Spur, $500,000.

While we are provided estimated annual operating and maintenance costs and the projected cost per rider, it appears that the latter is based on total projected ridership rather than the O&M cost per new rider. ART's O&M cost per new rider would appear to be $50,000 per year ($10 million / 200) while Hwy. 5 would be $8,888, Ford Parkway $15,555, CP Spur - Ford Site $18,666, and CP Spur, $10,909. These are not one-time costs. They are annual costs.

For my money, which as a resident of St. Paul it will be, the no-build option makes the most financial sense, followed by ART and Hwy. 5. Frankly, the estimated new ridership numbers alone should doom each of the build options. If build we must, ART is all we must build.

What problem?

What problem is this project supposed to solve? There isn't that much traffic along this corridor. There must be a better way to spend a billion dollars.

Absurd

I ride the 54 bus from St Paul to the airport virtually every time I go on a trip. It works great, runs frequently, and only takes 18 minutes from the Xcel Center to the airport.

Why in the world would we spend millions, if not billions on fixing something that works great? I can guarantee you that not a single person involved with this absurdity is a regular user of the 54 bus.

And we wonder why our taxes keep going up every year.

CP Spur - River Crossing and Downtown

The CP spur is a logical choice for either the Ford or Hwy 5 options. As stated by Mr Lindeke, the spur should not be considered as a marginal cost of the CP spur options. The CP right of way is wide enough for a two track line plus a biking/walking path. There would be much less disruption to streets to construct the infrastructure, and much less disruption to traffic flow from shared use. In essence, a large portion of the line would have the advantage of dedicated right of way...much like a LRT...without the impediments to traffic, parking, and resulting congestion.

One of the major objections to serving the Ford site is the added congestion caused by crossing the river at already congested 46th street. This has been a major source of concern to the residents of that area. .This seems to be the main impediment to serving the Ford site. There is another alternative which was proposed to the project team several months ago, but has not been considered. That is to build a bridge from the south end of the Ford property, from the end of the CP spur, south of 54th st, to join the Blue Line at the VA station. There would be minimal disruption to structures or the environment. Transit time would be shorter, and would eliminate the need to consider a new Hwy 5 bridge and tunnel...and the Ford site would be served.

Another area of concern is that all alternatives use 5th and 6th streets Downtown, from 4 corners to Central Station...an already congested area. Adding streetcars, essentially one LRT type unit, every ten minutes to the mix will require some creative solutions. Very little has been said about this issue.

Transit is About the Future

The Met Council is predicting an additional 824,000 people in the Twin Cities region by 2040. How are we going to support that growth without building the infrastructure to do so? If we don't increase the urban transportation options our only path to growth is sprawl, but where are we going to put more freeways to support that growth? Sprawl leads to more sprawl, and sprawl is expensive but the costs are more hidden to society.

Proper urban transportation is vital to a healthy city and a healthy city is vital to a healthy metro. While our competitor metros are building out their transportation systems we could get left behind. It's time for us to decide if we want to be a growing metro with a healthy economy or a dying metro like the rest of the Midwest.

The Future

So what if the population increases. What's stopping you from increasing the 54 bus frequency or using articulated buses to increase capacity. No need to spend millions on a complete boondoggle.

The Future

Buses get stuck in traffic and delays are common. Normal bus routes have terrible stops. They can be hard to find if you aren't used to the system and they might only have minimal route information.

Rail offers a much more comfortable option and much higher capacity that we will need in the future.

If they wanted to do it right they would have done LRT, but I can settle for a street car.

Follow up

Since my original response, I've given the issue of forecasting more thought. Attempting to project ridership 23 years in advance seems even more problematic to me now.

Why? Technology. Uber and Lyft already have reduced the demand for personal vehicles. We are on the verge of a huge shift in personal transportation, from self-driving vehicles to electrically powered vehicles. What effect will these developments have on the need for mass transit generally and in this corridor in particular? I've read nothing indicating these developments have been considered in this process.

As I mentioned in my original post, this entire corridor is centered on connecting downtown St. Paul to the airport in some fashion. The narrow corridor between those points, bounded by I-35 E and the river, appears to offer little in the way of transit demand, today or in the foreseeable future. The Ford Site already is connected to both downtowns by the existing A-Line, which connects to both the Blue and Green lines. The Ford Site also is connected to downtown St. Paul by Route 54.

Mr. Thompson notes that the Met Council projects growth of 840,000 people in the Twin Cities area by 2040. He does not mention where that growth is expected to occur or how soon. Given St. Paul's historic population, it is unlikely that any significant portion of that growth will occur in this corridor or in any area even indirectly served by it. (Yes, I'm aware of the small surge in St. Paul's population in the past decade or so. That has brought us roughly even with our historical high.) If this is believed to be an integral link to a metro-wide system at some point in the future, then the case for that should be made expressly, not as an implicit assumption underlying such a substantial investment.

St. Paul's continual preoccupation with the fear of being a second-class city should not be overlooked in this debate. If a direct link to the airport is so important to those so afflicted, then let them at least recognize that ART can serve that purpose more than adequately in the age of Uber and Lyft, at least until such time as there is sufficient demand to warrant the construction of a more massive system.

Finally, let me ask, "What is the hurry?" As Mr. Schuman notes, buses can be added or upgraded on Route 54. The same is true of the A-Line. Should it become obvious that additional capacity is required, there will be ample opportunity to provide it with any of the options currently under consideration, as well as any new technologies which may emerge in the interim.

Reply to Mr. Hamilton

"Since my original response, I've given the issue of forecasting more thought. Attempting to project ridership 23 years in advance seems even more problematic to me now."

The Green Line has already surpassed it's 2030 expectations and new development is growing around the line all the time.

"Why? Technology. Uber and Lyft already have reduced the demand for personal vehicles. We are on the verge of a huge shift in personal transportation, from self-driving vehicles to electrically powered vehicles. What effect will these developments have on the need for mass transit generally and in this corridor in particular? I've read nothing indicating these developments have been considered in this process."

Cars will never be as efficient at moving large numbers of people as rail, especially in a dense urban setting.

"Mr. Thompson notes that the Met Council projects growth of 840,000 people in the Twin Cities area by 2040. He does not mention where that growth is expected to occur or how soon. Given St. Paul's historic population, it is unlikely that any significant portion of that growth will occur in this corridor or in any area even indirectly served by it. (Yes, I'm aware of the small surge in St. Paul's population in the past decade or so. That has brought us roughly even with our historical high.) If this is believed to be an integral link to a metro-wide system at some point in the future, then the case for that should be made expressly, not as an implicit assumption underlying such a substantial investment. "

If we don't build proper urban infrastructure you can guarantee the growth won't be in the city. It will be in a corn field 30 miles from downtown and it will bring the negatives of urban sprawl with it (more expensive infrastructure, longer commutes, more traffic, etc.). Cities need urban infrastructure to grow and thrive.

"St. Paul's continual preoccupation with the fear of being a second-class city should not be overlooked in this debate. If a direct link to the airport is so important to those so afflicted, then let them at least recognize that ART can serve that purpose more than adequately in the age of Uber and Lyft, at least until such time as there is sufficient demand to warrant the construction of a more massive system. "

This isn't just about getting to the airport. There are lots of jobs, local businesses, and homes that people need to get to along this route. If all you ever need to do is go straight to the airport than Uber is the best option but there are other needs. Not to mention the development opportunities this corridor offers.

"Finally, let me ask, "What is the hurry?" As Mr. Schuman notes, buses can be added or upgraded on Route 54. The same is true of the A-Line. Should it become obvious that additional capacity is required, there will be ample opportunity to provide it with any of the options currently under consideration, as well as any new technologies which may emerge in the interim."

This isn't going to be finished tomorrow. With planning, design, and construction we are talking a decade until operation. If we wait to build this or don't do it right the first time it is going to cost way more in the future.

Thoughts

Seems to me that Arterial BRT is the best option here, as much as I like the idea of rail transit. If the planners have already caved to concerns about lost parking on W 7th... then making this corridor truly rail focused is dead. I'm not as familiar with the CP spur portion - would it be able to sustain TOD throughout?

As for the Ford site, another line at the existing 46th St crossing doesn't make sense to me, nor does diverting downtown STP travelers up through Highland Park. It would be better to have a 2nd ABRT line running from the airport across the Hwy 5 bridge alongside this one, then through the site up Cleveland (or Cretin?), and on to Roseville. This would provide better service to both downtown and Highland Park users, and advance a better transportation network overall in the city of STP.

Penny wise pound foolish

Alas, the options seem driven more by a focus on minimizing short term disruption rather than the long term impact of creating the best transportation options. The existing bus route works fine for today, that's not what the solve is for. The east metro will remain handicapped without an effective high capacity connection to MSP and the south metro. But hey, let's keep pouring money into the west metro then wonder why that's where the development is.St. Paul deserves better.