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.
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 $75 million. According to the planners, that route would attract far-fewer riders than streetcars even though it would be the fastest way to the airport and MOA. The final option is a no-build alternative, which would have the area continue to rely on the No. 54 Metro Transit bus line.
Characteristics of alternatives carried forward
No-Build (Route 54)
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th – Ford Site
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th – CP Spur – Ford Site
Modern Streetcar: W. 7th – CP Spur
|River Crossing||Hwy 5||Hwy 5||Hwy 5||Ford Pkwy||Ford Pkwy||Hwy 5|
|Length||12.4 miles||12.4 miles||11.7 miles||15.7 miles||15.8 miles||11.9 miles|
|Number of Stations||26||26||20||27||27||20|
|Travel Time (Union Depot-Mall of America)||41 min||39 min||44 min||56 min||54 min||43 min|
|2040 Daily Ridership|
|Capital Cost (2015$)||N/A||$75M||$1.0B||$1.2B||$1.2B||$1.1B|
|O&M Cost (2015$)||N/A||$10M||$24M||$28M||$28M||$24M|
|Cost per Rider||N/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.
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.