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Mayor Rybak sees bright future for Minneapolis streetcars

The transit option likely depends on legislative passage of Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed increase in a regional sales tax.

Mayor R.T. Rybak wasn’t shy about letting visiting Metropolitan Council members know that Minneapolis wants streetcars.

He sees the vehicles as the No. 1 priority for Nicollet Mall. And then some.

“I couldn’t believe my emotions when the head of the Met Council said, ‘Streetcars,’ ” said Rybak.  “We are white-hot focused on this,” he added later in the conversation.

During a City Hall meeting Wednesday, Met Council Chair Susan Haigh had just mentioned streetcars but also said the key to the future of Twin Cities mass transit is Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposed regional sales tax increase approved by the Legislature.

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Dayton has proposed an increase from one-quarter of a cent to half a cent with the revenue dedicated to mass transit. That tax would generate $250 million a year. Without the tax increase, residents will have to learn to love the buses. 

“Its only so often in the history of the city that we have something of this magnitude for creating access to opportunity,” said Met Council Member Gary Cunningham, who called the dedicated tax “a game changer.”

The meeting brought together City Council members, the mayor, staff and Met Council members, representatives from Metro Transit and transit specialists from city staff. The idea was to have a conversation about what people want to see in Minneapolis.

“Streetcars are the best stimulus for economic development around the country,” said Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb. He noted that streetcars are a good way to get around a neighborhood but not as efficient as other options for moving people longer distances.

Streetcars and enhanced buses are the modes of transportation proposed for the 9.2-mille Central Avenue-Nicollet Avenue Corridor. That would run from Central and 41st in northeast Minneapolis, cut over the Mississippi River and head south via Nicollet Mall to 46th in south Minneapolis.

“I believe that a starter streetcar line on Nicollet makes a lot of sense,” Lamb said. “The key question for us is how does the streetcar integrate with the bus system.”

The other key question to consider, according to Haigh, is the economic development that accompanies a new transit line.  She said the experience with the Central Corridor light rail line showed that economic development has to be part of the plan from the start.

“I’ve really been impressed with some of the work going on along the Southwest Light Rail Line,” Haigh said.

“The corridor along Nicollet and Central is going to grow,” said Rybak. “Streetcars grow more development.”

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It all depends on getting the sales tax proposal approved.  “If we don’t have that there is no conversation going forward,” Haigh said.