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Seven proposed St. Paul streetcar lines: Which one goes first?

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
St. Paul's streets last saw streetcars in the 1950s, but they may get a modern version in coming years, pending the results of a series of studies.

St. Paul’s plan to get streetcars back on track in the capital city keeps rolling along, as a new report narrows the options to seven for proposed lines that would converge on downtown from neighborhoods around the city.

Now, the question is: If the political will and funding come together, which lines should be built first?

City officials and their consultant will spend the rest of the year expanding the study of the seven finalists before winnowing the list to one.

Modern streetscars are electrically powered and run on rails in mixed traffic. The streetcars would be powered by overhead wires.

Of course, these are still relatively early stages of what would be a giant and expensive infrastructure development, likely to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and operate.

City officials and their consultant say it would cost $50 million or more, per mile, to build. By 2018, that figure could be $60 million to $70 million a mile, said city planner Michelle Beaulieu.

So discussions about affordability and ridership numbers and tax districts could go on for years. Who knows if it will really happen?

But that’s what many thought about the Central Corridor light rail line 15 years ago, and now it’s almost ready to open with a price tag estimated at $957 million.

City Council Member Don Bostrom, who notes that he’s one of the few left at City Hall who actually rode the old streetcars that disappeared in the 1950s,  thinks it’s worth the discussion. One of the routes runs up Payne Avenue, into his district.

“There’s no question it would be very expensive, but it sure is worthwhile to be in the mix for something like that.

“Nobody ever thought Phalen Boulevard would be built either. [But it was.] So once it’s out there, there’s a chance to noodle on it a bit and say, ‘If we did this and we did that…’ and then it might have some legs.”

Residents will get a chance to learn more and weigh in on a preferred first line at two public hearings later this month. And there’s an online way to offer an opinion at Open St. Paul.

routes map
Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
Seven St. Paul streetcar routes were selected as finalists for study.

The selected routes to be studied are:

  • East Seventh Street
  • Payne Avenue
  • Rice Street
  • Selby to Snelling avenues
  • Grand Avenue
  • West Seventh Street
  • Robert Street

All got good marks in the new study for ridership potential, land use and development potential.

Some of the lines that didn’t make the cut in the Phase Two study were:

  • Cleveland, due to low amounts of mixed-use development that would likely depress midday and evening ridership.
  • Lexington North, which would rank low in terms of ridership demand, the amount of mixed-use development and development potential.
  • Lexington South, which similar to Lexington North, would also rank low in terms of ridership demand, the amount of mixed-use development, and development potential.
  • Randolph + Ford, which, overall, would not have sufficiently high potential demand.
  • Raymond, which would also not have sufficiently high potential demand.
  • Snelling + Ford, which would have potentially strong demand at its north end near University Avenue and its south end at a redeveloped Ford plant. However, in between, there would be too many areas with only low to moderate ridership demand to sustain the line.
  • Snelling North, which would not have sufficiently high ridership demand. 

The next step

Consultant Geoff Slater, a principal at Nelson Nygaard, the national transportation consulting firm, says the next phase of study will look primarily at ridership and economic development potential along the seven selected routes, to determine which might be built first.

St. Paul produced a video explaining the streetcar plans and the needs for the study.

Ridership potential, based on numbers of people living and working along the routes, was factored into the recent process. Now, better ridership estimates will be calculated. And they’ll determine if major utility lines run under any of the proposed lines.

There’s also more work to be done on costs estimates, because the potential lines have been shortened in some cases. And there may be cost offsets, if some bus lines can be eliminated on some streetcar routes, said Slater, who is working with the city’s Planning and Economic Development Department on the streetcar studies.

Streetcars riders tend to be more local, Slater said, tending to ride within the route to lunch or shopping, rather than commuting or longer-distance trips more common on buses and light rail.

Often, planners think of streetcars as “pedestrian accelerators,” meaning that someone planning a long walk might hop on the streetcar instead, he said.

Slater said there’s also continuing study of funding options.

Streetcar planning is further along in Minneapolis, where the city plans to finance the effort with the help of a “value capture district,” which would redirect property tax payments from some of the buildings along the line.

Slater said Kansas City formed a Transportation Development District with higher property tax and sales tax rates to fund their line, now under construction.

Weighing in

Discussion of the pros and cons of the remaining seven St. Paul options — and which should go to the top of the list — has already begun on the city website. Here’s a sampling:

  • Charlye McMillan: As a Ramsey Hill resident, I believe that the first streetcar line to open should be W. 7th. Grand and Selby each have reliable bus routes and are relatively walkable. By contrast, W. 7th has a lot to offer, but the 54 is very high traffic and ALWAYS packed.
  • Matthew Lang: The Selby-Snelling line traverses neighborhoods that already have some density and can easily accommodate more. We need to grow the population of Saint Paul to increase the tax base in order to pay for the city’s needs while lowering individual rates. Streetcar lines are one policy step in that direction.
  • Mark Wiehe: With the new library and recreation center being built on the corner of Payne & Maryland, a streetcar line would be fantastic to bring St. Paulites of all ages to the Payne Maryland Community Center.
  • Jono Nagel: The North End appears cut-off from the rest of St. Paul and a streetcar would not only help bridge that gap but rejuvenate and beautify Rice Street.
  • Philip Moody: In my opinion Rice street is also in greater need of economic development than all of the other routes. The city in general is in desperate need of good north south transit routes while many of the other routes are East/West options. My thought is that it would actually be great if the line could extend to the new park and ride on Hwy 36 and Rice.
  • Kitty Cahill: None of the above. The bus is already serving these routes. We live downtown and take the bus often to restaurants on W. 7th, E. 7th, and Robert St., Selby Av. (Moscow on the hill, W.A.Frost). Not sure why we’d “reinvent the wheel”… And now we have ‘Nice Ride Bikes’ for servicing these areas as well! If you need to spend money put it into more trash/’butt’ receptacles around the city and provide more than once a week disposal. Often overflowing bins in Kellogg park, popular parks, downtown pubs/eateries and looks pretty ‘ratty’ for out-of-towners coming to enjoy our city on weekends.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 08/08/2013 - 11:29 am.

    St. Paul Streetcars

    If we are going to do this, it should be a historic system (like the San Francisco cable car system) that will draw visitors to St. Paul. The ideal line would run from Union Station down Grand Ave, south on Cleveland to Highland Park, then west across the Ford bridge, connecting to the Hiawatha line and running vintage cars on the Hiawatha tracks to the Mall of America.

    That way you could get tourists visiting the MOA to get on a vintage street car and make St. Paul part of their visit.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 08/08/2013 - 12:13 pm.

    See all those houses for sale

    on Summit Avenue? Even the rich people can’t afford Saint Paul’s property taxes anymore.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/08/2013 - 12:38 pm.

      Summit Taxes

      Well, you can thank former governor Pawlenty for that one. He shifted the tax burden down to property taxes, all the while claiming he wasn’t raising taxes.

    • Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 08/08/2013 - 12:40 pm.

      Ramsey County property taxes = average

      Ramsey County property taxes are 1.20% of home value and 3.48% of income. These are very close to the national averages of 1.14% and 3.25%, respectively. They’re also considerably lower than rates in Wisconsin, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and generally below Iowa.

      http://taxfoundation.org/sites/taxfoundation.org/files/docs/proptax10_income_0.pdf

    • Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 08/08/2013 - 12:55 pm.

      “Rich people” pay lower property taxes than normal people

      The most expensive home for sale in Minnesota is in Orono. The tax rate on my ordinary home is 59% higher than on that structure.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/08/2013 - 04:25 pm.

      Stop the Press!

      You mean you guys used real data to counter a sound bite? You know that’s very unfair of you.

  3. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/08/2013 - 05:26 pm.

    Tough Call

    Normally, Highland Park goes first, and the East Side get the left overs, if any. But without the heart of Highland being served directly, business as usual can’t apply in this situation.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 08/08/2013 - 06:03 pm.

    Excuse me, but

    what’s that grey hole that all of the proposed lines feed into? $50 million a mile times X miles is a heck of al ot of money to spend to bring people downtown. Where are they going to go, Union Depot?

    • Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 08/08/2013 - 09:15 pm.

      The “grey hole” is the most dense job center in Minnesota

      69,000 jobs per square mile.

      It’s also the transit hub for the the East Metro, home to over 1.1 million people.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 08/08/2013 - 10:18 pm.

      Downtown

      Yeah, Union Depot is the only employer downtown.

      Food for thought: an new urban highway into a downtown will run you $17 – 75 million, depending on just how expensive right of way acquisition will be.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 08/08/2013 - 09:13 pm.

    Speaking of data

    How about some on:

    ADT on these routes
    # transit riders
    Employee origin destination data
    Vehicle ownership

    Those things might help decision makers.

  6. Submitted by John Eidel on 08/09/2013 - 03:22 pm.

    Grand Avenue

    There is an approximately zero percent chance that the NIMBYs on Grand would allow their street to be dismantled for any amount of time while a streetcar line was being installed. Dave Thune wouldn’t even support the opening of a cupcake shop on Grand because of inadequate parking.

  7. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 08/13/2013 - 12:11 pm.

    Streetcars

    Aren’t the tracks from the streetcars in the 50’s still embedded in streets? My guess is that the tracks on Randolph and West 7th are still there.

    More to the point, exactly where is the “grey hole,” .i.e. the demand that is behind this incredibly costly effort. Commercial activity in downtown St. Paul appears to be shrinking (please do correct me if I am wrong). We quibble about teachers’ salaries and the cost of early childhood education and then start throwing around numbers like “$60 million to $70 million” per mile of track . That’s just over $1 billion for 15 miles. What is wrong with the existing bus system?

  8. Submitted by Jay Willemssen on 08/14/2013 - 11:55 am.

    The experience of the existing bus system

    There are two principal ways to understand the quality of a transit system, and in particular its buses.

    The first is to spend time living in cities in which all classes of people use transit regularly. Then one can understand what effective transit is like.

    The second is to consciously eschew using anything other than public transit in one’s daily life for an extended period of time – at least a year. Not having a car or a bike and consciously refusing car rides from others is key. It’s even more instructive to live in areas outside the downtown core or nearby neighborhoods, preferably in a more economically-challenged area.

    A further instructive transit experience is living within easy walking distance (from home and to work) of no-transfer rail transit as a commuter route, versus living in a place that requires the use of the bus involving multiple transfers to get to and from work. Or try living in an area with substantially reduced or non-existent weekend transit, particularly on Sunday. And do this in the Minnesota climate year-round, and be sure to use it at all times of the day.

    Then a person may start to get a feel for what’s wrong with the bus system.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 08/14/2013 - 11:26 pm.

      I’ve been saying that all along

      If I were transit czarina, I would take away the car keys of all Metro Councilors and make them use Metro Transit exclusively.

      The light bulbs would go on in their heads in a big hurry.

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