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

The proposed lines will be explained to the public at two open-house events later this month.

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.
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

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.

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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:

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  • 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:

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  • 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.