Putting the pedal to the metal on plans for streetcars

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A few weeks ago I wrote a column about the transit revolution that is going on in the Twin Cities, but I failed to mention the current proposals that are being floated for the reintroduction of streetcars in St. Paul.

The last time a streetcar graced the streets of the city was 50 years ago. It was 1953 and the automobile was all the craze. Cities across the country, including Minneapolis and St. Paul, tore out the streetcar lines that had carried people all across the city for decades. Now, as more people move back into urban areas and the need for mass transit grows, St. Paul has begun the planning process and identified seven corridors that will be the city’s long-term streetcar plan. The current study will identify two of these corridors as starter lines as part of the larger streetcar network.

The tentative plan is that all streetcars will begin in downtown St. Paul; the specific alignment will be determined later. There are seven streetcar lines: one line going north on Rice Avenue; one along Payne Avenue; one on East 7th Street, serving St. Paul’s Eastside; one heading south on Robert Street; a West 7th line traveling towards the airport; one on Selby Avenue that would turn north on Snelling Avenue and terminate at Hamline University; and one along Grand Avenue through Macalester’s campus. Obviously, streetcar lines come with a substantial cost. However, no funding sources have been identified.

If I were to choose which two streetcar lines should be chosen, I would select the Selby-Snelling and the Payne Avenue alignments. The Selby-Snelling alignment allows for excellent connectivity between the neighborhoods south of I-94 to downtown and the Snelling Avenue stop on the Green Line. Additionally, the neighborhoods along Selby and Snelling are prime for redevelopment and new urban development, especially in a neighborhood like Cathedral Hill.

I don’t believe that Grand Avenue should be selected as an initial alignment for several reasons. While I would love to see a streetcar bisect campus, the high cost and implementation of streetcar service should first be provided to neighborhoods that most need access to transportation. The neighborhoods along Grand Avenue are some of the richest in St. Paul, and transportation access is often not a worry for its residents. Additionally, this area has excellent bus service.

The West 7th alignment will probably not be chosen because Metro Transit is currently in the process of studying West 7th for urban arterial bus rapid transit (BRT), fancier bus service that includes permanent stations similar to light rail transit. This project will be similar to the Snelling Avenue BRT, also known as the A-line, that is due to open in 2015. Therefore, it is probably likely that St. Paul would wait for Metro Transit to finalize its plans for this corridor before moving forward with a streetcar line.

The same holds true for Robert Street, as metro planners are currently examining the area for future LRT or BRT service. It also is a similar case along East 7th where Metro Transit officials in partnership with the City of St. Paul are studying the Gateway Corridor, a potential future lightrail line connecting the eastern suburbs and parts of Wisconsin to St. Paul.

The Payne Alignment should also be selected, as this would help increase transit access to the primarily underserved St. Paul Eastside. This would help continue to spur development in the historic Swede Hollow neighborhood and improve the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods.

Rice Street is still a very strong candidate, especially for the potential north-south connection that St. Paul certainly lacks when it comes to transit lines.

All in all, the planning process St. Paul has embarked on is very promising, and knowing that the potential exists for streetcars to once again travel the streets of St. Paul is exciting. I look forward to more news on this topic and seeing streetcars carry people around town.