Council committee gives green light to streetcar plan

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September 24, 2013 // UPDATED 2:00 pm - September 24, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
An illustration of a streetcar on East Hennepin.
Sarah McKenzie

The City Council’s Transportation & Public Works Committee has signed off on an advisory committee’s recommendation to build a 3.4-mile streetcar line that would run from Lake Street to 5th Street Northeast, crossing the river on the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.

The recommendation, presented to the committee this morning,  is the result of a long-term study looking at transit improvements along Nicollet and Central avenues — one of the busiest corridors in the city. The advisory committee working on the study also analyzed enhanced bus service along the line.

The line, which would run along Nicollet Avenue, Nicollet Mall and then Hennepin/1st avenues, would have an estimated 9,200 riders during the week, according to the Nicollet-Central Alternatives report.

The capital costs for the line would be $180–$200 million with an estimated annual operating and maintenance cost of $10.6 million.

The City Council voted in late June to approve a financing tool that will help pay for the proposed streetcar line. The tool establishes a Value Capture District that allows the city to tap taxes generated from five parcels along the line. City officials estimate those parcels could generate $6 million in taxes, which would allow the city to issue $60 million in bonds for the streetcar line.

Charleen Zimmer, interim project manager of the Nicollet-Central Transit Alternatives study, said streetcars have shown to do a better job of attracting riders and sparking new development than enhanced buses. Enhanced buses, however, are about a quarter of the cost of a streetcar line.

Peter Wagenius, policy director for Mayor R.T. Rybak, said while several more light-rail transit lines would be ideal to put the region on a “path of sustainable growth,” that’s not going to happen. Streetcars are a cost effective alternative, he said.

“We need more tools in the transit tool box,” he said.

The streetcar proposal has become a point of debate during the mayoral campaign.

Mayoral candidate Cam Winton, who has been an outspoken critic of the proposed streetcar line throughout his campaign, called the locally preferred alternative for Nicollet-Central a “boondoggle of the highest order” when he testified at the hearing this morning.

He noted that the streetcar line would cost about $52.9 million per mile — higher than earlier estimates of around $40 million per mile. He criticized the plan for being more expensive and serving fewer riders than an enhanced bus line. He also suggested the claims about streetcars ability to generate new development in other cities can be attributed to tax-increment financing.

City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward), also a mayoral candidate, offered a different view of streetcars at the committee meeting. She said they will help grow the population and the city’s tax base.

“This day has been long in the coming,” she said. “We need to celebrate how far we’ve come.”

The resolution supporting the streetcar line will now go before the full City Council on Oct. 4.