Voter's Guide: A comparison of mayoral candidates' transportation policies

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October 16, 2013
By: Sarah McKenzie
An illustration of a streetcar on East Hennepin.
Sarah McKenzie

All of the major mayoral candidates agree that Minneapolis needs a strong, comprehensive transportation network to thrive and stay competitive.

How the city accomplishes that, however, is a major point of debate.

The streetcar plan recently endorsed by the City Council has been a point of disagreement in discussions among the candidates. 

Some mayoral candidates are convinced that it will fuel additional economic development in the city, while others view streetcars as expensive toys the city can’t afford.

The 3.4-mile line recently approved by the City Council would run from Lake Street to 5th Street Northeast along Nicollet and then cross the river at the Hennepin Avenue bridge. It would cost between $180 and $220 million. The city has a plan to come up with roughly $60 million for the streetcars and will have to secure funding from other sources to make it a reality. Here are highlights of candidate responses to questions posed by the Journal. They have been edited for length. 

If elected, what would be your top priorities for improving transportation options for people in Minneapolis? 

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Mark Andrew said the city needs a multimodal transportation system with light rail, streetcars and more bicycling infrastructure. 

Andrew said he’s proud of his work to make the Midtown Greenway a reality. 

“That project — which started as a tax base enhancement project — was also a game-changer for biking in Minneapolis and has helped us become known nationally as a great bike city. It also led to unprecedented private investment and economic development, specifically in housing, creating hundreds of millions in new tax base with a minimum of public investment,” he said. 

If elected, he would push for more investments in bicycling infrastructure — particularly in North Minneapolis. He wants to see an east-west greenway that runs from 26th Street North connecting over the river to the 18th Street Greenway in Northeast, and a north-south greenway that connects North Minneapolis to South Minneapolis. 

Former City Council President Jackie Cherryhomes said the city needs a “transit system that works for all its residents.” 

“First, I support the idea of streetcars as part of a longer-term approach, however we must review both the financing package and determine who will run the streetcars,” she said. “I do not believe that Minneapolis should be in the business of running street cars; leave that to Metro Transit.”

As mayor, she would also advocate improved bus service. 

“As it stands, North and Northeast Minneapolis are effectively cut-off from the rest of the city, and from the greater metro area where many jobs are,” she said. “As mayor I will partner with the Metro Transit to determine how we can create safer, more effective services, and I will ask the Met Council to review all routes and ridership information to assess whether there are better ways to serve the community.”

Planning Commissioner Dan Cohen said Mayor R.T. Rybak has stated that 90 percent of the city’s public transit needs have already been set. 

“We can meet the other 10 percent with small, 15 passenger buses,” he said. “Routes will be serviced every five minutes, and they will be neighborhood oriented, unlike the big monster buses that run the major routes at much greater intervals. The advantage here is low emissions, frequency, convenience and much less expense to the city.”

Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine said if elected, he would work to reduce dependence on cars by focusing on public and multimodal transit options. “I’ll focus on increasing connectivity and accessibility and improving existing light rail, bus and bike infrastructure,” he said.

Fine would put a priority on finalizing the Southwest LRT plan, work with the Minneapolis Bicycle Coalition to explore new places for bike lanes and promote awareness about the rules of the road, and evaluate the bus infrastructure. 

“As mayor, I’ll closely watch the Bus Rapid Transit project on Cedar Avenue between Apple Valley and the Mall of America to determine if that same model makes sense for major arteries in Minneapolis,” he said.

City Council Member Betsy Hodges (13th Ward) said “transit is at the center of my vision for a more livable, more equitable Minneapolis.”

Investments in the transit network will make the city greener, reduce dependency on cars and encourage young people and seniors to stay in the city.  

“Transit will connect jobs and educational opportunities to the people who need them, bringing us closer to eliminating the gaps between white people and people of color, between haves and have-nots,” she said. “Densely populated transit corridors will be an engine of economic development, and an efficient way of making Minneapolis more livable for its residents and expanding our tax base.”

While light rail and streetcars are investments that take time, she has also worked with others to improve bus service on critical routes in North Minneapolis to shorten commute times for residents. 

Hodges is a big proponent of rail, too. She said investors are more confident building near rail rather than bus lines because of their permanence. 

As for bike and pedestrian trails, she wants to see them extended to the Upper Mississippi and wants to push for changes to the design of city streets to put bikers and pedestrians on equal footing with motorists. 

City Council Member Don Samuels (5th Ward) wants the city to have a more “interconnected, multimodal transit system.”

“As the only candidate for mayor who serves on the Southwest LRT, Bottineau LRT and Interchange (which will function as our ‘Grand Central Station’) committees, I’ve already been a key part of planning a transit system that will facilitate population growth and a sharing of the tax burden over more people,” he said.  “However, light rail transit for our densely populated areas isn’t enough. In addition to implementation of the Southwest LRT and Bottineau LRT lines for our densely populated areas, we must ensure that our single family neighborhoods are connected to those mass rail transit systems.” 

Samuels advocates using streetcars to connect single-family neighborhoods to mass rail transit systems.

Wind power attorney Cam Winton’s vision for growing the city’s transit system has four key elements. 

He wants to enhance the bus system by installing new heated bus enclosures with digital arrive-time info and payment machines.

As for bikes, he supports striping bike lanes on streets wherever possible and would evaluate cycletracks (bike sidewalks) on a case-by-case basis.

He also supports the city’s current work to improve safety for pedestrians by narrowing crossing points, lengthening cross times and using better signage. 

Winton said he strongly opposes co-location of light rail and freight train traffic in the Kenilworth Corridor for the future Southwest LRT line. He favors running light rail down the Midtown Greenway.  

“We’d have transit where people live rather than through the woods. Some say re-evaluating the route now would be too time-consuming and costly,” Winton said. “In response, I note that our current course of action will lead to no project whatsoever, since either Minneapolis or St. Louis Park will deny the required municipal consent.” 

Business executive Stephanie Woodruff said she would prioritize increasing the capacity of the bus system. 

“Enhancing our current bus system will improve the interconnectedness of our neighborhoods and generate sustainable job-growth at minimal cost. Residents from all parts of our city must have equal access to employment opportunities, which requires equal access to efficient public transportation that connects all neighborhoods to the most economically developed sections of Minneapolis,” Woodruff said. “Better use of our bus system is the most economically sound transit investment we can make in the short-term.”

If elected, she would also advocate for a stronger regional transit-oriented development plan. 

Are you supportive of streetcars on Nicollet and Central, and in coming years, on Washington Avenue and West Broadway? 

Andrew said he supports the proposed streetcar line and believes “it will be a fantastic addition to our city’s infrastructure, tax base and livability.” 

“I’m unsure about it traveling through downtown on the Nicollet Mall, however, and continue to be interested in a pedestrian-only Nicollet Mall and streetcars on an arts and culture-focused Hennepin Avenue,” he said. 

Andrew said he’s even more excited about having a line on West Broadway to Washington. 

“That will bring increased economic development to North Minneapolis and bring the benefits of multimodal transit to every part of our city,” he said. “We should try to find a way to finance both lines together to bring true synergy to transit, jobs and small business growth to the neighborhoods of Minneapolis.”

Cherryhomes said she supports the study of streetcars on Nicollet, but believes Nicollet Mall should be a pedestrian mall. 

“I support the study of street cars for Central, West Broadway and Washington,” she said. “I have reservations about the proposed funding for the Nicollet Mall streetcar and am concerned that full funding for this proposal is not likely given the competing transportation needs at the State of Minnesota.”

Cohen said he views streetcars as “an expensive toy and totally unnecessary to fill any transportation needs.”

He added the only possible justification would be if the line serves as “the wedge that drives the Kmart off the middle of Nicollet and Lake and Nicollet is finally opened up to the south.”

Fine said streetcars are a luxury the city can’t afford. He advocates improving the bus system along the busy Central and Nicollet corridor instead. 

“Proponents of the streetcar cite economic development as an outcome of this new infrastructure but there are many other ways to spur economic development in these neighborhoods that are less expensive and take advantage of local assets already present,” he said. “Improving our bus system to make it easier to access these commercial nodes will help improve economic development.”

Hodges said she remains a “champion for Minneapolis’ future with modern streetcars.”

She believes Nicollet/Central is the best starting line and also supports a West Broadway streetcar line.  

“As I stated above, rail transit in particular — LRT and streetcars — are not only ways to get from place to place but are also huge economic development generators and therefore central to my vision for transit,” she said. 

Samuels said he is supportive of streetcar lines along the Nicollet/Central Corridor, Washington and West Broadway and would also like to see one on the Midtown Greenway, which would connect the Hiawatha and Southwest LRT lines. 

“When the city makes an investment in embedded track, it signals to developers that they can make investments along that corridor knowing there will be long-term access to residents and customers,” he said. 

Winton has been the most outspoken critic of the streetcar plan of the mayoral candidates and called it a “wasteful boondoggle.” 

“Streetcar proponents are well-intentioned but, respectfully, mistaken,” Winton said. “They believe that a streetcar line would both move people and catalyze economic development, but those economic development claims are unproven at best.” 

Instead, Winton would push for enhancements to the bus system — $2 million per mile. 

Woodruff said a streetcar plan should fit into a “broader regional transportation plan” and have a sustainable funding plan.

“The current streetcar plans do not meet these criteria,” she said. “We can achieve maximum return-on-investment by first enhancing the bus system that we currently operate. Then, as part of a comprehensive, regional development plan that is constructed in a clear and transparent way, incorporate the use of streetcars, which I would support.”