Picking a Streetcar Fight with the Met Council is the Right Move for Minneapolis

You might have missed it, but an interesting spat is brewing on the Twin Cities’ transit scene. Last month, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously supported funding a streetcar project that would from Central Avenue in Northeast Minneapolis, down Nicollet Mall, and all the way to 46th Street in South Minneapolis. Soon after, the Met Council, who runs the Metro-wide transit system, sent a fascinating open letter to the city.

The letter itself is a masterpiece of “Minnesota Nice” passive-agressiveness. Council Chair Susan Haigh subtly words threats to make them sound inconsequential, and the letter’s complements are softly backhanded. You can read a nice summary from the Pioneer Press here. (Or if you prefer, I annotated it on my website using an advanced “language filter” that translates Minnesota Nice into snarkasticly blunt English.)

The key points:

  1. State transit dollars should only go for “transportation” projects, not “economic development.” The Met Council seems worried that Minneapolis is “jumping the line” of metro area transit projects.
  2. The Met Council wants the city to pay for operating costs if and when they take over running the line.
  3. All transit projects should be going through the Met Council, and at this point, Minneapolis isn’t doing a good job of meeting with, or listening to, the Met Council’s transit people.

Streetcars are Consistently Controversial

A streetcar in Portland. Img. City of Saint Paul.

A fight over streetcars is nothing new. Here on this website, we’ve had plenty of discussions of streetcars, both pros and cons, and many transit fans remain skeptical about whether they’re a good investment.

On the one hand, detractors argue that streetcars are little more than gimmicks, cute but expensive projects that have some sort of svengali-like hold over yuppies (which is why developers like them so much). They’re inflexible, slow, and costly, and the money would be far better spent on buses. On the other hand, streetcar supporters (like myself) argue that they provide advantages beyond illusions of permanence. They’re quiet, spacious, and offer smoother rides. I’ve heard them called “pedestrian accelerators” that catalyze walkable cities while calming traffic.

The debate hinges on exactly how much of a “streetcar boost” we assign to them. Will they increase bus ridership by 50%, 100%, or only marginally? The answer to this question is vague and unresolvable, and it’s why streetcars lie at the crux of this “transportation” vs. “economic development” debate.

For a great summation, see Conrad deFiebre’s (erstwhile transportation and Minnesota 2020 transit thinktank reporter) recent piece on the Minneapolis streetcar debate:

At the risk of picking sides among friends, I’d suggest that the streetcar proponents either make a compelling case for the travel advantages of adding trolleys to the Twin Cities transit system, or else find different ways to pay for them: the value-capture property tax plan already approved by the Minneapolis City Council and/or state and federal funds earmarked for economic development, not transportation.

In other words, a streetcar project shouldn’t get regional or state funding unless it serves a “transportation purpose.” And because it is nearly impossible to show that streetcars are faster or more efficient than buses, and because their ridership gains are difficult to quantify or attribute to traditional criteria (like cost and time), the vast majority of funding for streetcars should come from strictly local sources.


The Case For Minneapolis Streetcars

minneapolis streetcar plan map

Minneapolis’ streetcar plan, fm TransportPolitic.

The problem with deFiebre’s ultimatum is that you can never separate transportation from economic development. Every transit project is an “economic development” project. Every freeway, every light rail stop, every commuter rail, even each bus route changes the economic linkages of the land surrounding it.

For example, you cannot possible justify the three Bloomington LRT stops along the Hiawatha line, or the “red line” BRT without including future plans to spur economic development. Likewise, both the Bottineau and the Southwest routes bypass Minneapolis’ already-existing density in favor of promoting “transit-oriented development” in the Wal-Mart laden suburbs.

While the Met Council does pay a great deal of attention to “local interest” when sorting out the prioritization queue for transit projects, judging by recent investments, their priority seems to be the Sisyphean task of getting suburban drivers out of their cars. Apart from the Central Corridor, almost none of their recent investments have focused on improving transit within the core cities.

David nicely summed up the two sides of this transit investment coin in a recent piece on transit and density:

In life, there are two basic strategies: Prop up the weak or reward the strong.

In transit, there are two investment strategies: invest in areas with poor ridership to increase it, or invest in areas with decent ridership to make it even better.

Similarly, we can add services in areas which are already built up, or we can add services in places in advance of development, because of speculative “economic development”.

David was talking about focusing transit investments using buses, but in many ways, the situation here is the same. Like it or not, promoting transit ridership in the most of the sprawling Twin Cities’ suburbia is a lost cause. Rather, focusing on the places that already promote mixed-use and density provides far more bang for the buck.

This inconvenient truth means that the majority of transit investment should focus on the core cities and a few inner-ring suburbs, something that the Met Council is loathe to do for political reasons. From this perspective, Minneapolis shouldn’t sit on its hands, and wait around for the Met Council to get around to investing along key commercial corridors like Nicollet and Central Avenues. From this perspective, they need to be as aggressive as possible, and step out in front of the Met council’s sluggish pace, demading transit investment in the few places where it’ll do the most good.


Why Minneapolis’ Streetcar Plan Might Be a Problem

222 Hennepin, one of the properties that would be in the “value capture district.”

That said, the Minneapolis plan is far from perfect. Even aside from the usual questions about whether streetcars are good transit investements, Minneapolis’ use of a pioneering “value capture” plan to tentatively fund the project comes with a few qualms.

First, there’s the issue of using TIF-like scheme to pay for an investment. Typically, TIF money requires that a project pass a so-called “but for” test. (I.e., “but for” our streetcar project, this development would never have occurred.) This project very explicltly uses projects already underway and “captures” their added taxable land value to pay for its capital costs. No matter how you feel about TIF funding (and many people are against the idea), it seems disingenous.

The second problem is about the regional consequences of using this kind of funding stream. If Minneapolis builds a streetcar using value-caputure TIF money, it’ll set a precedent for any other city that follows in its foosteps. In other words, rather than streetcars being funded through the typical state and local balancing act,

Saint Paul’s proposed streetcar planning map.

Mostly this would affect Saint Paul, which just released its ideal streetcar plan. But down the road, any other city wanting to build a streetcar line would likely have to use similar TIF-based accounting trickery to fund it. And few cities besides Minneapolis are likely to do so. As one transit planner told me the other day, Minneapolis’ plan will mean that “the rich get richer…”, and lead to increasing inequality in the Metro area.

In the end, despite the dubious funding stream, I think Minneapolis is right to squeeze the Met Council’s shoes on transit priorities. To me, the Met Council argument that streetcars are for development, while light rail is about transportation doesn’t hold much water. The real difference is that streetcars are intended to promote core-city urban development while light rail is intended to promote suburban development. Neither of these is a sure thing, but down the road, I have a lot more confidence in Nicollet Avenue’s ability to promote growth around high-quality transit than I do for some parking lot in Robbinsdale or Eden Prairie.

At the very least, watching this funding stream pissing contest for the next few years should be fun…


25 thoughts on “Picking a Streetcar Fight with the Met Council is the Right Move for Minneapolis

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I agree with you to the extent that every transit project is an economic development project. So too are road projects, including freeways. I do not agree that streetcars (or rail in general) are the only path to economic development. I think we could serve far more people and grow far more communities with meaningful investments in BRT. (For the record, I do not consider the Red Line to be one such meaningful investment.)

    Does the Met Council’s opinion matter in a substantive sense to the future of this project? It will involve Hennepin County roads and an extensive section on a trunk highway — are those agencies likely to be less cooperative with Minneapolis without Met Council’s blessing?

  2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Good post, Bill. I’d be more comfortable with a financing scheme that grabs the additional density that streetcar lines require. To use your “but for” argument, you could say without a streetcar Nicollet and Central would support densities of just 2 to 4 stories, but with a streetcar suddenly 8 to 15 stories makes sense. In other words, the taxes from the additional density could be used to pay for the streetcar (just like the additional tax revenue from a truck stop at an interchange should be used to pay for said interchange).

    The Pearl District streetcar (and by no means all other streetcars) provide an example of this, and indeed properties adjacent to the line paid a share of its cost in return for increased FAR. The use of TIF for just five properties along the line in Minneapolis is creative but I’d hate to see the city miss this chance to significantly upzone land along any section of streetcar that is built.

  3. Jeremy Bergerson

    Given the Twin Cities’ density problem (lack thereof), it’s understandable that transit would be seen through the lens of TOD. I applaud the developments that have arisen because of it.

    However, as someone who just moved back here from SF and Chicago and who doesn’t own a car, I want rail-based transit so that I can get around town without driving an evil car! Isn’t that what all this is for: providing citizens with realistic transportation?

    The fewer cars on the road, the better. That is what transit is for.

  4. Cameron ConwayCameron

    What I don’t understand is why every streetcar line has to be on street level. Why is removing a few lanes of traffic so incredibly politically verboten? I think the Nicollet streetcar would infinitely more effective if it was ran as two grade separated lines on First and Blaisdell, or maybe run in tandem on one or the other. I don’t think grade separation has to be tunnels, high lines or along freight right of way and I also don’t think that removing a few lanes of traffic for truly stellar transit has to be off the table.

    BRT isn’t BRT while it’s with mixed traffic. Express buses are certainly a great option.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Yes the aBRT Metro Transit has in mind is “BRT-light”. It generally runs in mixed traffic. Then again, so would streetcars.

      As to whether this is really a problem depends on the line. The 16 on University Ave obviously could not function well as a BRT line (hence getting light rail instead). But in my experience with the 18 and 5 (two lines identified as possible candidates for aBRT), neither really gets caught in traffic very often, especially outside of downtown. The inefficiency comes not from congested traffic, but from a cumbersome boarding process and too-frequent stops. aBRT seeks to address those issues.

      1. Cameron ConwayCameron

        What I worry about is the fact that traffic is variable and the Twin City’s transit network isn’t quite good enough yet to the point where new dense development will be traffic-neutral. Folks are still going to use cars for most trips outside of that one convenient transit trips. This is why I see at grade BRT as not being a terribly reliable long term transit solution, especially in narrow corridors like Nicollet in Whittier. As that area develops, I see it getting pretty congested pretty fast without high speed transit connections to the rest of the city.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          That’s an interesting point, Cameron — that Transit-Oriented Development is likely also to be Auto-Oriented Development, for the foreseeable future. Still, I think there are ways to get around this, like having closures where only buses and nonmotorized can get through (this has been discussed for when Nicollet is re-opened at Lake Street). Thus you divert any through auto traffic to 1st/Blaisdell or 35W.

          1. Cameron ConwayCameron

            Politics aside, I think a fantastic solution would be to make the entirety of Nicollet from Downtown to Lake be only open to non-motorized traffic, with the exception of parking cars. 3rd Ave in Downtown Seattle is only open to bikes and transit most of the day, with the exception of cars travelling a block or less (they must turn left or right at any intersections). Implementing this kind of solution on Nicollet would result in a pseudo-grade separated BRT, in the sense that competing traffic would only consist of parking cars and bikes. It also wouldn’t limit on street parking on Nicollet. The one downside (outside from the complete political infeasibility of this) would be businesses wouldn’t get drive-by business, as thru traffic would be limited to 1st and Blaisdell.

            Regardless, in the real world, I do think a bus only connection through the Nicollet bridge to Lake would be great 🙂

  5. Brendon SlotterbackBrendon Slotterback

    Regardless of your position on streetcars, I don’t think you can argue that Minneapolis is “waiting” for Met Council to act. The Arterial BRT study was published in early 2012. It explicitly mentions Nicollet, saying it won’t be a candidate for aBRT because Minneapolis wanted to study streetcars, even though it is a very strong candidate for improvements. Snelling aBRT in St. Paul will be done in 2015. When will the streetcar be completed?

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Well-put, Brendon. The streetcar planning is slowing down improvements on Nicollet, and even in its final proposed stages won’t cover nearly as much of Nicollet (downtown to 46th versus downtown to American Blvd/79th). In talking to engineers from Richfield and Minneapolis, they say they don’t realistically expect it to go past Lake Street anytime in the foreseeable future.

      Hopefully that leaves enough of the high-ridership area that MTC is still interested in aBRT for the southern area.

    2. David

      Right on. The Met Council is our regional planning body and they *should* have a large say in what happens. Otherwise, why have a regional planning body?

      I have no problem with cities funding transit but streetcars seem like a waste of valuable transit dollars. aBRT would serve much longer corridors, bringing benefits to more people. Both aBRT and streetcars operate in mixed traffic so there should be little or no difference in travel time.

      I understand some of the other benefits of streetcars like ride quality but I don’t think it’s worth the cost. The only exception *might* be the Greenway or other existing grade-separated corridors where we really don’t want buses to run. Even then, though, you have to show me why it’s better than a bus on Lake.

      1. Cameron ConwayCameron

        I agree with this. Honestly, aBRT would probably have much better times considering the high turnover street parking on Nicollet. Streetcars can’t use the turning lane to get around terribly parallel parkers. Are 1st and Blaisdell not being considered at all for streetcars or aBRT? It seems like those corridors are infinitely less congested.

        A greenway streetcar would be 10-15 mins from W Lake station to E Lake station, rather than 27 on a bus. If we can get doubletracking, it really won’t be terribly different from a subway with frequent stops 🙂 Just wish there were more large employment centers along that corridor…

  6. Rick Gustafson

    The debate in Minneapolis over streetcars is similar to the one that existed in Portland in the late ’90’s when the City of Portland proceeded to develop a streetcar using it as a major development tool in its Central City Plan.

    The streetcar in Portland was part of a comprehensive effort by the City to enable mixed use, higher density development to occur in Portland. The results have been amazing. More than 10,000 new residential units have been built along the line (within 750 feet). The projects along the line are being built at 3 times the density they were being built before. Ridership has grown from 4,000 per day when we started in 2001 to 12,000 per day in 2012-13.

    The regional transit agency, TriMet, has now recognized the value of partnering with the streetcar. In 2012, a new agreement has been struck between the City of Portland and TriMet to create the partnership for new transit developments. The City is responsible for development and TriMet is responsible for mobility. The City identifies transit projects and provides the capital with the emphasis on development. TriMet partners with the City with no capital and 50% of the operating. As the line matures and develops, TriMet assumes more of the operating cost up to 85%. Our first line is nearly mature having met all targets. Isn’t it exciting to think that we can get development and mobility to work together.

    Seattle has done the same thing with a 1.3 mile line in South Lake Union. The City provided the line and Metro King County operates the mobility service. Amazon.com has committed to develop 3 million square feet for its headquarters to be on the streetcar line. A great success story.

    Developing mixed use is essential for the future of our cities and our planet. Establishing walkable urban communities are a desire in every urban area of the US. They are difficult to do. Mobility experts have let speed dominate their values for mobility. You don’t speed if what you need is close by. In a good mixed use community, 25% of all your trips can be satisfied by walking. When you add a streetcar as a “walk extender” you can satisfy 50% of all your trips by walking and transit. You don’t need to travel long distances if what you need is located close by.

    1. Alex

      The problem with using economic development as the primary rationale for streetcars is that you can never solidly tie a particular development to the existence of a particular piece of infrastructure. Here in Minneapolis, most agree that any development that’s occurred along Hiawatha is likely due to the LRT, since that neighborhood was previously quite moribund. But the far more “TOD” has occurred in Downtown Minneapolis along the Riverfront, the ties of which to LRT are much more tenuous. Similarly, your stats about all the development that happened in Downtown Portland since the streetcar opened would be much more convincing if they were from, say, the 1990s, rather than the 2000s, a decade in which downtowns all over the country experienced growth, streetcar or not.

      1. Ian Bicking

        I think there is even an argument that Hiawatha development hasn’t been entirely due to the LRT. There’s been a lot of regulatory, and I believe monetary, city support for projects in that area. You might say that support was itself due to the LRT, and in a sense that would be correct… but it’s not really a fair comparison. LRT is a big political bet, and it is one in politicians are obliged to follow up on. It does focus attention.

  7. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    At least so far in the streetcar conversation in St Paul, we’ve received assurances that aBRT and streetcar can co-exist on West 7th Street (though some voices are still skeptical about that possibility).

    Rick’s comment really put the strengths nicely. It’s difficult to justify streetcar investments using traditional transportation planning criteria (cost + speed + ridership). But when we start thinking more holistically about transportation as a lived experience, how it sounds, moves, looks, and relates to the sidewalk … Streetcars simply a very different thing than buses.

    This all may sound rather vague, but there are good reasons why streetcars have been so effective at changing the built environment in other cities. They transform the street in ways that escape our easy analytical formulas. Nicollet and Central Avenues will not be the same if a streetcar is built. They will both be vastly more walkable and pedestrian-oriented, and given the right land use decisions, will greatly accelerate the transition to the kind of dense, more sustainable city most of us want to create.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

      Rick and Bill,

      Good points. It is interesting to hear how Portland and Seattle function.

      A very important metric is boardings per mile and new riders per mile. I suspect Seattle and Portland’s streetcars to well with these metrics in comparison to say, Tampa.

      I’m very convinced the notion of “walk extender” is a key to how we should think about a streetcar system, and why we shouldn’t build a nine-mile line from 46th and Nicollet to Central and Lowry, but rather Lake and Nicollet to Central and University, with allowable density three times what it is today, as Rick notes. I doubt neighborhoods near 46th and Nicollet or Central Av really are ready for the density streetcar neighborhoods need to attract riders.

      The imperative isn’t about increasing the speed from end to end but improving the urbanism of the entire area along the line, so keep the lines short and serve truly walkable urbanism.

      The city should move forward with the Nicollet streetcar but should increase the amount and quality of density along the route.

      1. Greg

        Nicolette Avenue below Lake Street is certainly ready for denser development with lots of parking lots in the corridor. Lyndale and Kingfield neighborhoods Already have many multiunit apartment similar to Whittier just to the north of Lake Street.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Do we have evidence that well-done aBRT (or true BRT) systems don’t provide many of the same development and experience benefits? Latin America has certainly proved BRT in dedicated lanes can really help increase development intensity. This report focuses on 2 cities in the US, Ottawa, and Brisbane (all what I would consider carrying American development patterns and transportation preferences): http://www.crcog.org/publications/TransportationDocs/NBHBusway/2010/BRT-TOD-Report.pdf

      I completely agree that streetcars carry that unquantifiable factor that makes them more desirable (although Mike Hicks’ post takes a great first step to identifying some of it). To Sam’s point, we need to define what this corridor is attempting to do: provide rapid mobility from any point along the line to any other point (along with connections to other fairly rapid lines like Blue/Green), or be a walk extender meant to make short trips a quicker and more enjoyable. In my mind, the former has the potential to densify nodes while the latter seems to lend itself to continuous stretches of denser development.

      Both the bus streetcar as proposed have the same stop spacings and (hopefully..) off-board experiences. So to me the question is: is the extra bit of desirability (from a development and ridership perspective) for this one corridor, which is admittedly very high-value, worth the tradeoff vs. doing buses for 4x the number of valuable corridors? I guess I have no idea..

  8. Ian Bicking

    Does anyone have figures on how MTA funding and expenses actually works out according to region? That is, how much does Minneapolis contribute, how much do the lines in various parts of the region cost, and what per-passenger costs look like for different lines? I suppose operational and capital costs would look pretty different.

    Are there bus lines that cover their expenses with fares? If all the suburbs opted out of the MTA what would the result look like?

  9. Alex

    I wish this debate were not framed as enhanced bus (I prefer this term to aBRT) vs. streetcars. I think we all can agree that whatever the differences between the two, they can share the same station infrastructure. I think we also can agree that more enhanced bus can be built sooner than streetcars. So why not agree to build enhanced bus now and than streetcars in a later phase on the most successful corridors? Are we really at risk of Minneapolis & St Paul becoming a Detroit Donut without streetcars? I guess I just don’t see what is lost by waiting on streetcars till the enhanced bus is built out, or nearly so.

  10. Nathan

    It’s interesting that the city is pushing so hard for a streetcar to promote development while there seems to be little to no discussion of any other way to promote development- such as facilitating the development process. The Dinkytown project that just was (barely) approved is a great example. What’s the point of the streetcar if it’s still hard to get projects off the ground in Minneapolis? Where’s the discussion of relaxing zoning and facilitating the permitting process?

    It’s also unfortunate the so much of the streetcar discussion uses Portland or Seattle as analogs for Minneapolis. There’s quite a gap between our city and those places: for starters, a massive in-migration from around the country that would have driven growth in those cities regardless of whether or not they had built streetcars. If those cities are used in this discussion, let’s talk about Denver. It managed to gain thousands of downtown and center city residents and develop a great district just like Portland’s Pearl District without a streetcar.

    1. Nick MagrinoNick Magrino

      There’s definitely a perception that it’s hard to get much done in Minneapolis–but is it true? There’s over a billion dollars (thousands of units worth!) in private sector development going on right now in the city. We did win Dinkytown. Other than the project on Colfax this year and Linden Corner a little further back, when’s the last time something got shot down? When they made Mosaic shave some floors off?

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        Beyond if it eventually gets shot down, how profitable is it? The Colfax proposal went through a design review and shaved off floors and re-addressed the street and still got shot down. I think my question is… how much development COULD we be seeing with relaxed zoning rules and reduced/dropped minimum parking reqs?

      2. Ian Bicking

        Note that while “we” “won” Dinkytown (who is “we”, who “won”? – but I am being incredibly pedantic) that is hardly a big win. There is explicit and even encoded support for this kind of development in Dinkytown. The Council said, very explicitly, that they want this kind of development in Dinkytown. Process is process, so I don’t think we should read too much into the fight over it despite it being entirely in line with stated plans. But the Dinkytown development isn’t contradictory with a sense that development happens in defined areas and is bureaucratically discouraged in other areas. Where’s the next big building going up in Linden Hills? Where are the landlords converting appropriate properties into three-plexes? Where is there any *small* dense development? Intense development only appears to be viable at a large scale, I don’t see any dense in-fill. There’s specific city programs just to figure out how to rebuild the small lots when the existing buildings get torn down. Given a lot that has had a house on it, why can’t we just let people build houses on those lots? But our broad and restrictive regulations make rebuilding even the *existing* housing stock impossible. New duplexes have to be built on double lots. In a block full of two-family houses you can’t build a two-family house. I don’t think the zoning designation even exists to allow our historical medium-density development.

        It’s all big development because of the high the legal and political investment to build densely. Dealing with the bureaucracy is too much for a couple units, you need at least a dozen. So yes, we have development. But I think we could have a lot more without those restrictions. Not just more of the same kind of development as what we have now. There just aren’t lots of large lots coming free, this kind of development is supply-constrained. But there’s so much more development that could be happening.

Comments are closed.