Saint Paul Hits the Streetcar Sweetspot


Streetcar in Tacoma, the “St Paul of the West”.

Saint Paul is planning to build a streetcar! This week the city announced its plans for its first “starter line”, which would run down East 7th Street from Arcade, somehow get through downtown Saint Paul (route unspecified), and end up on West 7th all the way to Randolph. It’s approximately 4 miles long, would cost approximately $250M ($60M/mile) and is projected to spur $140M in development (though I believe that’s a low estimate) while improving transit and walkabilty in downtown and two important neighborhoods.

I’ve been lucky enough to be part of Saint Paul’s streetcar planning process through my role on the city’s Transportation Committee, and it’s been interesting to watch the process go through its planning stages. Though they can be quite controversial, I’m on the record as supporting streetcars because of the many ways they increase ride quality, and because they can be a “game changer” for how a street is experienced at the street level. I also believe they can be a powerful economic development tool in places that sorely need it, and (particularly in Saint Paul) can begin bridging physical and economic gaps in our city. (The mile long East 7th Street “bataan death march” from Superamerica past Red’s Savoy to Metro State being one of the worst of these…)

Streetcar Planning is Inevitably Messy

A researcher dressed in a panda costume puts a panda cub into a box before its physical examination at the Hetaoping Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Sichuan province

A streetcar planner in DC.

With that out of the way, it’s time to be frank. Like most planning processes, streetcar planning is messy. This is particularly true with streetcars, which rely on almost unquantifiable assumptions about promoting investment, attracting riders, and changing  travel behavior. In Saint Paul, streetcar plans have gone through three stages, beginning with the consulting firm and city staff looking at all the city’s old streetcar lines. Next, they gradually eliminated lines using weighted estimates like land use, density, equity, ridership, and economic development opportunity. The second stage identified a “starter network” of seven good candidates, and this final stage picked one (or two or three) to be the initial lines.

Picking the first line is a delicate balance. In a way, though I think all of the seven starter lines would be good investments, finding a the right streetcar street for your first line reminds me of trying to get pandas to mate. Funding sources and neighborhood politics are both very picky creatures, and you need to have just the right conditions in order to get them to work together.


the streetcar equation


#1) Development Potential v. Existing Development


The necessarily fuzzy ratings.

One of the plan’s more elaborate predictions is for economic development potential along the city’s different lines. The city planners examined existing property values against potential infill property values, and calculated the difference using a scale weighted to land use type. (Yes, it’s as complicated as it sounds.) Basically, you’re quantifying of what the undeveloped in-between places might be if they were developed “up” to the levels of the highest value land along the route. This kind of approach privileges routes with large “gaps” between nodes of activity, while dampening the potential of places that are either already economically vibrant (e.g. Grand Avenue) or almost entirely economically depressed (e.g. Rice Street).

Streetcars depend on both ridership and spurring development, which means you have to strike a delicate balance between these factors. You have to make fuzzy predictions and, like Goldilocks, find a “sweetspot.” You don’t want your new line to be empty (like Tampa’s), but you also don’t want it to just serve buildings that already exist. It’s quite the delicate balance, and both 7th Street routes offer a lot of potential on that front.


#2) Political Uncertainty + Funding Limitations


Segment length limited by the $250M federal spending cap.

The other part of the analysis is even more difficult. On one level, funding sources limit the scope of potential streetcar lines. For example, in order to quality for Federal “small starts” money, the total project has to be under $250M.

That means you can’t extend the streetcar all across the city (e.g. run it all the way down to the airport). You have to keep the line short, a few miles in each direction from downtown, which means you need to find neighborhoods close enough to the center that meed the above Panda-esque criteria.

The second big variable is how the proposal will play with different political interests. Will neighbors approve of the streetcar construction period? Will they approve more density along the line? Will developers be willing to build in these “gap” areas? Can you find local government funding sources to match the Federal investments?

(Don’t look at me. These are questions best answered in the dark nooks of small bars.)

The Music of Planning

In a recent blog about Jeff Speck’s Walkable City, fellow’er Alex Bauman wrote:

The great tragedy of urban planning is that its practitioners, constantly challenged by their arch nemeses the civil engineers, feel compelled to discuss it as though it were a science. Confusion here is understandable, both because it’s common practice in the radically libertarian United States to consign all planning tasks to the engineering office (or alternately in the radically corporatist United States to the economic development office), and because, as a bureaucratic practice, planning comes with a plethora of codes, ordinances, regulations, and complicated maps.

Planning is not a science anymore than music, with its galaxy of modes, notations, and technologies, is a science. Just like there is no one song for every situation (well, maybe MacArthur Park), there is no one planning technique for every situation. Even worse, there is no one set of proscriptions that apply to a given set of conditions. In other words, urban planning doesn’t have an instruction manual, it can’t have an instruction manual, it can only be done well by someone with an eye who takes time to know a subject location intimately.

As a mediocre jazz musician and amateur planning gadfly, this rings deeply true. Streetcar planning offers a great example of why a musical approach to urban planning is OK. There are a lot of things in the process that can’t be easily quantified. How people make transportation decisions is one of them. The precise relationship between transportation investments and economic activity is another. Streetcars lie right at the intersection of these these two cloudy domains, and sometimes you have to do your best to make an educated guess about a project that you think is worthwhile.

For lots of reasons, both Minneapolis and Saint Paul seem poised to invest in a new transit mode that will connect downtowns with surrounding communities (that often seem socially and economically remote) while catalyzing walkable development and fostering low-car ways of life. Sure there are lots of lingering questions, but planning is inevitably messy. Once you identify a good idea, you have to just plow ahead. As Barton Keyes said to Walter Neff back when streetcars actually existed, ” It’s not like taking a trolley ride together where they can get off at different stops. They’re stuck with each other and they got to ride all the way to the end of the line.” Like Barbara Stanwyck, I’m excited to ride on the train!

13 thoughts on “Saint Paul Hits the Streetcar Sweetspot

  1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Lotta good points in the fuzzy math of transit, specifically streetcars, and it’s certainly one of the things that makes anti-transit folk squeamish. This is despite the fact that road/highway investments are equally fuzzy IMO, but people can see freeway exit/exchange built and a McDonald’s/gas station/tract housing and conclude ‘economic development!’

    I think, for me, my major beef with this route being chosen first is the opportunity cost and potential conflicts with the aBRT from St Paul to MSP airport. It’s one of the highest priority lines identified by MT and could be completed in 3 years’ time. What does this do to delay that? Will aBRT still run along the corridor all the way across the river? Etc etc.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      from everything i’ve head (and i’ve heard quite a lot) aBRT and this streetcar can co-exist. In fact, the aBRT line will likely be completed first. the one thing i’d like to see, though, is construction periods happen simultaneously, which will likely be difficult to pull off.

      1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

        I think the construction period conflict is what I was getting at. It would be great if the streetcar platform and bus platforms were exactly the same where they overlap (height of curb, etc) to reduce the costs of one of the projects. Will the aBRT+Streetcar fully replace the 54+74? Or will the 74 need to continue serve on Randolph? Will the streetcar be extended to the river down W7th in the future or over Randolph, to Ford and 46th St? (if the latter, how cool would it be to then interline up along the Blue Line and then turn west as the Midtown streetcar?).

        I’m excited about the line(s) but concerned how well the city and Met Council can work together on these (same apprehension in Minneapolis).

    2. Joe

      The W 7th aBRT line, confuses everyone, including all the planners I’ve talked to at MetroTransit (only … 1.5 (intern=0.5)). It shaves off such little time that I wouldn’t be surprised if Saint Paul said screw it even.

      The plan for aBRT also has stops at Randolf and Saint Clair, then into downtown, so surely a streetcar will stop more often, allowing trips from other spaces along the lines.

      The ability to connect downtown east/west, while the LRT connects it north/south should not be overlooked, even if it’s not a significant improvement in actual transit service it will be easier to understand and draw new riders who need assurances of mobility.

  2. John Bailey

    I’m rarely one to suggest having transit go where humans aren’t, but is there more logic now in having BRT use Shepherd to get to MSP Airport? I’d assume it would be quicker and far less disruptive. This could be a rare, rare instance where it just might work to have one mode (BRT) serving the “traditional” transportation need of “getting from A to B really darn fast” and the other mode (streetcar) serving the economic development/land use transit function.

    There is a lot not to like in the above paragraph, but I hope you see where I’m coming from.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      nah. they’re going to be completely different kinds of travel. imagine getting of teh aBRT from the mall, grabbing a beer at the schmidt brewpub, hopping on the streetcar afterward for a mile to your house.

  3. Matty LangMatty Lang

    Let’s take it through downtown on Old 7th Street! It’s mostly covered only by banal skyway uses anyway. It will be like re-opening Nicollet in Minneapolis, but only better.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke Post author

      let’s take it through the skyway! you run them up a ramp, then they just speed through the downtown in the skyways themselves in a futuristic pneumatic tube scenario like in sci-fi films before coming out again over in lowertown.

      added bonus: transform the macy’s building into a space elevator. now that’s multi-modal!

  4. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

    Saint Paul getting in on the streetcar game? Exciting! We just need some eucalyptus wine to get the panda in the mood.

  5. Laura

    Street cars in St. Paul is the stupidest, most ridiculous decision I have ever heard of. It’s unnecessary, expensive, and useless. What is wrong with taking the bus to get around? How about the fact it represents more senseless spending on frivolous big ticket items that taxpayers can’t afford? For 4 meager miles when transportation is already a frigging nightmare in St. Paul. I am amazed at the stupidity and ignorance of people who think this is a good idea. I am so fucking glad I don’t live in St. Paul or in Ramsey County for that matter. Spend spend spend on stupid things like this. LOL.

  6. minneapolisite

    I hope St Paul does go forward with this ASAP because W 7th seems to have a lot of talk about it seeing some new found interest in recent years, but changes seem to be rather few and far between aside from the large-scale Schmidt artist lofts project. Still, it shows that the area just needs an extra shot in the arm to move things forward at a good pace. While Mojo Monkey Donuts is worth a pilgrimage along with a handful of other spots it’s really not walkable overall since so many large gaps/parking lots separate many businesses to the point that there aren’t enough for decent walkability between them (hence the lack of pedestrians). Not to mention you have I-35 having divided the neighborhood into two distinct sub-neighborhoods and it’s obvious which side has suffered and which has seen most improvements and then you have bridges over the railroad tracks further dividing the area.

    Biking could be an great option to close these gaps, but a good deal of this street is too narrow for cyclists since motorists want unlimited on-street parking and the lone lane to be 35 MPH (so they can drive 40 or so). I’ve done it but you basically have to bust your ass when traffic is clear and once a fleet starts approaching you have to pull over behind the parked cars wait for them to pass and repeat til you get where you need to go on W 7th. The trail could be useful, but this isn’t Mpls, so there is no signage at the Otto Ave exit/entrance and no bike lanes even though there’s room for them (for most of the way at least), just to merely connect *to* W 7th. We’re not even talking about spending money on W 7th for bikes. They really should turn it into a bike boulevard though and then phase in the streetcar, because seriously if you need to be speeding down W 7th at killing speeds there’s that big highway I-35 which runs parallel and is *right* there. Then there’s the fact that no street parallels W 7th: it would be an awkward rerouting for bikes with lots of signage needed to keep them from getting lost. Right now it’s definitely more “driving district” than “business district”.

    Being the long stretch that this is, I hope the streetcar is not going to stop every two blocks like the proposed Nicollet-Central streetcar: it should be twice that for reasonable travel times.

    As for BRT I don’t understand why one would take 3 years to implement. When the Blue Line is down buses follow the same route stopping only at the same stops and read “Blue Line” instead of a numbered route. So, if a “pop-up” BRT line such as that can appear overnight, why would one on 7th or elsewhere need to take years? Just run regular buses to fill in the would-be LRT lines (Purple, Orange, Fusia, Green?) in the same fashion instead of waiting 5 years for each one to come on line. Sure, the stations won’t be as fancy and it’s not as wheelchair friendly since people can’t simply roll on, but people like myself don’t forgo the Blue Line bus: plenty of others were riding when that last happened on a cold, rainy fall Saturday.

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