The Great Streetcar Debate (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or Your Father’s Magic Carpet Made of Steel)

Reading Saturday’s op-ed in the Star Tribune written by Senator David Osmek and Representative Linda Runbeck, I resisted the temptation to read this as a partisan anti-transit rant by suburban republican legislators (and this is not the first time I’ve responded to an editorial by Senator Osmek). I daresay that my urban colleagues who write for and read are as concerned about the cost-effectiveness of transportation improvements (although even we don’t agree). Transportation is expensive no matter how you look at it, and as Osmek and Runbeck say, “we need to assess our real transportation and transit needs, while remaining accountable to the taxpayers of today and tomorrow.” I for one couldn’t agree more. However, equally important is the context in which transportation operates and how many benefit, not just cost per mile to build and operate. So let’s have this conversation.

Portland Streetcar

Senator Osmek’s and Representative Runbeck’s first argument pertains to cost-effectiveness. Taken in a vacuum, a gravel road in the country is one of the cheapest transportation improvements. A gravel road is very low cost per mile to build and maintain, for sure, but it assumes a pretty low density, probably a rural setting with farms or large homesteads. The other end of the spectrum is a streetcar or subway system that costs a large sum per mile to construct and operate, but ideally serves a LOT of people. In other words, cost per mile for construction and even operations is a largely irrelevant statistic.

With regard to operations, Osmek and Runbeck infer that light rail is “deficit-ridden.” And our state’s roads are not? Tell me this, what state, county or even rural gravel road has ANY kind of direct fare recovery at all? Light rail riders pay directly for approximately 40% of the cost to operate the Blue Line, whereas roads are free for the direct user, completely subsidized, if you will, by indirect sources such as license tab fees, state and federal gas taxes. Thus, one can make the argument that our transit lines actually rely less on indirect subsidy because of farebox recovery. So what is more “deficit-ridden,” the Blue Line in Minneapolis or the highways and stroads of Circle Pines and Mound? By this line of reasoning, no transportation improvement ever pays for itself.

Osmek and Runbeck are concerned about efficiency. They argue, streetcars are less efficient because they have lower capacity than buses. This is patently agrees. This is largely because streetcars have fewer seats but more standing room for more capacity overall. So let’s put this to rest.

The other argument they make is BRT is adaptable, faster and goes where people want, as opposed to where the government chooses to build a line. First off, done right, a BRT line is actually pretty inflexible. The premier example of BRT in Curitiba is not unlike the Blue Line in the sense that stations and route are pretty fixed – this is one reason BRT in Curitiba is successful (the other reasons are the system links places people want to go and the system is easy to use). Deferring to BRT because it is more cost-effective is disingenuous at best. Furthermore, the government typically chooses where successful transportation systems go. I don’t see Osmek complaining about I-394 and Highway 12 making access easier to Mound or Runbeck complaining about I-35W coming to Circle Pines – both projects of a heavy-handed government.

What about speed and service? That depends. Mound has 1,885 per square mile, Circle Pines has 2,602. The Whittier neighborhood, where the first streetcar will run, has more than 19,000 people per square mile. In other words, ten times more people might benefit from this transportation improvement in Whittier. The streetcar in Portland succeeds not because a few people need to get somewhere at a high speed, but because a lot of people need to get a mile away pretty quickly, and the streetcar achieves this. The geographical context of transportation and how many people it can serve matters as much as raw speed.

Are 19,000 people enough to justify significant costs per mile? has explored the cost-effectiveness of streetcars versus buses, and it is a worthy argument. Rather, we should look at the cost per mile per potential user, or some such metric. Certainly spending more than the cost of a gravel road doesn’t make sense in many rural areas, and it’s safe to say the population density doesn’t support a streetcar line in Mound or Circle Pines (would Osmek and Runbeck accept it if the money was granted? We accepted the Stillwater Bridge, didn’t we?). But a streetcar serving 19,000 people with service to downtown, rail connections to the airport, University and St. Paul, and good bus connections might actually make sense.

This gets to the economic development question. Any transportation improvement, rail or road, can result in increased value for adjacent property owners. Building a freeway along a farm field doesn’t do much, but spend extra on an offramp and suddenly that farmer can sell a prime acre or two for a truck stop. Build a streetcar line connecting to a major downtown with links to the airport, etc. and you can rent a LOT of apartments. But from this perspective, isn’t if fair that the farmer helps PAY for that offramp? And shouldn’t that apartment owner help pay for the streetcar? I think the answer is yes. It’s called value capture, they did it in Portland, and Minneapolis is trying a tortured version of it to help pay for the streetcar. (Yes, land owners in the City of Houlton, Wisconsin should be paying a significant share of the new Stillwater bridge.)

Mound and Circle Pines have decidedly infrequent transit service, and a development pattern that isn’t supportive of getting around without a car (if I didn’t own a car, I wouldn’t consider living in either city). So from the perspective of “subsidizing” transit (but somehow not roads), by not providing transit service (thereby requiring more people to own a vehicle and pay more to operate it over greater distances), are we not hindering their transportation? And by doing so, aren’t we actually promoting a policy that takes more money from households’ pockets, thereby reducing economic development? That doesn’t sound like freedom to me, nor good policy.

I’m disappointed they didn’t bring forth tangible solutions, but Osmek and Runbeck’s question is a good one. What is the cost-effective way to move people and what are the benefits? I suspect Osmek and Runbeck should be careful for what they ask, for I fear a proper holistic cost-effectiveness analysis that takes in to account land use would leave Mound and Circle Pines with very little transportation funding.

That said, the Minnesota Legislature needs to find creative solutions to provide more economic benefit to citizens to get around, and the current system of funding isn’t enough nor properly calibrated. Those who benefit should help pay the cost of transportation improvements. Before we have this discussion, we should all visit the Strongtowns website and understand how our growth pattern is making us financially insolvent (hint: Chuck Marohn isn’t an urban liberal elite). Maybe the streetcar isn’t the right answer for Nicollet, but neither are gravel roads in Mound and Circle Pines. Either way, transportation solutions depend to a great extent on geography and density of those served, so let’s not dismiss either too quickly.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is

15 thoughts on “The Great Streetcar Debate (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or Your Father’s Magic Carpet Made of Steel)

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    Although the density of Whittier is compelling (I had no idea it was almost 3x as dense as Minneapolis as a whole), I’m not clear why that makes for a specific argument of streetcars over BRT.

    I’m mildly tempted to agree with the legislators, except for the simple fact that, so far, the only BRT line in Minnesota has proved to be far worse than light rail for users. Most of its money was used for highway expansion, the route is circuitous, and the stations are pedestrian-hostile. (Although, a substantial amount of money that went toward the Blue Line was actually to create a pedestrian-hostile Hiawatha bypass and a new interchange at the Crosstown, so it’s not just BRT that’s guilty of this.)

    I don’t believe BRT has to be as bad as the Red Line is. But if we’re going to do such a terrible job on our first line, why should we expect Minneapolis to say they want to bring that piece of Apple Valley onto Nicollet Ave?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Sean, I’m not specifically arguing that the population density in Whittier justifies a streetcar, either. I’m also not clear on what Osmek and Runbeck are proposing, either. My larger point is cost per mile is a pretty irrelevant measure taken by itself.

      Good point about BRT – as pointed out last week, we shouldn’t even be classifying it as BRT.

      I’m pretty sure there was a different source of money for the bypass on Hiawatha. I don’t think the FTA’s light rail funds go to highway improvements like that. I could be wrong, but I think we agree it’s too bad it happened!

      Lastly, I don’t think much about the Red Line BRT is envisioned to be anything like streetcar service on Nicollet anyway. I imagine BRT on Nicollet would be a service that ran in the street but had small stations like a streetcar would, and stations every block or two.

  2. David

    What needs to happen here is a complicated calculation to get at the cost per mile per trip. Use the expected number of riders, expected life of the assets, etc. Be honest, this could easily be configured to create a pre-determined result. Then, figure out what revenue is generated by each activity – whether a paid fare or tax receipts, and do the math. The state gas tax, the federal gas tax, licens tab fees, and whatever revenue might be collected in tolls (I-394), etc. needs to be considered revenue associated with road activity. Of course there is also the hard-to-measure capital investment that gets shifted from the private citizen to the public in the form of busses and rail cars…roads require individual ownership in most cases. This would get at the cost efficiency, but of course there is also the efficiency associated with speed, use of space, etc. Space taken by roads and rail lines does not generate property tax…so the space-intensive activities are more expensive where land is more expensive. Confused yet?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      David, I’m confused, yes, but that is OK! We need to be willing to admit the formula should be complicated, including secondary costs and benefits such as land use, health, economics, etc.

  3. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

    My profound apologies to Senator Osmek – my first publication of this post had his name spelled wrong. I’m sorry for that, and I believe it has been corrected.

  4. Craig

    Not letting it derail your point, but isn’t it disingenuous to keep citing 19000 people for Whittier when it’s not even a square mile? If you look at the actual population for Whittier versus Mound you’d have about 1.5 times the people in the neighborhood versus the city, not 10 times. Not that the point isn’t still convincing, especially when you could consider the streetcar incentive to move to Whittier and make it more dense, but I’d like the numbers to be represented a bit better.

    @David you might have more expensive capital investment in areas like the city where the land replaced is more expensive, but because you’re not having to own and maintain 22 miles of road from Mound to Downtown, isn’t the highly-used streetcar line likely to still come out close or ahead of highway transportation cost? Especially considering that we pay for multiple veins of transit out of Mound?

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Craig, I used this density exercise as an example for people to think how different land use patterns support transit service (or don’t). Thus, I’m only repeating what my calculator told me – Whittier has ten times as many people per square mile as Mound. It is a fact, even if it’s just one of many points of analysis that should be used.

      Cost per mile to construct transportation improvements is easy. A thorough analysis of the cost and benefit not only of the infrastructure itself but the indirect benefits and unintended consequences that the users of the system experience is very complicated indeed. But if we start with the point of view that someone living along a well-planned streetcar line like in the Pearl District in Portland can get a lot of daily tasks done (work, groceries, recreation) very conveniently without a car is good policy, whereas a car-dependent lifestyle is wasteful and bad policy, then we can better prioritize where to spend scarce public funds.

      1. Craig

        “In other words, ten times more people might benefit from this transportation improvement in Whittier.”
        “Are 19,000 people enough to justify significant costs per mile?”

        You have to keep saying that your numbers are in density for these numbers to work though! Otherwise it’s confusing and wrong at best, misleading or subtractive to the argument at worst. The wording is in total number of people, the math is from people per square mile, and the argument is for cost/benefit analysis for people served per linear mile.

        But I’m with you on general policy values favoring public transit.

  5. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

    I’ve not read a better or simpler explanation of the proper context for streetcars than page 151 to 153 of Jeff Speck’s “Walkable City.”

    Speck quotes Portland’s Charlie Hales, who says streetcars should be called pedestrian accelerators rather than pedestrian creators. Why, Speck asks? Because streetcars don’t fill sidewalks. If anything, we should look at it from the other way around – places that already have high pedestrian activity indicate potential for streetcar service, not the other way around.

    1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

      Another quote from Walkable City is Charlie Hales – “you can’t just drop in a streetcar.” You need connections to other transportation (buses and light rail) lines, higher density, excellent urban design, elimination of minimum parking requirements – all the things that add up to walkability.

      1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg Post author

        Lastly, from Walkable City, page 153: “Portland’s streetcar succeeded as a tool for increasing urban vibrancy because it was first a tool for neighborhood development. This fact is important for two reasons: first, because it is a major real estate opportunity and second, because such an opportunity suggests the presence of private parties who stand to benefit tremendously for the investment. And these parties should want to help pay for it.”

        I think more than five properties along the proposed streetcar route in Minneapolis should help pay for it. Namely, properties that stand to benefit along the entire route in return for upzoning (which creates pedestrian activity). Minneapolis is partway there, but the financing from landowners should be more robust (since streetcars are expensive).

  6. Pierce

    Great points, Sam. I think most will agree that density serves as a great litmus test for the effectiveness of a transit investment. This metric clearly favors the central core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul over more exurban places like Circle Pines or Mound. However, the people of Circle Pines and Mound also pay into the same pot of money we use for transit investments, be it park-and-ride or LRT. Who pays more into the pot of money we use for transit investments regionally? I’m not sure, but I’d conjecture that in aggregate the suburban communities contribute more to that fund. The issue of geographic equity for transit investments begins to take a more central role when you take this into account. I suppose these two legislators want the cost of these transit investments to be low in hopes of there being enough funding for lower priority projects that traverse their respective districts to be viable. Regardless of any way you analyze it, you’re correct in stating that we need to seriously consider comprehensively revamping transportation funding mechanisms statewide and across the metro area.

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