Minneapolis is Building the Wrong Streetcar

Imagine your city had miles of publicly-owned, mostly grade-separated right-of-way. A long, linear stretch of land formerly carrying trains through it every day. A “sub-way,” if you will. What would you do with it?

Minneapolis has such a place. You all know it as the Midtown Greenway. Between 2000 and 2006, over 5 miles of multi-use trails were added to this former freight rail corridor, and it’s now nothing short of the best urban bike trail in the country. In addition to a complicated mixture of demographic preference changes, the Midtown Greenway has helped spur some serious development.

Midtown Greenway Development

Seriously, the Midtown Greenway’s pretty cool.

This boom isn’t just limited to the hip and lakes-proximate Uptown area, either; quality development is creeping eastward, taking advantage of other successful Greenway-adjacent projects. Basically, we’re getting a whole lot of “D” without any of the “TO.”

Nicollet-Central vs Midtown

So here’s where I get controversial: Minneapolis should drop the Nicollet-Central Streetcar currently under development in favor of the “Rail in the Greenway” project the Metropolitan Council has studied. It’s been almost 2 years since my first streets.mn post where I laid out some lingering questions regarding the Nicollet-Central streetcar proposal. I still feel uneasy about a streetcar that doesn’t really improve headways or travel times relative to local buses, and I’m certainly not the only skeptic out there. Even Portland’s streetcar isn’t as Perfect Portland as we make them out to be. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad project. Just that we live in a world where dollars are constrained and we need to sometimes make tough decisions about hundred-plus million dollar public investments.

Even if the DFL/MoveMN transportation funding package including a 3/4-cent metro transit sales tax bump had passed this legislative session (it didn’t), the Midtown corridor was pretty far down the list of funding priorities. It’s a safe bet that, best case, we could go another 10-15 years without laying track and caternary in the Greenway.

Midtown Bloomington Station Rendering

Greenway with rail: still pretty cool.

If Minneapolis is serious about improving the lives of its residents through a single, major transportation investment, the Greenway Rail is the way to go. Compare the two projects (data taken from project documents for each):


The Midtown project costs a bit more ($239 million inflation adjusted to match Nicollet-Central year of expenditure), but comes in at less per 2030 weekday rider ($21,727 vs $23,383). Midtown serves more people below the poverty line than Nicollet-Central by 33%. Most importantly, look at the travel time savings. Nicollet-Central streetcar improves end-to-end travel times by a couple of minutes. Midtown? We’re talking 15-20 minute savings just between Midtown and Uptown Transit Station (with opening day service extending to the West Lake/Calhoun area). The rail option beats the proposed Lake Street aBRT project by quite a bit, proving it’s not a simple substitute (indeed, the Alternatives Analysis process found that both enhanced bus and rail in the trench is the best path forward).

Clearly, Nicollet-Central passing through downtown and the St Anthony Main areas give it a huge advantage in economic development potential (ignoring the difference in methodology used in the studies). The downtown zoning gives a maximum development potential not found elsewhere in the city, and one of the densest central business districts in the country (5th highest per square mile in the country) boosts the jobs figure.

Certainly, the Midtown project has concerns of its own. I’m not personally worried about losing greenery in the trench; five months of the year trees face a cold Midwest wind without leaves anyway. But to many residents it is at least partly park space, and new retaining walls and ballast track (the cheaper option) might be seen as a loss. I’m concerned the project would reduce pedestrian/bike space in precisely the busiest spot of the Greenway (over 4,600 a day in 2014!):

Midtown Hennepin Cross Section reduces pedestrian and bike space by 25%

The Hennepin Avenue cross-section needs some tweaking.

But the travel time savings are just too great to ignore. If you assume a transit rider saves 7.5 minutes on average per trip, over 21 million hours would be saved in 2030. I’m not one to use this metric alone to justify investments (at least without tolling/charging for the savings), but at $16/hour, this project “saves” Minneapolites $343 million a year. For low-income and minority populations suffering needlessly long commutes, this would be huge.

Minneapolis leaders should go back to the legislature and re-work the wonky (dubious?) tax district they plan to help finance the Nicollet-Central project and apply a true value-capture model to the Greenway. Instead of a streetcar, build the arterial-BRT along the entire Nicollet-Central corridor for around $100 million (maybe a subway under Nicollet someday if we can muster the political will). The Greenway is a proven economic development generator – let’s bolster that with high-speed, high-amenity transit linking two light rail lines (one planned) before 2020!

33 thoughts on “Minneapolis is Building the Wrong Streetcar

  1. Ian Reynolds

    Loved this article! I am very skeptical of Nicollet-Central and my heart breaks to consider how much aBRT could be built for that $200 million. I suspect that within a decade of its opening we’re going to wish we built something a little less street-running there, but we’ll have already sunk so much money into the corridor that further investment won’t be politically feasible until I’m balding and complaining about the state of the highways in my slice of exurbia.

    I’m curious about why the cost estimates for Midtown given by the 2007 Minneapolis streetcar feasibility study [1] and the Metro Transit final report [2] differ by a factor of 3-4 even when adjusted for inflation. Is this just a case of the first study severely underestimating costs, or is there something else I am missing? Does this happen a lot?

    Also, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the choice of existing Metro Transit LRVs versus something more closely resembling a “modern streetcar” as the rolling stock for this corridor. Taken in isolation it seems perfectly sensible to use a single 90′ Type II here, but as far as I know this would not be possible on most other corridors in the proposed Minneapolis streetcar network (I would love to be demonstrated wrong on this point!) Given that this corridor is even more grade-separated than our existing rapid-transit lines it seems strange to call it a streetcar to begin with, even though that’s the mode that the ridership, route, and use-cases clearly calls for. I guess it’s sort of the black sheep of the network.

    [1] http://www.minneapolismn.gov/www/groups/public/@publicworks/documents/webcontent/convert_270445.pdf

    [2] http://www.metrotransit.org/Data/Sites/1/media/midtown-corridor/midtown-corridor-capital-cost.pdf

  2. Wayne

    I wish the Nicollet-Central line were proper grade-separated rapid transit, but PLEASE don’t try to take away the only investment in northeast scheduled for anytime in the near (or distant) future. The midtown line needs to be built, no doubt, but south Minneapolis already has far better service than other parts of town. Why don’t we cancel SW LRT and use *that* money to build it all? I know that’s not how the (stupid) funding works, but robbing one part of town to add to another is annoying. Again, I won’t deny the need, but some investment in northeast transit infrastructure is desperately needed.

    1. UrbanDoofus

      This one is tough for me. I completely agree that NE seems to get the transit shaft. In my opinion, Nic-Central doesn’t go far enough north however. Run it further north than broadway and you really start to tap into that street vitality along Central.

      I’m not a fan of “better than nothing,” so I’m not wild about plopping rail into the ground just because.

      1. Wayne

        Well it’s an obvious first step towards that. I’d also prefer they extend it up to at least Broadway if not Lowry to begin with, but I feel like it’d be easier to get an extension up there with an extant line than to get that from scratch.

        Also, why aren’t we more open to the idea of short starter lines with extensions in the future as needed (or when the money is available)? Is it part of the stupid federal funding guidelines that encourage building new lines over extending existing ones or something?

    2. Rosa

      as a South Minneapolis resident, let me join you on this. Why is it so hard to get to NE? And to Como in St Paul? I’ve passed up jobs because the bus from here to there is so damn hard. Why?

      It wouldn’t even have to be fast, it just has to come more often than the current buses. Or, you know, EXIST.

  3. UrbanDoofus

    Thanks for pointing out that transit times DO matter. Everyone talks about TOD and how great these dumb slow streetcars will be for TOD, meanwhile ignoring how slowly they will travel. What a disservice to users. Development is great, but what good will a streetcar do if it takes longer to get around? Can’t we stimulate development with a few tax credits less than or equal to $200 million at a time? We need to stop thinking about transit as toys that “spur development” and consider that people rely on it to get to point A to B, everything else is just gravy on the biscuit.

    I like the idea of a speedy Midtown train. I admit I have a rail bias, having grown up taking grade separated rapid transit my entire life. My only question is, what exactly will it connect? Uptown to the blue? Lake and Hiawatha to Uptown? Neither of those is a bad thing. Just trying to understand this in a larger context of connections to other transit.

    1. Matt

      Theoretically, the Midtown train would connect the blue at/near Lake-Hiawatha with the planned SWLRT at/near the West Lake station.

      1. Wayne

        Let’s put a trundling trolley connection between our two poorly-routed rapid transit lines that connects them to the dense core with transit demand instead of building a rapid transit line straight to that area! Transit planning at its finest.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

          I’d hardly call a single light rail vehicle with grade separation trundling, but I get you’re point. One good thing about Midtown is it provides service options for the future. Want to extend service to Hopkins (the place you’d prefer to terminate SWLRT at anyway)? Buy some extra trains and run from the Blue Line all the way out along SWLRT tracks. Decide you’d rather extend it as a streetcar out to Excelsior & Grand? Not too expensive!

          1. Wayne

            Exactly, it’s a great route for plenty of reasons. But it’s not the only one. We have probably half a dozen inner-city corridors that need improvement, but we’re spending a couple billion on duplicating express bus service to an opt-out suburb instead. I hate this stupid backwards state/metro/transit agency.

            1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

              I’m in the same (if a bit more tempered) boat as you re: regional transit planning. But if SWLRT (or Bottineau, etc) are to be built, a line like Midtown strengthens them much more than a Nicollet/Central streetcar does. It’s crazy for Minneapolis to not want to spend their first transit dollars on a grade-separated line before an at-grade streetcar.

              And, omg. *your. I’m dumb.

              1. Wayne

                I honestly think some of the logic is because they figure they can get metro transit to chip in for (or take over entirely) the midtown line planning/costs, whereas since MT has zero plans to do anything in the Nicollet-Central corridor Minneapolis feels the need to push for that itself. MT can rationalize midtown (a line entirely in Minneapolis) as a connector between lines and sell it to the CTIB maybe, but fat chance of getting them to throw a single cent at Nicollet-Central. It’s all very cynical and underwhelming, but there’s at least a perverse sort of logic to it.

      2. UrbanDoofus

        That would be excellent. Cross town highway? I see your highway and raise you a cross town rapid transit line.

    2. Matt Brillhart

      First and foremost – it will provide faster travel times to the people currently riding the 21 – the 2nd busiest route in the system (granted, only between Uptown and Hiawatha, but that’s also the busiest segment!) https://streets.mn/2015/01/28/chart-of-the-day-top-10-metro-transit-bus-routes-by-ridership-2014/

      There probably are not a lot of people taking the 21 from Uptown (or anywhere west of Nicollet really) to the Blue Line to the airport/MOA – it is way too slow. That becomes a reality with rapid transit service in the Greenway. Also, riders coming inbound on the Blue or Green (Southwest) lines could transfer and ride Midtown to employment destinations in Midtown and Uptown – reducing parking strain on those areas. Vice versa, city residents living near the corridor can take Midtown to either LRT line to head towards suburban employment.

      Midtown could also potentially be the catalyst that allows massive traffic calming on 26th/28th Streets – either converting to two-way streets or a major reduction in lanes/speeds.

      I’m biased of course, having lived on 28th Street in Whittier for 4 years (though no longer), but I think the Midtown line is an absolute slam dunk. Aside from the concerns of geographic parity – it should be the #1 transit priority for the city of Minneapolis. Regarding Nicollet Central – I too think it should be built further up Central – if even at the cost of stopping at I-94 or Franklin on the southern end. If Kmart is not ready to go (and Whittier is not ready for dense development), then the city should go with a northeastern starter line – from the Convention Center to as far into Northeast as you can go for under $250MM (Small Starts).

      1. John Charles Wilson

        I was skeptical about what you said about the 21 to Blue from Uptown to MOA being way too slow – until I went to the Trip Planner and checked the fastest way by transit. Since often the exact time you go makes a difference as to which way is fastest, I picked right now – 11:18 AM on a weekday – as being as good a time as any. The results are interesting:

        Best route: 21A to 4L to 515B, 53 minutes

        Second best: 6E to 515B, 55 minutes

        Third best: 21D to 5E, 55 minutes

        The 21 is so slow it doesn’t pay to take it all the way to the Blue Line, even with the speed advantage of the Blue Line once you get to it.

        Even a 21 ride truncated at the 5(!) makes the cut, while 21 to the Blue doesn’t.

        The fastest way involves *two* bus transfers! Interesting….

        6 to a 515 seems counter-intuitive because Southdale is further west than Uptown. However, it’s true the 515 just sails along 66th Street. So does the 6 once you get to Xerxes or France.

        1. John Charles Wilson

          In all fairness, I realized the Uptown/Airport trip might be better by the 21 to Blue combo because the only transit to the Airport is the Blue Line and the 54. Using the same departure time (11:18 AM on a weekday), here are my results:

          Best route: 6U to Blue, 51 minutes (That’s right. Via *downtown*!!!!)

          Second best: 23C to Blue, 43 minutes (Makes sense. The 23 is much faster than the 21. The reason this is only second best is the wait time of 22 minutes for the 23. This is an example of why exact departure time can make a big difference. If the start time was 11:35 or so, this would probably be the best route.)

          Third best: 21D to 5E to Blue, 1 hour 13 minutes (Oh, my! Taking the 5 to MOA and the Blue line from *there* to the Airport apparently beats taking the 21 straight to the Blue! I must have woke up on the wrong planet this morning!)

          1. Wayne

            I used to commute from south of uptown to the MOA area every day for work, and I can confirm how bad the options were. I generally took the 23 because it was way faster than the 21, however it ran so infrequently outside of a very narrow rush hour window and I worked a slightly non-traditional workday, so I would often have long waits for the connection. The worst was probably one of the coldest winter days when it was about -10 or -15 before the windchill and I had to wait roughly half an hour because the buses were so far off schedule. The Minneapolis ‘feeder’ routes to the blue line outside of downtown are mostly pretty awful, and really infrequent/unreliable the further south you go. The 21 is technically frequent (on paper) but so unreliable that I could sometimes walk to uptown from Hiawatha before a 21 would show up (no joke).

            1. John Charles Wilson

              One thing Lake Street needs is an all-day Limited Stop bus. The 53 is such a blessing – when it runs! I would turn all 21A trips from 6 AM to 6:30 PM Monday through Saturday into a “reverse 53”: Same limited stops as the present 53 between Uptown and Hiawatha, all regular 21 stops between Hiawatha and downtown Saint Paul, no freeway jaunt.

      1. UrbanDoofus

        Nick, Matt, thank you! Short, fast trips up and down the corridor are great and are indeed the final destination for many. I just asked about the transit connections because I think they’re totally added value and help when making the case.

        Nothing warms my heart like seeing trains load and unload at every stop with people carrying groceries, babies, whatever. Weird, I know.

    3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      There is a page with great info hidden in this project document (who has time to sift through all this!?) http://www.metrotransit.org/Data/Sites/1/media/midtown-corridor/midtown-corridor-ridership-forecasting.pdf#page=11

      68% of all current Lake St transit trips (21 and 53) occur either entirely within the proposed Midtown area or connect to/from the Midtown corridor from another bus/LRT. As Nick/Matt note, strengthening those connections with serious travel time improvements makes getting to the MOA/MSP or Veteran’s Hospital or even downtown (and, in the future, to jobs along SWLRT via Calhoun transfer – yes I’m starting to use the better name instead of West Lake) is huge.

  4. Aaron IsaacsAaron Isaacs

    Alex is right on all counts. Midtown saves more time, is easier to build, cheaper to operate. And it will really improve the lives of a lot of low income people who depend on transit. It will also lure higher income folks out of their cars, especially since it will feed Hiawatha and Southwest passengers to all the big employers along the Greenway.

  5. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

    A couple things I should note:

    I talked speed/travel time once you’re on the train vs the streetcar. This misses a penalty in getting to the trench itself (nearly a block from Lake St), and going down a level (which can take a while especially if one is disabled or elderly). So subtract probably 3-4 minutes from the trip savings in making the comparison.

    Also, the Nicollet/Central streetcar does plan on 7.5 minute headways during peak hours, better than the 10 minute peak+midday headways proposed for the Midtown streetcar. That cuts average wait time down by a minute or two for peak riders. Perhaps small details, but they matter in a discussion like this.

    1. UrbanDoofus

      In theory the grade separated would run into fewer potential delays on the track however, no? I’m imagining some doofus(of no relation to this one) in a car driving slowly in front of streetcar, or driving too closely. Or will the street level streetcars operate differently?

  6. Paul

    An off-topic question: What is the name of the architectural style shown in the first photo of this story. Buildings in this style are all over town, the look is tied to a definite era starting about 2005.


    1. Fauxhaus

      I personally refer to it as “fauxhaus”; it is reminiscent of bauhaus but totally generic…

  7. Matt

    The Midtown streetcar would probably give more bang for our buck, but as a Minneapolitan (to be fair, not living in/near uptown) transit user I’m almost glad that Nic-Central is higher priority. I would much rather bike to Nicollet and Lake via the greenway than via Nicollet. I realize the stat that a majority of trips are within uptown, but again, these are my own selfish motivations.

  8. John DeWitt

    An additional factor to consider is that Minneapolis today has three designated growth centers; downtown, the U of M district, and the South Phillips district including the then Wells Fargo complex, Abbot-Northwestern, and Midtown Exchange/Allina. Serving this South Phillips growth center with high quality transit with regional connections should be a high priority. I believe that Bassett Creek Valley used to be a fourth but has been dropped. It would be served by SW LRT if it comes back to life.

    Both Atlanta and Salt Lake City are operating streetcar lines with Siemens S70s, similar to those operated by Metro Transit today. It makes a lot of sense to standardize rail vehicles that aren’t in the street streetcars. One operator pool, common maintenance facilities, and the ability to operate on both lines. Streetcars like those operated in Portland, OR, are about 6″ narrow than the S70s which would preclude sharing platforms. It would be great if park-n-rides along SW LRT could be used for events like the Uptown Art Fair. A common vehicle could connect parking to Midtown Corridor events.

  9. Nathanael

    I was pushing for Greenway rail in 1996. Good luck. It should have been done 30 years ago.

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