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!

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.