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Back to the Future: A Minneapolis streetcar revival

July 23, 2007 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
Minneapolis planners are working to revive a long-lost piece of Twin Cities history - a streetcar system that once was the envy of the nation. But this is more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. It's one way smart cities like Charlotte, Little Rock, Portland, Memphis and Tampa are gearing up to meet the competitive challenges of the 21st century.

Under a feasibility study moving toward final City Council approval by year's end, seven streetcar lines would run on major city streets and the Midtown Greenway, connecting Minneapolis neighborhoods and workplaces with downtown, the University of Minnesota and other transit modes. Development would probably proceed one segment at a time, depending on financing and public support.

There's no shortage of successful models for this effort, both contemporary and historic. The Portland Streetcar, which began running in 2001 with an investment of only $57 million, quickly tripled its ridership goals and served as a catalyst for up to $2.3 billion in real estate development within two blocks of its tracks - 7,248 housing units and 4.6 million square feet of office, institutional, retail and hotel construction.

Best of all, property developers contributed significantly to the line's infrastructure costs while committing to build the high-density, mixed-income housing the city wanted. What would motivate them to do that?

"Having a streetcar draws a lot of people to your real estate," said Dave Van Hattum of Transit for Livable Communities, Minnesota's leading transit advocacy group.

At about $25 million a mile, streetcar lines on existing right-of-way are much less costly to build than other forms of rail transit, and construction is less disruptive to businesses and residents along the route. The only downside - minimal federal funding - can also be a plus in streamlining planning and allowing for innovative public-private financing partnerships.

Streetcars are "a more neighborhood-friendly form of rail transit," said John DeWitt, a board member of the Midtown Greenway Coalition. 

Looking back, the private-sector Twin Cities Rapid Transit Co. in the 1930s boasted a system of 1,000 electric-powered streetcars plying 500 miles of track stretching from Anoka to Hastings, Stillwater to Lake Minnetonka. But as robust public investment in streets and highways encouraged more use of private cars, streetcar ridership faded.

The decline of the streetcars was hastened by shortsighted service cuts and even outright criminal wrongdoing by some of the system's owners. When the last Twin Cities streetcars were replaced by buses in 1954, some of the rolling stock was sold and still runs in places such as San Francisco.  In 1969, the public Metropolitan Transit Commission bought the system in the midst of a strike by drivers.

With federal funding for traditional light- and heavy-rail transit on the ebb, streetcar lines built with a mix of public and private funding look like a smart strategy for cities willing to invest in the amenities that attract residents and businesses.

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