Minneapolis is taking one more step toward putting street cars in major transit corridors in the city. Friday the City Council voted to adopt the 30-year vision for these rail transit corridors. It also appears that the city is considering a “starter” corridor, and determining whether they should enter into the “federal project development process”.
Even though these corridors could certainly use transit improvements, and streetcars may in fact be appropriate for some of these corridors, more analysis of alternatives is called for before a streetcar is chosen as the best mode, especially along the transit-heavy corridors of Hennepin and Nicollet (which seem to be the favorites for selection as the “starter” corridor).
The long-term vision for these corridors is based on a 2007 Streetcar feasibility study, which seems to take as a given that streetcars are the preferred mode for bolstering transit in the corridors. The study contains no alternatives analysis, but instead contains a few pages answering the question, “Why Streetcars?” Many of the report’s conclusions about the advantages of streetcars (assumed over buses, and in the case of cost, over LRT) could also likely be said about enhanced bus service. But the report never explores this, since it is dedicated to streetcars.
Different vehicles, better signage (or some signage at all), real time arrival information, and higher amenity stations could all be said to achieve the benefits presented in the study, whether using a streetcar system or an enhanced bus system. In a guest post by a Metro Transit planner here on Net Density, two examples of arterial Bus Rapid Transit, a form of enhanced bus service were highlighted. These examples, from Kansas and LA, showed that ridership can be improved dramatically (60 and 40 percent, respectively), with a much smaller expenditure than streetcar or LRT would require.
Travel time savings of over 20% was also realized in both Kansas and LA. A new streetcar system on Hennepin or Nicollet will likely have little or no travel time savings over existing bus service. The study admits as much saying that buses are more flexible, being able to maneuver around parked or stalled vehicles, and that the only travel time savings with streetcars would be advance boarding, something that could easily be implemented with bus service.
One characteristic that we can compare is cost. Minneapolis staff prepared a Funding Study, to explore potential options for funding a new streetcar system and looking at potential “starter” corridors. According to this study, a Nicollet line would have a capital cost of $75 million, while a Hennepin line (only extending to the Walker Art Center) would cost $70 million. A similar (but longer) line along Nicollet using enhanced bus service may be closer to $30 million. Neither of these new streetcar lines would extend much beyond downtown initially, likely provide little or no travel time advantage over existing bus service and would likely cost double what a longer, faster enhanced bus service would cost. The full Streetcar study also identifies a significant issue at Franklin Avenue for the Hennepin Avenue line, a grade over 6%. Once the line was extended into Uptown, would the intersection need to be totally rebuilt? This would likely bring costs even higher.
While it is clear that Minneapolis needs improved transit service, alternatives need to be studied. Can we build a better, faster, more legible bus system for half the cost of a new streetcar network? And one that will dramatically increase ridership and improve the experience for those who already ride? If so, then this is the better option. Building what basically seems like a downtown circulator, which moves people barely further than the distance of a comfortable walk, does not seem like the best investment of city or federal tax dollars.