Minneapolis picks streetcars over busway improvements: spending more for less?

The South Lake Union Streetcar Line in Seattle

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.

Potential "starter" corridors for 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.

7 thoughts on “Minneapolis picks streetcars over busway improvements: spending more for less?

  1. LA’s BRT line actually cost more to build per rider than one of its LRT lines, and has high operating costs per rider. It’s also at capacity despite having the lowest ridership in the system.

  2. The starter lines seem really unlikely to succeed. This isn’t so much a technical complaint as a gut one, but still: how will such short lines, generally ending just short of dense residential districts, generate any significant ridership? They’re not even great tourist attractions; none of the lines go by the Guthrie/Mill City/Stone Arch part of the riverfront. I just wonder if we’re shooting ourselves in the foot here.

    As for the larger lines, the main benefit would be the redevelopment and infill potential along the corridors. I don’t see how this system will benefit existing transit riders. Maybe it doesn’t have to, but it does feel like MetroTransit and other government agencies take existing riders for granted. Many are captive, but not all. I hope they remember that.

  3. A bus BRT might look like a less expensive project up front, but if you look at it long-term BRT will be more costly. The streetcars have much, much longer lifespans (25-75 years) than buses and greater capacity. You can pull 2-3 buses off the route for 1 streetcar and that reduces labor costs. It also gets rid of a lot of diesel exhaust and noise on the street.

    • Except you wouldn’t be able to eliminate a lot of buses on many of these routes. The report actually identifies this as a weakness of some routes, particularly Nicollet. These short starter routes will not allow any bus routes to be eliminated because they don’t duplicate bus service.

  4. A few questions/statements

    1) Are travel times all that bad to downtown from these areas? (Ok, I kind of know the answer to this one – being that the 18 can take 45 minutes to go from downtown to 40th and Nicollet – Obviously too long of a trip)

    2) Can’t we simply start with buses stopping every other block if travel times actually are unacceptable?

    3) What about the oft-cited “development potential” of streetcar vs. bus? Does this potentially make up for the cost difference?

    In the end, I think it is difficult to directly compare the two choices – being that they don’t have identical goals attached to their implementation. Time savings vs. ridership vs. development potential, etc…

    • This is a key point: goals. I think many people would like to see transit improvements that improve mobility and accessibility. I think many proponents of streetcars may be interested in other goals like redevelopment, or simply getting more rail transit for its own sake. They may also be interested in this system as a marketing tool to the outside world, since the starter lines really don’t serve much beyond downtown.

      I won’t reflect here on the value of the latter two, but the study does not show why streetcars would be a better and cheaper redevelopment tool than anything else, say tax breaks. Its also clear that a thorough analysis of the best and most cost-effective way to improve mobility and accessibility has not been done yet. So I’d say step one: let’s agree on some goals. Step two, let’s do a fair analysis of how to reach those goals.

  5. Joe-

    Without getting into specific studies or figures, the development potential of modern streetcars really is significant. Seattle’s and Portland’s investments in streetcars have stimulated lots of quality, high-density infill development. For whatever reasons, many people have a rail preference (bus bias), and investments in quality bus transit doesnt seem to stimulate as much development.

    That said, from a service perspective, I agree that all of these corridors would benefit more from enhancements to bus service than from implementation of streetcars. Off-board fare collection, traffic signal priority, and limited stops would do wonders to improve service, and could be implemented on a wider scale since it would be less expensive than constructing streetcars lines.

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