Minneapolis, St. Paul Explore Options for Streetcars

Updated: 12/26/2013 9:11 PM KSTP.com By: Ellen McNamara

Photo: KSTP Photo/Ellen McNamara

Streetcars are a trend in public transportation across the country.

Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, Little Rock, Memphis, and Tampa now all have streetcars.

Systems in Tucson, Salt Lake City, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Charlotte, and Washington, D.C. are all under construction.

Unlike San Francisco or New Orleans, these lines are all relatively new, and now Minneapolis and St. Paul want to get on board.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS discovered that some lines have strong ridership, while others are considered a boondoggle.

The best example of a boondoggle is in Tampa, Fla. The population is about the same as Minneapolis, so KSTP's Ellen McNamara traveled to the "Sunshine State" and spoke to Mayor Bob Buckhorn.

Buckhorn has advice for the Twin Cities before streetcars are resurrected in Minnesota.

Twelve years ago, when Buckhorn was just a councilman, he was the only person to vote against the mustard yellow and ketchup colored cars. "I think there was mismanagement and misperceptions about how financially secure it would be," Buckhorn said. "They've all come to fruition."

Now that he is the mayor, Buckhorn and taxpayers have to deal with the major problem in paradise. "It can be successful; in our case that didn't happen," Buckhorn said. "So that's why we find ourselves in a predicament that we do."

About 330,000 people will ride the 2.7 mile line this year, which is a 50 percent drop in ridership since 2010. Money is running out, which is why the nostalgic car is covered with beer and baseball ads.

The cars, which go from the convention center, past Carnival Cruise ships, and stop in Ybor City, only run every 20 minutes near the historic Columbia Restaurant.

"It has potential, but I don't think the potential has been realized," Michael Kilgore, from the Columbia Restaurant, said. A ticket is also expensive.

"Our fares have gone up quite a bit from the very beginning," Karen Aker said. "It used to be like $2 to ride the streetcar."

Years ago, when the federal government offered money to help fund the project, Tampa took it. There are strings attached if a city accepts federal money. In Tampa, if the line ever shuts down, the city would have to pay the federal government about $50 million. It is money the city does not have. So to keep the project on track, Tampa taxpayers will have to subsidize it.

McNamara asked Mayor Buckhorn, "This has been described (by the Tampa Tribune) as a 'touristy toy streetcar in a ridership death spiral.' Is that fair?" The mayor said, "I think in its current configuration, that's probably fairly accurate."

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS discovered that the same company, URS Corporation, who helped get the Tampa project going, has been working with city planners in Minneapolis.

URS was part of the Portland line too, which, unlike Tampa, has helped create $3.5 billion in development and 10,000 new housing units. The Portland line keeps expanding, and about 3.5 million people ride it each year.

Both Minneapolis and St. Paul point to Portland's success. Even the cars would look similar, and they would travel in the same lane of traffic as cars, buses, and bikes.

However, in a report called "The Great Streetcar Conspiracy," The Cato Institute found the city of Portland gave developers hundreds of millions of dollars of incentives to build in the streetcar corridor. It found hardly any new development happened where developers did not receive subsidies.

A study in St. Paul found seven routes would work, and one option has cars cruising down Grand Avenue. The price tag is about $50 million a mile, with the operational costs not included.

The Minneapolis line, which is further along than the St. Paul project, is something that exiting Mayor R.T. Rybak believes in. "This is the right place for a streetcar," Rybak said. "That's not something we came to because we thought they were cute."

The majority of the city council agrees. The first line will run 3.4 miles from the K-Mart near Lake Street and Nicolette Avenue, up Nicolette, across the Hennepin Avenue Bridge and stop near Kramarczuk's.

Bus ridership is already high here, but buses are a lot cheaper to run.

McNamara asked Mayor Rybak, "Are we (Minneapolis) putting in streetcars, because generally speaking, rich people don't want to ride buses?"

Rybak said, "It's a great question, but that's not what we're doing." He says economic development will follow.

"If the bus system was going to spur thousands of units of new development, it would have happened by now," Rybak said.

The Minneapolis price tag is about $200 million, and the city says it would cost $10.6 million to operate a year.

"There's something about the clacking of the trolley as it goes down the street, that adds ambiance to a community," Mayor Buckhorn said. "But $200 million is a lot of ambiance." The Florida mayor cannot go back, so he urges caution.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS took parts of Mayor Buckhorn's interview to Mayor Rybak and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. "Tampa built a streetcar when they should have done lightrail, and put amateurs in charge instead of professionals," Rybak said.

"The fact that they call it a trolley, is very different," Mayor Coleman said. "That suggests that you're riding along San Francisco with a box of Rice-A-Roni."

However, the push to make something old new again comes when taxpayers are already forking over money for the new Vikings stadium and light rail.

McNamara asked Mayor Rybak, "At what point does taxpayer fatigue set in?"

"When I came into office, this city was spending a lot of money subsidizing individual development projects. We put a screeching halt to that and said we're going to invest in the common good. Infrastructure that helps everyone."

Rybak is confident spending now will decrease property taxes in the future. The plan is that streetcars will be used by locals, taxpayers, not just tourists, and eventually, buses could be phased out where streetcars go in.

Both Minnesota mayors say traveling Tampa's path is not part of their plan.

"When we move forward, we will have learned from the mistakes of the Tampa Bay's and the successes of the Portlands," Mayor Coleman said.

"You don't use a driver on a putting green," Mayor Rybak said. "Different tools for different situations. This is the right place to do a streetcar."

To help pay for the $200 million project in Minneapolis, $60 million will come from re-directed property taxes from four new developments. One of which, is where the original Totino's Pizza place used to be in Northeast Minneapolis.

Like the Tampa project, Minneapolis will go after federal money.

After all funding has been figured out, a construction timeline would be next, and the question of where to put a streetcar maintenance facility still has to be answered.
St. Paul still has a long way to go to figure out funding, but Mayor Coleman does say federal money will be part of the equation.

If you want to look at maps of the proposed lines, click here for Minneapolis, and here for St. Paul.