(TNS) — A modern streetcar line should someday connect downtown St. Paul to Bloomington, completing a “transit triangle” formed by the Blue Line and Green Line between Minneapolis, St. Paul and the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, according to regional policymakers.
After three years of study and 29 public meetings, the Riverview Corridor’s policy advisory committee voted 11-2 on Thursday in support of the future $1.4 billion to $2 billion transit line, which would travel down West Seventh Street in St. Paul and cross the Mississippi River at or near the Minnesota 5 bridge.
Committee members acknowledged that years of environmental and engineering work remain. And big questions loom about the river crossing and a possible transit link to the former Ford manufacturing site in Highland Park.
The goal is to transport riders 11.7 miles from the downtown Green Line station at St. Paul’s Union Depot to the Mall of America in Bloomington within 44 minutes, crossing 20 stations.
Operation and maintenance is projected at $35 million per year.
“I feel a mixture or excitement and anxiety and nervousness,” said committee member Rebecca Noecker, who represents downtown St. Paul and part of West Seventh Street on the St. Paul City Council. “It’s not an uncomplicated decision that we’re making. … Sometimes (West Seventh) is treated as a highway, but it’s not just a thoroughfare. It has a special unique character.”
The streetcar — lighter and cheaper than light rail — would share a travel lane of West Seventh Street with local traffic. It would likely operate no more than one train car at a time.
“That’s one of the benefits of us choosing a streetcar — that multiple uses can happen on this corridor,” said St. Paul City Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents Highland Park.
Tolbert called the transit investment something millennials and seniors agree will improve transportation options, boost development and add vibrancy to the city.
“The continued success of the Green Line and the Blue Line prove this,” he said.
Committee members expressed excitement about improving transit links across city boundaries.
“It’s high time for Bloomington and St. Paul to be connected,” said Bloomington City Council Member Tim Busse.
Committee member Laurel Severson, a former president of the West Seventh Federation, said the committee should have looked further into designating an arterial bus comparable to Metro Transit’s popular “A Line” service as a second choice if funding or engineering plans hit trouble.
“Many people don’t realize that West Seventh is a bluff,” Severson said. “You dig down three inches, you find rock. If we would have said ‘we will vote for the streetcar … and here’s our back-up, we’ll use the A Line,’ then I would have voted yes. But so far this body doesn’t have a backup plan.”
Restaurateur Pat Mancini, who owns the iconic Mancini’s Char House on West Seventh Street, also voted against the transit corridor. Mancini acknowledged that strong sentiment in support of the transit line at a recent public hearing was undeniable.
“The public hearing was kind of an awakening for me at Highland Park,” Mancini said. “The millennials came out and said ‘This is what we want, it’s the future.'”
In his calls to some 50 West Seventh Street business owners, from hair salons and funeral homes to restaurants, Mancini said he heard anxiety concerning how years of Green Line construction had shuttered some University Avenue businesses, permanently removed parking stalls and cut deep into many bottom lines before the light rail launched in 2014.
“The biggest message I heard was we’ve written letters … and we just don’t feel we have a voice. … Does it become a street of big box (stores), fast food restaurants, that sort of thing? I don’t know. I’m still not there.”
For the Riverview Corridor, years of study and evaluation remain.
Over the next several months, local municipalities such as St. Paul, Bloomington, Hennepin and Ramsey counties, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission will be expected to vote on the transit concept, which will eventually be added to the Metropolitan Council’s regional transit plan.
Two major studies will move forward simultaneously.
Over the next two years, a “locally preferred alternative” study will focus on engineering and environmental impacts along West Seventh Street, as well as whether the Minnesota 5 bridge can be expanded to accommodate the streetcar or whether a new river bridge should be built.
Meanwhile, a separate study will evaluate possible transit links to the 135-acre Ford site in Highland Park, which could connect to a spur of the streetcar route, as well as Metro Transit’s popular “A Line” bus service and other transit options.
The Ford site, which remains owned by the auto manufacturer, has been cleared of buildings and will be marketed for sale to private developers, with the goal of drawing upwards of 4,000 new residents and some commercial uses.
“Once we do the study and get more into the engineering, the discussion is much broader,” said Ramsey County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. “It could include Shepard Road, and it could including Snelling (Avenue as we evaluate) the Ford site.”
At Noecker’s urging, the policy advisory committee on Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution emphasizing that the next phase of Riverview Corridor study must include a design that prioritizes pedestrian and bicyclist safety along West Seventh Street, and meets the city of St. Paul’s “Complete Streets” pedestrian goals.
Noecker’s resolution calls for a plan “accommodating or relocating” the bicycle infrastructure that already exists along West Seventh, and a community process to evaluate street and sidewalk improvements.
“We just had a bicyclist fatality a couple days ago at a very busy intersection on West Seventh,” Noecker told the committee.
Her resolution also asked for a detailed plan and budget for construction mitigation “based on lessons learned from other transit projects in the region,” and a discussion between the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Ramsey County and St. Paul about “the best arrangement for ownership and maintenance of West Seventh Street.”
The policy advisory committee plans to reconvene in December 2020 to evaluate the technical and financial outlook for the transit line, including the state and federal political climate surrounding transit funding.
Some are hopeful that the line will be constructed by the year 2025. But transit officials were leery of making that commitment too firmly.
Busse, who works for the University of Minnesota’s facilities department, said he spent years involved in planning how the Green Line would roll into the Minneapolis campus, and discussions were sometimes difficult.
“The community did adapt, and I think it’s been a rousing success on campus,” he said.
©2017 the Pioneer Press (St. Paul, Minn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.