Ramsey County is gearing up for its “locally preferred alternative” for the Riverview Transit Corridor—the so-called modern streetcar line between downtown Saint Paul and Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport. The current plan reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of transit needs in the Riverview Corridor. It also misrepresents the modern streetcar, which will be woefully inadequate to the task and will miss important opportunities to benefit the East Metro region.
The Riverview Corridor has two important transit needs. The first is local service on West Seventh Street for area residents to access local businesses and services. This requires a bus with many stops to pick up and drop off passengers. Riverview is also a major transit corridor connecting the East Metro with the airport. With the Blue Line and the Green Line, it forms the third leg of the transit triangle that lies at the core of the regional transit system. It needs regional transit service that is frequent, fast and dependable on a dedicated right-of-way with a limited number of strategically located stations.
The modern streetcar attempts to answer both the local and regional transit needs, but it manages to serve each very poorly. The handful of stations proposed for West Seventh Street means there would be little local service. A modern streetcar running in traffic means that regional transit service would be inadequate and undependable. This is not a good formula for transit service today and certainly not a formula for attracting new development in the future.
Ramsey County has widely promoted its modern streetcar with photos of other cities’ streetcars. Streetcars may be cute and nostalgic, but modern streetcar implies a vehicle with a low chassis for easy access to and from the curb and a narrow body to minimize the impact on adjoining traffic. Unfortunately, the Riverview streetcar’s chassis must be high enough and the vehicle wide enough to accommodate the two Green Line and seven Blue Line light-rail stations that it would use at each end of the route. In fact, approximately half of the streetcar’s route is on existing light-rail track.
Modern streetcar implies a vehicle with a low chassis for easy access to and from the curb and a narrow body to minimize the impact on adjoining traffic. Unfortunately, the Riverview streetcar’s chassis must be high enough and the vehicle wide enough to accommodate the two Green Line and seven Blue Line light-rail stations that it would use at each end of the route.
There is a way to provide both high-quality local bus service the full length of West Seventh Street and high-quality regional transit service the full length of the Riverview Corridor with a light-rail line in a dedicated right-of-way. The Riverview light-rail line could follow the Canadian Pacific railroad spur from Highland Park east to Emma Street and the Shepard Road median to downtown Saint Paul. The West Seventh bus could connect to each light-rail station along the route, affording local residents easy access to both the airport and downtown. A short tunnel under a portion of downtown would allow for new stations at Xcel Energy Center and Landmark Center, and that way there would be no disruption during light-rail construction for West Seventh or downtown.
Following the CP Rail spur also avoids all of the problems with the modern streetcar’s river crossing at Fort Snelling. Instead, there could be a station at the south end of the Highland Bridge development and a new river crossing from the southwest corner of the former Ford site to the area of 54th Street and Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis and the Blue Line just north of the VA Hospital. This route would better serve Highland Park, reduce traffic congestion from the Highland Bridge development and save a quarter-billion dollars.
Now is the time for Ramsey County to make these changes and give us the transit service we truly need and can afford. However, it won’t happen unless readers call Ramsey County commissioner Raphael Ortega and Saint Paul City Council member Chris Tolbert and demand that the locally preferred alternative be reconsidered.
James Schoettler is a resident of Highland Park who for the past seven years has been closely following the deliberations of the Riverview Corridor Technical and Policy advisory committees.
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