Streetcars are the best fit for St. Paul, a panel says

A panel says a streetcar line is the best way to connect downtown and the airport.

They've been looking at the options for years and now an advisory committee in St. Paul is telling the city they should build a streetcar line to connect downtown with the airport and Mall of America. 

It's just a recommendation, nothing final, and it was handed this week to the Riverview Corridor's Policy Advisory Committee. 

That group plans to decide by the end of the year whether to go after the approvals – and the money – it would take to build the line.

Why streetcars? 

This summer planners ruled out the idea of trying to squeeze a light rail line onto West Seventh Street, which is St. Paul's main route connecting downtown with the airport.

Since then they've been looking at three options: a streetcar line, a Bus Rapid Transit line like the one in place along Snelling Avenue, or doing nothing and just going with the existing bus lines.

Backers of the streetcar idea like the fact that it doesn't need its own lane, like light rail does. The streetcars would run on tracks built into the street. 

The recommendation points out that the tracks don't interfere with cars, which can drive over them when no streetcars are around. They also say the streetcars move more people than buses. 

"Expensive and unnecessary"

The streetcar project would cost $1.2 billion, the Pioneer Press reports, and one member of the advisory panel who disagreed with their recommendation called it "expensive and unnecessary," the paper says. 

That committee wanted to go with the Bus Rapid Transit option, but some business owners along West Seventh prefer the don't-build-anything one. 

Dave Cossetta, who own's Cossetta's Restaurant, told KSTP this summer: "West 7th Street is not wide enough and can't even handle the traffic it has now. You add another element in there, and it will absolutely stop business as we know it today."

Today's streetcars 

For some of us the word "streetcar" brings to mind something that's pulled by a horse. 

But cities including Seattle, Portland, and Kansas City have been using "modern" streetcars for years. 

Members of St. Paul's Riverview Corridor group visited the Kansas City one and were impressed. They posted a video explaining some of the basics of today's streetcars, which are smaller and more nimble than light rail trains. 

Metro Magazine says while train passengers are typically traveling 10 or 20 miles, streetcar users are usually only going two to five miles in an area where driving and parking are not convenient.

You can comment on the streetcar idea at a public hearing the Riverview Corridor is holding at St. Paul's Highland Park High School on November 9.

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