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Med City Beat is an independent news source covering government, business and culture in Rochester, Minnesota.

Est. 2014

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Sean Baker Editor

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Norton thinks Rochester should consider streetcars

Norton thinks Rochester should consider streetcars

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton continued her quest Monday to convince city officials to consider rail as a mode of transit for the downtown circulator.

“We are supposed to be envisioning something exciting and new and transformative — and a bus lane ain’t it,” said Norton.

Norton’s remarks came during a Monday study session that featured a presentation on potential alternatives for transit upgrades. The city is reviewing options before submitting a funding request to the feds.

Among the options — the one that had gained the most traction over the past 12 months or so — is the use of bus rapid transit (BRT). These are buses that use designated lanes and operate at the same frequencies as rail.

An analysis provided to the city by the engineering firm SRF Consulting showed no major difference in potential ridership between BRT and the streetcar option. There was a big difference in cost, however.

The capital costs for a streetcar system could exceed $350 million, according to projections by SRF. By comparison, the up-front costs for a BRT system would be around $100 million.

The two options also differ in how they would go about getting federal funding. the BRT grant would go through the Small Starts program from the Federal Transit Administration. The process is often quicker and easier than going through the FTA’s Small Start program, which could take up to 10 years and is designed for transit projects over $300 million

Noting the wide discrepancy in projected cost, as well as the flexibility offered by a non-fixed transit line, the majority of council members signaled their support for the BRT option.

Proposed circulator route / DMC planning documents

Proposed circulator route / DMC planning documents

Among those cautious of going down the rail route was Ward 2’s Michael Wojcik. He said, at this point, the BRT scenario appears to be the most fiscally prudent option. However, he indicated a willingness to keep an open mind in light of any new information.

“This is one of those decisions we’re going to be remembered by whether we screw it up or not,” said Wojcik.

In making her case for rail, Mayor Norton said that streetcars, compared to buses, would motivate more people to use transit. She also said a fixed rail line could help promote economic development more effectively.

“We need both buses and trams,” Norton said Tuesday on Twitter. “I’m just disappointed in the lack of forward thinking, visionionary [sic] ... or for the willingness to use the DMC funds to really create something new, enticing and more usable for our community.”

Responding on Twitter, Council Member Nick Campion said he disagreed with the insinuation that considering costs equals not having a vision.

"BRT is about $300 [million] less than rail. That $300 [million] covers 75 years of BRT operations,” Campion wrote. “The visionary part is using the savings to make other investments in our community.”

The conversation on transit will continue into September. Both the council and DMC Corporation Board are scheduled to take up the topic next month.

In addition to deciding on a mode of transit, officials will also be asked to choose a south route. The two options are South Broadway and Third Avenue Southeast. The city also remains in talks with Olmsted County about whether the proposed mobility hub connected to the transit line would be located in Graham Park or on the former Seneca Site.

The west-running line has all but been solidified. It would operate along Second Street Southwest and wind up at the Mayo West Lot.

Sean Baker is a Rochester journalist and the founder of Med City Beat.

Cover image: Rendering of a streetcar line along Second Street

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