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Jay Furst: What happened to DMC's transformative vision for downtown transit?

Jay Furst: What happened to DMC's transformative vision for downtown transit?

From the day the Destination Medical Center initiative was announced in 2013, it's been called transformative for Rochester. DMC would be a massive public and private investment to make the city a "global medical destination," with eye-popping 21st century design and planning that would draw national and international attention.

Point No. 1 in the DMC Development Plan was to "create a comprehensive strategic plan with a compelling vision for Rochester," and vision is a word that circulates through every pitch for DMC. The half-billion-dollar public investment isn't just to build bigger and better water and sewer lines, it's to take the city and region to the next tier.

That's always been a tall order, and there has been reason for skepticism. A reasonable person can wonder how many more travelers will come to Rochester during our half-year of winter even with a glass-covered Winter Garden, for example. But one area where DMC almost certainly can transform Rochester is in public transit. Transit is the centerpiece of everything DMC can do. It was a prime driver for winning legislative support, and it holds the greatest potential to raise the city's profile as a model for innovation and smart growth.

That's why ambitious plans have been discussed from the start, leading with a streetcar-type connection between downtown and the Saint Marys area. The DMC Transit Investment Strategy says explicitly, "Construct and operate a high-quality and frequent downtown streetcar line providing east-west circulation along 2nd Street SW and north-south circulation along 1st and 3rd Avenues."

So it's not outlandish to wonder, what happened to the streetcars? Where did that vision go?

"When we approved DMC as a Legislature, it was with the expectation that we would do some transformative things in the core of our city to make us stand out," Mayor Kim Norton said two weeks ago in an interview. "The rail concept was critically talked about from the very beginning."

Now it seems as if only Norton and a few others are talking about rail as a real option for getting people in, around and out of downtown. "I'm shocked to see how it's not on the table anymore and everyone's talking about BRT instead," she said.

BRT is Bus Rapid Transit, which is cheaper, more flexible in some ways and probably faster to build. But as one of the most important investments in the DMC era, does it deliver on the promise of transformative change? Probably not. It's an improved bus system with more bells and whistles.

Trams or streetcars, on the other hand, could be the type of game-changing investment that DMC promoters have promised.

The Integrated Transit Studies that were completed last year by a consultant for the city clearly come down on the side of BRT. The consultant estimates the cost of a BRT system at just under $100 million. A rail "downtown circulator" would cost more like $355 million to $383 million. Those estimates are hard to ignore and if you've ever seen Buster Keaton's The General, that's what the consultant did to the train.

In a recent column for Med City Beat, Council Member Michael Wojcik listed reasons why BRT makes more sense, but they're all one reason — it's cheaper. "BRT is the only realistic option that we have," he wrote.

That's not true. It's reasonable to believe that DMC Corp., the city, Olmsted County, and maybe private investors, with federal transit money, can develop a plan that includes a rail connection on Second Street. It's a bigger investment, but it's not unrealistic to pursue further. The city is in a once-in-forever position to go big. We have an opportunity to build a distinctive transit system that could define Rochester for generations to come.

Wojcik also says that choosing rail "would significantly drain the DMC capital available for other basic infrastructure projects."

Well, what's that pot of DMC money for, if not for transformative transit? It's not the only goal for DMC, but it's a big one.

The city council is talking about the two options today, and the council and DMC Corp. board will vote over the next month on how to proceed. It's one of the most consequential decisions they'll make. The train appears to have left the station, but it's worth asking even now: Will city and DMC leaders settle for good enough, or will they pursue something bolder and grander, more in keeping with the original vision of a best-in-class destination?

Jay Furst lives in Rochester and writes for Southern Minnesota Scene, Opera News and other publications, and works part-time at Mayo Clinic. The views expressed here are his own. He was managing editor of the Post Bulletin from 2000 to 2017, executive editor from 2017 to 2018, and wrote the Answer Man column from its start in 2003 until January 2018.

Michael Wojcik: Why BRT is right for Rochester

Michael Wojcik: Why BRT is right for Rochester