NEWS & VIEWS OF PHILLIPS SINCE 1976
Saturday November 18th 2017

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Transit Streetcars, Light Rail

BY JOHN CHARLES WILSON

There is no directly Phillips-related transit news this month, so I’d like to take this opportunity to write about streetcars.

As you may know, the Riverview Corridor Advisory Committee is proposing a modern streetcar line down West 7th Street connecting the Green Line in downtown Saint Paul with the Blue Line at Fort Snelling.

Modern streetcars are nothing like the old-fashioned streetcars that plied the Twin Cities until 1954. Essentially a modern streetcar is like a one-car light rail train.

However, streetcars, both modern and ancient, have two major flaws that caused their abolition and should ring warning bells in the minds of those who advocate their return: 1) They run in the street, in the same lanes used for automobiles. 2) They can’t be rerouted in an emergency; say, during a parade or when the street is being fixed. And what’s the joke about Minnesota having two seasons? Winter and road construction. At least rail beats buses in a snowstorm. During the Blizzard of 2010, buses were pulled off the streets but the light rail ran the rest of the day.

Light rail, on the other hand, usually has its own right-of-way or at least its own lane. Its efficiency derives from its separation from automobile traffic. That is why the Blue Line is significantly faster than the Green Line.

Since the basic difference between light rail and modern streetcars is the length of the train, it is possible to have “streetcars” that don’t run in the street. One such proposal is to run a streetcar in the Midtown Greenway between the future Southwest light rail and the Blue Line stop at Lake Street. Now that would be a good use for a streetcar – a faster alternative to bus route 21.

Most of the other streetcar proposals in the Twin Cities will do little or nothing to relieve traffic congestion, and will probably make it worse by blocking traffic. The only reasons these projects are so popular with transit authorities are: 1) They qualify as “capital improvements” which are eligible for federal funding; and 2) They appeal to tourists and developers. These may be legitimate reasons to favour it, but we should be fully informed before jumping on the bandwagon.

Next month, I will probably write about the December schedule changes and/or the completion of the Nicollet Mall project in time for the Super Bowl. Keep your eyes peeled!

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