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St. Paul, Mpls. Consider Streetcars Despite Local History

Updated: 03/30/2014 11:14 PM
Created: 03/30/2014 9:43 PM KSTP.com
By: Leslie Dyste

As a solution for future traffic headaches the state's two largest cities are hoping to resurrect part of our past - streetcars.

Because they could cost as much as $50 million a mile, taxpayers will likely have to cover a lot of the costs.

For old timers like Russell Olson, streetcars bring a smile to his face. "You could sit there with your arm on the windowsill in the open air," Olson said. "Riding out in the country, on these country lines, well, it was really fun," he said.

For two summers, the 82-year-old worked for Twin Cities Rapid Transit, the company that operated the lines.

But even Olson wonders about a future for streetcars. "They're good, I'd like to see um (streetcars) come back," he said. "But the problem is, you've got to have ridership that can support the investment."

At it's peak, 530 miles of track ran from Stillwater to Excelsior, and in 1920 more than 230 million people hopped on. But slowly ridership declined and it tanked during the Great Depression.

World War II brought people back, but after the war, cars were affordable. "The automobile really did kill the streetcar," said Adam Scher, Senior Curator from the Minnesota Historical Society. "Not just in the Twin Cities, but across the country."

Buses were also an option, and historians say since Twin Cities Rapid Transit was a private company they could not compete. "The private property owners were caught in a squeeze between rising costs and inability to raise the revenues and fare," automotive historian Brian McMahon said. "It became a no-win situation."

Ads that were placed on streetcars made some revenue for the transit company, but the company was not making enough money.

"The economics of the streetcar were pretty dismal," McMahon said.

1954 was the last year streetcars operated in the Twin Cities. Despite the history, St. Paul and Minneapolis are working to fund new lines.

"I think we've gone full circle," Scher said. "People are tired of commuting from the suburbs, they want to live in the city, and cities are experiencing a renaissance across the country."

Federal money will be part of the equation, but taxpayers will likely have to subsidize the lines.

An estimated $50 million per mile is not sitting well with many business owners along Grand Avenue in St. Paul, which is an area of one of the proposed routes.

"It seems like a total mismanagement of funds and taxes, when there are so many other things that need attention," said Gary Huffman, owner of the Grand Ole Creamery.

The business owners also worry abut congestion. Picture a streetcar traveling in one lane of traffic that stops every single block. Then picture cars behind it, a few bicyclists on the road, and hardly any room to park.

The Grand Avenue Business Association says 75 percent of its members oppose streetcars on Grand Avenue, and most do not want them anywhere in St. Paul. They say they hope city leaders look to, and learn from the past.

"By the time this project is over, they might be out of office, moving onto something else," said Jim Fritz, owner of The Wedding Shoppe. "Meanwhile the next politician in office and all the people living in St. Paul have to fund the project and figure out what they're going to do with it."

Often when you talk about why streetcars were removed from cities across the country, the "General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy" or the "Great American Streetcar Scandal" comes up. Some people believe that lobbyists for the car companies essentially put streetcars out of business. However, every person that was interviewed for this story, said the conspiracy is just that.

There is an old streetcar that people in the Twin Cities can ride when the weather is nicer near Lake Harriet. Olson even worked as an operator for many years. However, the look of that streetcar is not coming back.

Minneapolis and St. Paul plan to have more modern looking cars. Both cities are still trying to figure out funding for the projects.


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