Transportation Planning Casebook/St. Paul Streetcars vs. Arterial BRT

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Summary[edit]

In November of 2010, the local Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the Metropolitan Council adopted the long range 2030 Transportation Policy Plan [1]. This plan outlines strategies for combatting congestion, improving mobility, and promoting economic growth [2].

Location of St. Paul within Ramsey County and the State of Minnesota.

There are many agencies partnering with the Met Council to reach the goals outlined by the TPP. These agencies work across city and county lines, as well as within jurisdictions. These agencies are currently working on several projects that include different modes of transportation, in various locations, with varying levels of funding. The two strategies under discussion in the city of St. Paul that this report will focus on are are two technologies that are often designed to serve the same market niche: Arterial Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and streetcar. St. Paul is the second most populous city in Minnesota and shares common transportation challenges with the rest of the metro area. The population in Ramsey County is projected to grow [3], as well as the transit dependent populations of youth and seniors. As total population grows in and around St. Paul, traffic congestion on already poorly functioning corridors is likely to worsen.

Transit investment also has the power to spur economic development [4], and in St. Paul, this is evidenced by the soon-to-open Central Corridor Light Rail. The city of St. Paul hopes additional sound investments in transit will offer these same benefits.

This report provides a brief history of transit in St. Paul as well as an overview of current projects investigating aBRT and streetcar in St. Paul. Following this, a comparison of the two modes will be made to provide the reader with the advantages and disadvantages of each. Finally, a brief discussion of the potential West 7th Street corridor aBRT or streetcar implementation will be mentioned.

Annotated List of Actors[edit]

City of St Paul

Possible transitways are to be implemented within the city boundaries, where businesses and residents will be affected. Because city taxes are collected from these property owners, the city has an obligation to do what is in the public interest. In addition, increased property values from transitway implementation likely mean higher tax revenue for the city. The planning department must juggle the interests of property owners, renters, and businesses to ensure the best possible outcome.

Metropolitan Council (Metro Transit)

The Metropolitan Council is responsible for transit planning and operation in the St. Paul and greater Twin Cities area. Adoption of major transitways into the long range transportation plan must first be approved by the Metropolitan Council.

MnDOT

The Minnesota Department of Transportation maintains many of the large arterial roads that are under investigation for development of aBRT or streetcar. For example, Snelling Avenue is also known as Minnesota State Highway 51, and West Seventh Street is also known as MInnesota Highway 5. Implementation on these corridors will take coordination with the state.

Ramsey County

Ramsey County owns and maintains several large roads in St. Paul. For example, Selby Avenue (under investigation for streetcar use) is a county road. Coordination with county public works and the regional railroad authority must take place as the project progresses.

Affected business owners

The construction and operation of a major transitway can have profound affects on businesses along and nearby the route. Because of construction, businesses along lines may lose revenue due to interruptions of normal traffic flow that small businesses may come to depend on. Similarly, If the business depends on foot traffic, the invasiveness and duration of construction could limit access. Following construction, unless the street is widened to accommodate equal amounts of parking that was present pre-project, businesses could lose valuable storefront parking spaces.

Conversely, some businesses, if they are able to keep their heads above water throughout construction, may see increased revenues as more people are exposed to the area through transit use.

Affected Residents

Potential affects on residents include noise and air pollution from construction, as well as increased street level foot traffic in and around their neighborhood. In addition, the implementation of a transitway has been known to increase property values, forcing residents who are unable to afford these increases out of their neighborhoods.[5] An increase in foot traffic also might lead to a more vibrant, welcoming neighborhood.

Car drivers

Car drivers who frequently use a potential transit corridor will likely have to deal with detours and congestion during construction, as well as fewer lanes in which to travel once operation begins.

Transit users

What will be the time savings from these potential transitway implementations? Higher quality transit might also mean fare increases for minimal time savings, depending on the length of trip users are accustomed to taking. Transit network connectivity is an important feature of quality service, and should be optimized to increase convenience for riders.[6]

Funding sources

Transit projects often come with a large price tag, as will be discussed below. All levels of governments often contribute to some extent. Past transit projects in the Twin Cities have received funding from several different sources. Depeding on the cost of the project, federal and state funding may be available. At the regional level, the Counties Transit Improvement Board, formed in 2008 contributes funding to major transit infrastructure projects in the Twin Cities. Finally, Ramsey County and the City of St. Paul will be responsible for a contribution.

Background[edit]

Transit History in St. Paul[edit]

Mass transit in St. Paul began decades before the first electrified streetcar went on line. Horse-drawn carriages were able to haul several people through the St. Paul streets comfortably, but this technology also relied on the health of horses [7], and required several animals to service just one line throughout the day. St. Paul then borrowed the idea for cable cars from San Francisco, however, this technology soon fell to the early streetcar models, which were comparatively cheaper to build and maintain. Thomas Lowry, an Illinoisan-born lawyer who arrived in Minnesota in the 1860s only to change professions to real-estate, was an early influence on streetcars in St. Paul and Minneapolis. After merging the Minneapolis Street Railway and the St. Paul Railway Company to become Twin City Rapid Transit Company in 1875, Lowry pushed for a greater network of transit, and for this network to be driven by electricity.

A map of the streetcar system in the Twin Cities in 1897.

In the first three decades of the 20th century, electric streetcars were the most popular form of motorized transportation in St. Paul. At the height of streetcar use, the company operated 900 self-built streetcars on 523 miles of track in and around the Twin Cities. However, with the refinement of the internal combustion engine came the rise of the automobile and bus, and the inevitable decline of the streetcar. After World War II came the suburbanization of the Twin Cities, and streetcars could no longer compete with the automobile to reach distant residential areas. With increased affluence, more families were buying cars and demanding roadways to accommodate their purchases [8].

In addition to the competition between streetcars and automobiles, a series of leadership changes and publicized controversies led to the last new stretch of track laid in 1947. In 1954, three years after initial discussions with General Motors, then Twin City Rapid Transit Company president Fred Ossanna discontinued service of streetcars, and buses purchased from GM began service along many of the same routes [9].

Since the decommissioning of streetcar in St. Paul (and the Twin Cities), heavily traveled tracks have been paved over and pulled up, leaving a relic expanse of transportation lying underneath the streets. However, with a collective push for reinvestment in transportation modes besides automobile, St. Paul has begun to consider options for improvements to the existing network of bus routes. Included in these considerations are Arterial Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and a reinvented, modern version of past streetcar systems.

Current Status[edit]

In the Transportation Policy Plan (TPP) adopted by the Metropolitan Council in 2010, a goal was set to double transit ridership by 2030 [10]. This target could be achieved through a growth and maintenance of bus ridership, as well as the implementation of new rail and rapid bus systems. Two major projects studying streetcar and BRT in St. Paul are underway to examine how these two systems might help achieve the goal set forth by the 2010 TPP.

Arterial BRT Studies in St. Paul

Arterial Bus Rapid Transit opportunities for the city of St. Paul were presented in the 2012 Arterial Transitway Corridor Study completed by Metro Transit. This study examined some of the Twin Cities most heavily traveled transit corridors. The goal of the study was to develop a facility and service plan to enhance efficiency, speed, reliability, customer experience, and transit market competitiveness on 11 high-demand urban transitway corridors. Of these 11 corridors, five are located in St. Paul. These include Robert Street, West Seventh Street, East Seventh Street, Snelling Avenue, and part of Lake Street. This study recommended near-term aBRT implementation on Snelling Avenue and West Seventh Street. Currently, the Snelling Avenue study is undergoing preliminary engineering, where a request for proposal has been issued for station design. The Snelling Avenue route is scheduled to open in 2015, the West 7th route in 2016, and a goal has been set to open an additional line each subsequent year.

Streetcar Studies in St. Paul

Through the 2007 Minneapolis Streetcar Feasibility Study, St. Paul has undertaken an examination of local opportunities for streetcar. Currently, the St. Paul Streetcar Feasibility Study is scheduled to conclude at the end of 2013. This study is currently in the second of three phases. The January 2013 Phase 1 filtered a long list of potential streetcar corridors into a shorter one. Phase 2, which was concluded in August of 2013, further examined the recommendations from Phase 1. Phase 2 narrowed the list of potential lines to seven: Rice Street, Payne Avenue, East 7th Street, Robert Street, West 7th Street, Grand Avenue, and Selby-Snelling Avenue. From these seven, Phase 3 will determine the most effective streetcar lines and segments to pursue through outreach and further data-driven analysis completed by consulting groups. From these Phase 3 recommendations, a single line will be identified for initial implementation. Pre-Project Development (formerly known as an Alternatives Analysis under SAFETEA-LU) will likely begin to identify environmental impacts, and a locally preferred alternative (LPA) will be selected.

Possibility of Both BRT and Streetcar[edit]

It is possible that the two technologies described in this article will both be pursued for implementation. The West 7th corridor, more widely known as the Riverview corridor, is under investigation by both Metro Transit for aBRT use and the St. Paul Streetcar Feasibility Study. Arterial BRT may serve a longer distance trip between the St. Paul Union Depot and the Mall of America, whereas streetcar may compliment this service with shorter trips along a route with more stops. In addition, the Ramsey County Regional Rail Authority is examining this corridor for more robust systems, including Light Rail Transit (LRT) and dedicated BRT. The coordination and cooperation of different agencies will determine which system is to be deployed.

Justification for Transit Improvements in St. Paul[edit]

Currently many streets in Saint Paul are reaching capacity loads along their lengths or at choke-points. A portion of Snelling Avenue which has both aBRT and streetcar considerations (aBRT will be running by 2015), carries over 40,000 vehicles daily. Another street being considered for both these modes is West Seventh, or Old Fort Road, carries nearly 20,000 vehicles near downtown Saint Paul daily. This traffic can cause long delays for motor vehicles and current transit (buses) alike. [11]

Saint Paul has also taken steps to increase density in the city, and is forseen to be successful in these efforts as, in the Metropolitan Council's 2040 predictions Saint Paul will grow by 54,000 residents.[12] This as well as growing suburban commuters will put more strain on Saint Paul's street grid if the current infrastructure remains largely unchanged. To accommodate the growing need for transportation, an expansion of transit must take place. As many of these routes involve heavy boardings at transfer points already (84 at University, 54 at Sibley Plaza), an easier way to speed up service would be to have off-board payment, fare collection, level boarding and multiple door boarding, things that both these plans provide.

Streetcar vs. BRT: Generic Arguments[edit]

Excluding factors specific to St. Paul, there are a number of generic consideration when weighing the costs and benefits of streetcar and arterial BRT. This section summarizes the literature related to those generic arguments.

Capital and Operating Cost[edit]

The absolute costs of streetcar and arterial BRT can vary dramatically according to the context. The South Lake Union Streetcar in Seattle cost $52 million to construct [13] while a "starter" streetcar line proposed for Minneapolis along Nicollet Avenue is estimated to cost $182 million [14]. Similar cost variations can be found for BRT. In an effort to facilitate a useful comparison, we have provided the cost estimates from an alternative analysis where both arterial BRT and streetcar were considered. Thus, the context specific costs will be constant across modes.

The table below provides cost information for the Nicollet/Central corridor in Minneapolis [15]. The data was summarized from the Nicollet Alternatives Anaysis and Metro Transit's Arterial BRT study. It is importat to note that there were differences in assumptions and service quality between the two analyses, which impact the ultimate ridership counts and thus the per rider values provide below [16]. The results are instructive nonetheless.

Line Length (miles) 2030 Avg Weekday Project Boardings 2030 Avg Weekday New Riders Capital Cost (million $) Operating Cost (million $) Capital Cost/Weekday Rider
Enhanced Bus 9.2 13,400 -1,700 94 13.6 $7,015
Streetcar 9.2 19,900 900 393 20.1 $19,749
Streetcar starter line 3.4 7,200 1,200 200 10.6 $27,778
Met Transit Arterial BRT 21.8 34,700 6,700 110.7 9.06 $3,190

The St. Paul Streetcar Feasibility Study provides additional information regarding the operating and capital costs of bus, LRT and streetcar by comparing peer cities[17]. Below, "OC" stands for "operating cost."

City OC/Revenue Hour by Bus OC/Revenue Hour by Streetcar OC/Revenue Hour by Light Rail Streetcar OC/Bus OC Streetcar OC/Light Rail OC OC of Bus OC of Light Rail
Twin Cities $124.00 n/a $379.96 - - - -
Portland $136.19 $218.36 $349.12 160% 62.5% $198.82 $237.64
Seattle $148.75 $208.26 $345.45 140% 60% $173.61 $229.06

In terms of capital costs, construction is expected to cost anywhere from $58.6 to $71.8 M/mile in 2013 dollars. For the sake of comparison, the South Lake Union Streetcar, which was completed in 2007, cost $43 M/mile to construct.

Ridership[edit]

There are many considerations when evaluating the potential ridership variations between streetcars and arterial BRT. However, there are two that weigh most heavily on the subject and neither of them are easily resolved. The first is "rail bias." This effectively means that, all else equal, people are more likely to ride a rail-type transit option than a bus. Of course, the actual level of this bias vary's from region to region and some might argue that other factors are at play. For example, it may also vary according to the relative quality of the rail and bus transit. In the Twin Cities this rail bias was observed after the construction of the Blue Line. Specifically, local study of the phenomena found that "in some cases travelers will see up to a 25 minute weighted travel time savings over a comparable bus trip." It is important to remember that this bias occurs between LRT and regular bus. We are interested in the potential ridership difference between streetcars and arterial BRT. Does the same bias apply in this case? The service designs for LRT and regular bus are substantially dissimilar. The service designs and infrastructure features for arterial BRT are more likely to reflect that of the streetcar design than the prior case. In the Nicollet-Central alternatives analysis produced by URS, they assumed as similar but reduced bias in favor of streetcar [18]. The product of this assumption is reflected in the ridership values provided above. Broader research on the preferences between rail and bus is less conclusive than the biases stated above. One frequently cited paper by Moshe ben-Akiva and Takayuki Morikawa found that the preference for rail dissolves when service characteristics like the trip fare and travel times are comparable across mode[19]. More research on the subject is warranted but this paper suggests that claims of rail bias ought to be re-framed in terms of service quality instead of mode.

The second factor to consider when evaluating ridership is the capacity of that mode to accommodate future growth(assuming future growth is a reasonable expectation). Buses tend to have more seats, but streetcars tend to have more overall capacity when standing rooms is considered. The URS report reference above also found that streetcars are better able to accommodate future growth (page 19). It is important to recognize that there are those who would argue that the capacity advantage of streetcar over bus or BRT is nonexistent [20].

Economic Development[edit]

The economic development benefits of BRT and Streetcar are often praised by advocates and politicians. The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority claims that Cleveland's HealthLine has leveraged more than $4.3 billion in economic development benefits [21]. In a bid by Oakland to open a streetcar system, they have highlighted claims that the streetcars constructed in Seattle and Portland produced $2.4 billion and $3.5 billion in economic development, respectively[22]. Academic literature on the economic development benefits of streetcar is scant and remains far from conclusive[23]. Peer reviewed research on the subject remains even more elusive. Research on the economic development associated with BRT is more plentiful and has been helpfully summarize by Dr. David Levinson on his blog the Transportationist.

HealthLine BRT and station in Cleveland
Seattle's South Lake Union Streetcar

In order to assess the economic development potential for arterial BRT or streetcar, it is first necessary to understand the dimensions of a proposed transit improvement. These dimensions of service design include speed, convenience, frequency, infrastructure components, etc. They can vary broadly from project to project and each of these factors may facilitate or diminish the economic development potential of a project. A useful measure of these characteristics has been produced by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP)[24]. As was noted in the ridership section above, research suggests these characteristics impact ridership levels regardless of the mode (bus or rail). It is quite feasible that the same is true for economic development. Research from the ITDP (scheduled to be released on Sept. 2th, 2013) finds that a well designed BRT system may have more economic development potential than an equivalent streetcar system from an investment vs. return perspective[25]

Comfort[edit]

Comfort is a very important factor when people are choosing their transport means. [26].

Unlike traditional bus stops, arterial BRT and streetcar both have uniquely designed stations, which can provide weather protection, shelter and a waiting facility.[26]. Features such as security cameras, and periodic security officers offer an important sense of security to passengers, which also helps with the sense of confort. What’s more, there are real-time information booths or information screens informing passengers when the next vehicle will arrive. Of course, these additional design features are tied to higher design and construction costs.

One of the big reasons why many Americans don’t like buses is that they don't provide the smooth ride expected by rail transit. In many cases, they simply are not comfortable[27]. Although arterial BRT is smoother than traditional buses, the comfort provided does not match that of streetcars.

Both streetcar and aBRT stations offer off-board fare collection, which increases comfort, especially in cold winter months.

Convenience[edit]

Capacity depends on the size of cars and frequency. Larger size increases capacity, but it may result in higher daily cost and maintenance fees. BRT is usually considered as high-capacity and frequency is decided by traffic demand. The streetcar in Portland runs approximately every 14 minutes on the NS Line and 18 minutes on the CL Line on weekdays between 9:30am and 5pm. Before 9:30am and after 5:00pm the trains run every 15-21 minutes on the NS Line and every 20-22 minutes on the CL Line[28]. While BRT in Cape Town runs every 10-20 minutes between 5.45AM and 10PM[29].

A high running speed not only minimizes total number of cars needed in the fleet, but also shortens travel time. Typical speeds of BRT systems range from 17 to 30 miles per hour (27 to 48 km/h) and Arterial BRT projects in mixed flow traffic or designated lanes operate between 12 and 17 miles per hour)[30].

Comparing with BRT, streetcar is much slower. The Portland Streetcar's scheduled speed, within downtown and NW Portland, is around 6.5 miles per hour[31].

The distance of stops/stations can greatly impact speed. BRT often has long station distance because it needs to maintain its speed and therefore cannot frequently stop. Ashland BRT in Chicago stops every 0.5 miles (totally line length 16 miles)[32]. As streetcar, the average distance between two stations of NS line in Portland is 0.08 mile (totally line length 3.9 miles). Overall BRT is more capable for long distance transport while streetcar for short distance.

Safety[edit]

Usually BRT enjoys its exclusive lane and signal priority on street, thereby ensuring some level of safety. However, arterial BRT will not always have the right-of-way and will likely be required to share roads with other vehicles. To develop better infrastructure for hosting the 2016 Olympics, Rio launched an ambitious transportation plan of BRT lanes. However, after just three months of operation of BRT, Rio reported at least four pedestrian accidents causing death, and five vehicle collisions[33].

Streetcar shares lanes with automobile traffic as well. In this case, streetcar is no different from arterial BRT. However, streetcar is relatively safer because it is also slower. Street grade rail may also present issues for cars. It may create unsafe environment when drivers naturally avoid tracks. Cyclists need to pay special attention when they are riding because the tire may pump into the flangeway if they cross at a shallow angle. [34].

Energy[edit]

Arterial BRT is gasoline or gasoline/electricity-hybrid-powered, whereas most streetcar systems use electricity only. Although point pollution does not exist from streetcar systems, electricity generation used for streetcar power must be considered when weighing energy use.

As we can see from the table on the right[35], trolley bus(streetcar) on average moves 104.4 Pass-mi/Gal while transit bus moves 32.5 Pass-mi/Gal. Depending on the vehicle used in the BRT system, it is likely that streetcar uses less energy. From the next six columns we could also infer that streetcar uses less energy per Pass-mi and emits less CO2, which is believed to be the main cause of global warming.

West 7th Street Case Study[edit]

Along West 7th Street, both aBRT and streetcars are being considered. This line provides several good points for debating the topic of which style of transit should be implemented. The land use around where the streetcar is planned (to Randolph Avenue) to run is largely institutional and residential housing, often with a few blocks of high density and activity placed through out the corridor, but no continuity. The ideal for development along this corridor would be to make this density and developments more continuous and with more consistent density. However many of the riders on this line are simply travelling to or from outside this corridor. With a recent ride check (route 54, Sunday the 15th, evening) having 36 people ride into this segment of the corridor from the south, and 37 ride into the city from Bloomington. aBRT plans for this by continuing the line beyond Otto, through to the airport and Mall of America, while the streetcars plan for this by suggesting a light rail extension/hybrid system could be implemented beyond Otto Avenue, out to beyond the city. [36]

The aBRT for this corridor has been fully studied already and shows an improvement in travel time of 2 minutes over the length of the entire route for a 4% decrease in time (36 minutes to 34 minutes). This is one of the smallest improvements in actual travel time across the entire planned aRT network, with most other routes having a time savings of 10% or more, (exceptions include Lake St. where aBRT will only be 3 minutes faster than the 53) Partially this is due to the fact that one of the biggest advantages for aBRT over normal bus service, fewer stops, has already been implemented by the 54 (and 53), a limited stop route. Streetcar connections have not yet been fully evaluated for their speed, but is currently listed at ~12 mph, whereas current service is ~19 mph.

Lastly aBRT is being implemented along this route as the second aBRT for the cities, even due to the fact that it is the 3rd worst scoring line (out of 11) in a technical metric. And was shown to have one of the lowest user benefits associated with its implementation. This was done, in large part to Saint Paul not announcing it's study of steetcars until after the aBRT routes had been evaluated and the area around the line being fully developed.

General costs for the lines are vastly different, here we will use cost per mile because aBRT and the streetcar have different terminal points. The streetcar line has a cost per mile of ~$60million per mile [37], the aBRT is shown as ~$2.4million per mile.[38]

Additional Readings[edit]

St. Paul Streetcar Feasibility Study

Arterial Transit Corridor Study

Does BRT have Economic Development Effects?

Do Streetcars Promote Economic Development?

References[edit]

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  2. "2030 Transportation Policy Plan". Metropolitan Council. 2013. http://www.metrocouncil.org/Transportation/Planning/2030-Transportation-Policy-Plan.aspx. Retrieved 2013-09-14. 
  3. "Minnesota Population Projections". Minnesota State Demographic Center. 2013. http://www.demography.state.mn.us/PopulationPyramids2015-2040/Projecxtions2012Paper.pdf. Retrieved 2013-09-18. 
  4. "MORE THAN $1.2 BILLION IN DEVELOPMENT OCCURRING ALONG CENTRAL CORRIDOR". Metropolitan Council. 2013. http://www.metrocouncil.org/Transportation/Projects/Current-Projects/Central-Corridor/News-Display-Page/More-than-$1-2-billion-in-development-occurring-al.aspx. Retrieved 2013-09-18. 
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  11. Transportation, url=http://www.stpaul.gov/DocumentCenter/Home/View/11885, posted Feb 2010, accessed September 15th 2013.
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  15. Levinson, David. "Do Streetcars Promote Economic Development?" streets.mn, August 26, 2013. Accessed September 19, 2013. http://www.streets.mn/2013/08/26/do-streetcars-promote-economic-development/
  16. "Detailed Evaluation of Alternatives: Nicollet-Central Transit Alternatives." Page 15. Produced by URS for the City of Minneapolis, August 2013. Accessed September 16,2013. http://www.minneapolismn.gov/nicollet-central/
  17. St. Paul Streetcar Feasibility Study. Produced by NelsonNygaard Consulting Associates Inc. for the City of St. Paul. Accesses September 18, 2013. http://www.stpaul.gov/DocumentCenter/View/66490
  18. "Detailed Evaluation of Alternatives: Nicollet-Central Transit Alternatives." Page 15. Produced by URS for the City of Minneapolis, August 2013. Accessed September 16,2013. http://www.minneapolismn.gov/nicollet-central/
  19. Ben-Akiva, Moshe, Takayuki Morikawa. 2002. "Comparing ridership attraction of rail and bus." Transport Policy, 9(2): 107-116.
  20. O'Toole, Randal. June 14, 2014. The Great Streetcar Conspiracy. Policy Analysis, No. 699. Accessed September 17, 2013. http://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/PA699.pdf
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  35. M.J. Bradley & Associates: Comparison of Energy Use & CO2 Emissions From Different Transportation Modes. Published on May, 2007. http://www.buses.org/files/ComparativeEnergy.pdf
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