Rochester Mayor Kim Norton envisions streetcars as a way of helping the city turn a corner.
“We are supposed to be envisioning something exciting and new and transformative, and a bus lane ain’t it,” she said. Her comments came as the city council discusses two options for connecting proposed transit hubs to serve the city’s downtown as part of Destination Medical Center.
Norton, like her predecessor, former Mayor Ardell Brede, favors a railed option.
The modern streetcars being proposed are electrically powered rail vehicles used in areas with high transit demand. The lines are typically short — less than four miles — and have lower capacity than light-rail systems, according to a report by SRF Consulting, which is working with the city on DMC transit studies.
The other option being considered is bus rapid transit, which has seen early support from city officials and the DMC Corp. board. Also known as BRT, the system relies on frequent, high-capacity buses with stations every quarter to half mile. They typically operate in a dedicated lane with characteristics similar to a rail system.
Norton, who helped pass the DMC legislation when she was in the Minnesota House of Representatives, said the rail option was a key component for lawmaker support.
“Rail, light rail and high-speed rail were all part of the excitement that compelled many of us not only to support it, but to make sure it passed,” she said.
However, Norton likely has a steep hill to climb if she hopes to pull Rochester City Council members to her way of thinking.
“I continue to be sort of lukewarm toward the streetcar option,” Council President Randy Staver said. “Clearly, it’s something that’s more costly.”
Developing a rail system, which would require a dedicated garage and maintenance facility on the route, would cost an estimated $355.9 million to $383.1 million.
A system that relies on dedicated buses would cost $94.2 million to $98.6 million and could use the city’s existing bus garage.
The majority of council members voiced similar concerns this week.
“I’m way uncomfortable with those levels of commitment from the city,” Council Member Patrick Keane said.
Council Member Shaun Palmer was the only member on Monday to voice support for the streetcar option.
“I lean more for going big and having the rail,” he said, noting he uses the metro-area rail system but wouldn’t consider riding a Minneapolis city bus.
The SRF report indicates rail offers a slight advantage among users who aren’t daily commuters. Among casual transit users, rail is estimated to have a 15 percent increase in ridership.
At the same time, the report indicates most users will be daily commuters, who would likely not be swayed by one form of transit or another.
Council Member Nick Campion, who is also a member of the DMCC board with Norton, said that makes rail a hard sell.
“The numbers are just staggering,” he said, noting he’s leaning toward the bus option but remains willing to review additional information, including which system works best for passenger comfort and which would require potential land acquisition.
Council Member Michael Wojcik also said he plans to continue weighing the pros and cons of each option, but noted his preference has shifted from supporting rail to leaning toward the bus option.
“I have my thoughts today, but I am open to being persuaded between now and the final decision date, because this is one of those decisions we are going to be remembered by, whether we screw it up or not,” he said.
Olmsted County commissioners also reviewed the draft report comparing the transit modes this week and saw some support for the bus option.
Like Wojcik, Commissioner Sheila Kiscaden said she’s been an advocate for rail in the past, but has different thoughts when faced with options for a downtown system.
“I don’t think the streetcar fits as well as the bus rapid transit,” she said, noting continued growth and community changes point to a need for starting out with the flexible option.
While the Olmsted County Board — aside from its representative on the DMCC board — doesn’t have a direct vote on the transit mode, the county is expected to contribute approximately $46 million during a 20-year period to help fund transit-related DMC projects.
City staff and SRF plan to spend the coming weeks gathering public opinion on the options, with plans to present an updated report to the City Council on Sept 23 and the DMCC board on Sept. 26.
Patrick Seeb, DMC Economic Development Agency’s director of economic development and placemaking, said the early study results are intended to spur discussion and raise questions ahead of the September meetings.
He said EDA staff have not landed on a recommendation for the DMCC board at this point, but intends to have one prepared next month, noting more analysis is needed with the latest plans for a primary corridor along Second Street South.
He said a key factor in the recommendation will be the ability to create an experience that will motivate commuters to park at a transit hub, rather than drive downtown.
“We’re not there yet,” he said of knowing which route will be the best fit for the city.
The City Council will be asked on Oct. 7 to make a final decision on the preferred transit mode and route to connect the two proposed transit hubs.