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Value capture for Minneapolis streetcars?

A streetcar (also called a tram, tramcar, trolley, or trolley car) is a small train that runs on steel tracks, usually designed for the transport of passengers within high density urban areas. Streetcars used to be common throughout the industrialized world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but they disappeared from many U.S. cities in the mid-20th century when cars were mass-produced and became widely affordable for individual families.

In the recent decade, however, a modern version of the streetcar has emerged as a hot development tool for cities wanting to revitalize their central districts to spur economic development, ease traffic congestion, or draw people back from the suburbs. Using streetcars may minimize the need for cars while allowing people to live, work and shop within a relatively small area, and thus it can save energy, improve air quality, alleviate traffic jams, and transform neglected, underused land into healthy, lively communities (see examples of Seattle, Portland, and Cincinnati.

Among the streetcar enthusiast is the city of Minneapolis (Berg, 08/15 on MinnPost), which has include streetcars as part of the city’s 10-year transportation plan know as Access Minneapolis. The city finished a feasibility study last year and expects to select a starter line among three finalists. The “toughest problem” is how to finance the construction and operation of that line. According to the report, it is unlikely for the project to get federal grants before Congress passes the next transportation law, probably in 2010. The chance of county of state support is also low. That means the city have to be creative and find an alternative solution of its own -- for instance, some of value capture strategies.

Experiences in many cities have shown that streetcar lines catalyze real-estate and commercial developments. For instance, Portland launched the modern streetcar in 2001 with a $103 million capital outlay by the city. Since then, the project has spurred a 3.5 billion investment -- mostly private -- with 115 real-estate projects, including new construction and renovation, along the initial loop and its four extensions. Because the developments are created because of streetcar lines, it would be great if part of the increased value (in land, development, or business opportunities) can be “captured” back to fund the lines, for instance, by paying back municipal bonds that were borrowed to finance the construction.

There may be many obstacles for value capture strategies. For instance, Minnesota’s strict tax incremental financing (TIF) law may have to be modified to allow the city to borrow against future higher property values created by the streetcar within a specific district. Other value capture strategies are worth consideration, such as “special assessments and private sponsorships” (MinnPost).

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