ST. PAUL-Engineers have all but dropped a possible light-rail line from plans to connect St. Paul's Union Depot to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and the Mall of America in Bloomington.
However, a modernized version of the classic streetcar remains a strong possibility.
Planners and policy advocates studying a potential transit route from downtown St. Paul to the southwest suburbs have six new recommendations on their hands, none of which include light rail.
Another option would be "arterial" bus rapid transit, a roomy modern bus that does not have its own dedicated traffic lane but could make limited stops.
A technical advisory committee composed of engineers and planners from Ramsey County, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Bloomington, the international airport, Metro Transit and other parties wrapped up a report in mid-June that narrows 18 options down to six, eliminating light rail and traditional, or dedicated-lane, bus rapid transit.
"They were dropped largely because of cost and ridership numbers," said Kevin Roggenbuck, a senior transportation planner with Ramsey County Regional Rail.
The base price is slightly higher for light-rail cars over streetcars, but other projected impacts - such as traffic, street parking and right-of-way use - were significantly greater.
Meanwhile, the technical advisory committee found that the cost per rider for dedicated-lane BRT is up to $5 more than for arterial BRT, which does not have its own exclusive traffic lane.
The technical committee will present its recommendations to the policy committee July 13.
The policy committee could adopt, reject or further refine the six recommended modes and routes before calling for further analysis this fall of likely ridership, costs per rider, and traffic and environmental impacts.
"Nothing is dropped, really, until the policy committee decides," Roggenbuck said. "There's more study ahead."
By the end of the year, the policy committee is expected to make a final decision on the mode and route.
Before then, business advocates, transit advocates and political interests likely will take up the cause or seek to block it. Ortega said he will have met with some 30 to 40 business owners by the time the July 13 policy meeting takes place.
Once 30 percent of the engineering is complete, a federal financial commitment for capital startup costs, such as vehicle purchases and track construction, will be essential.
"It's not only about ridership and cost-effectiveness," Ortega said. "There are environmental issues and social justice issues. We want to make sure we rank high nationally, and they're all important."
With Republicans running both houses of Congress and the White House, it may seem unlikely that an urban transit line will find federal support in the near future.
Ortega noted, however, that given planning, engineering and public outreach, it could be another eight years from now before construction begins, at the earliest, and federal attitudes toward public transit could brighten.
In the short-term, some discussion will center on whether to service the future residential and commercial neighborhood that is expected to replace the vacant former Ford manufacturing site in Highland Park.
The city of St. Paul is in the midst of a federally funded study of how best to use the Canadian Pacific rail spur into the Ford site.
A potential streetcar route could travel from downtown St. Paul along Smith Avenue or West Seventh Street, through the former Ford campus and across the Ford Parkway bridge onto 46th Street. It would connect to the Blue Line track at the 46th or 50th street station in Minneapolis and continue toward the airport.
"It would run on the same tracks as the Blue Line," said Roggenbuck, noting the two lines would effectively share Blue Line duties as they head south from Minneapolis.
The various streetcar options assume construction of a new land bridge between the Canadian Pacific Rail Spur and Montreal Avenue over Interstate 35E in St. Paul. They also assume the retrofit of the Ford Parkway Bridge, and a new tunnel under Hiawatha Avenue and the SOO line tracks in Minneapolis, as well as reconstruction of the Blue Line tracks south of 42nd Street.
The agenda documents for the July 13 meeting of the "Riverview Corridor Pre-Project Development Study Policy Advisory Committee" run well in excess of 200 pages, but it's pages 23 through 43 that will be of special interest to residents and business owners.