I’ve written this before; I’m no anti-rail zealot. I can see cases where rail transit can make sense. I can see ery, very hypothetical case where some sort of rail line from Minnesapolis to, say, the southwestern suburbs might actually make sense; it’d take people from where they are (the bedroom suburbs, the inner city) and take them to where they want to go (commuter jobs in the city, all the jobs blooming in the ‘burbs).
I did say hypothetical. Right? Because that is as close as any of these projects ever gets to breaking even in a normal human lifetime.
The big case for “commuter rail” lines like the Big-Lake-to-Minneapolis Northstar Line – which differs from “light rail” in using regular rail tracks and right of way - was that, given a few conditions, it could theoretically get to “revenue neutral” relatively quickly. Theoretically.
- No buying and rebuilding of right of way.
- Buying used, or at least relatively inexpensive, rolling stock.
- Building austere stations.
- Having lots and lots and lots of riders.
These conditions, of course, are grossly offensive to Commuter Rail’s biggest stakeholders – the Urban Planning mafia. Rights of way need to be built to further the grand sweeping visions they have (building the line all the way to Target Center), or to show the people who’s boss (the Central Corridor, which is rapidly turning Saint Paul into Cold War Berlin); used rolling stock seems faintly plebeian for fulfilling grand visions, plus the various transit consultants have to scratch the backs of the equipment vendors; urban planners must also build all stations to be monuments to their, and their patrons’, wisdom.
And as rail lines have shown over and over, people just don’t like to be herded into cars to be driven down a fixed route that may only incidentally match their own, if at all. And usually for higher cost. They stay away in droves.
And with the Northstar, that is apparently what they are doing:
While views vary widely over the wisdom of constructing Minnesota’s firstcommuter rail line, just about everyone agrees the number of riders for the first year of Northstar service fell far short of expectations— 20 percent and 185,000 riders short.
And that hits us all in the pocketbook. Because the trains burn the same amount of diesel, and use the same amount of union labor, whether they’re half full or completely empty.
Guess what they are now?
When ridership comes up short, so do taxpayers, who were already expected to subsidize 79 percent of Northstar’s $16.8 million operating costs—before the shortfall. Passenger ticket sales were projected to pay for 21 percent of the cost of train rides, an operating deficit of more than $1 million per month.
Let’s chew on that figure for a moment.
The Northstar costs between $3.25 and $8 a ride; figuring an average of $6 a ride, that means the taxpayer is paying $20-24 for each passenger ride. (Even at the lowest rate, we’re paying $13 per ride).
That’s on top of the $4 per ride we pay for every single ticket on the Hiawatha Light Rail – which is likely to be about half what we pay per ride on the Central Corridor.
And it’s getting worse:
But we already know that Northstar’s projected operating costs for 2011 will put even more of a strain on taxpayers to pick up the slack. Metro Transit lowered its projected number of passengers for 2011 by 147,000 riders, some 16 percent under its 2010 goal. As a result, Metro Transit raised the amount of its projected taxpayer subsidy to operate Northstar in 2011 to 84 percent, some 5 percent more than its 2010 goal.
You do the math. Or I will; that $24 subsidy for a $6 ticket will grow to $30-36. Per ticket. Every ticket. Until such time as people decide they’d love to be jammed into metal tubes to go to work in a city where, by the way, most of us don’t work.
In 2011, Metro Transit hopes to attract 750,000 Northstar riders, about 40,000 more passengers than in 2010. Compared to last year’s less than expected passenger numbers, Northstar has posted modest increases in riders so far in 2011.
With fewer overall passengers expected to ride the rail service this year, Northstar’soperating budgetwas projected to decline slightly from $16.8 in 2010 to $16.5 million this year. Given the lower number of expected riders, ticket sales are expected to cover just $2.64 million of Northstar’s operating costs.
A rail system is one of those things that the Urban Planning mafia likes to call a characteristic of a “world class metro area”.
Apparently “world class” means “waste money like a crack whore with a stolen Platinum card”.