The Light Rail Money Pit

The Met Council has started making the same rumblings about building a new LIght Rail line to the southwest suburbs that they were making ten or so years ago about building one connecting the downtowns – the sort of noises that really mean “we’ve decided to do it, and we’re in the process of getting our political ducks in a row” – sort of like teenagers saying “I’m thinking about going to a party…”

Now, let’s be clear on one thing; I don’t oppose rail transit for the sheer sake of opposing rail transit.  And I don’t oppose it just because all the other conservative kids are doing it – far from it.  If it were shown that rail transit in any of its forms could, someday, be a fiscally-responsible form of transportation, I’d support it.

I’ll give you three examples:

  1. At one point in the study process, there were numbers that suggested that Northstar, and its companion concept (at the time, they were both concepts), the Red Rocks line (would would connect Hastings with the two downtowns via existing rail right of way in the East Metro) could have been revenue neutral (if you left the bonding out) – provided the Met Council observed a couple of caveats (bought used rolling stock, kept the stations on the austere side, and kept religiously to existing rail right of way without buying up any new land) and, of course, provided the paid ridership numbers were pretty strong.  And at the time – provided that the money, the logistics and the ridership tracked the way the report said it would (and my sniff test told me it was cooked bureaucratic books even then, but for purposes of argument, I ran with it), I figured Northstar and Red Rocks  could be wise investments.  Experience has proved those estimates…well, we’ll get back to that.
  2. The Central Corridor was going to be an expensive money pit no matter what.  But the Met Council could have gone two ways to make the line, if not a money-maker, at least less of a debacle.  They could have built it through the existing rail right of way in Northeast and through the Midway, and made it a much faster train; “Light Rail” trains are designed to go 55 miles per hour between stops that are spaced about a mile apart, and give you some actual speed advantage over riding a bus.  Or they could have built a trolley – literally, a vehicle that is intended to chug along at street speeds and stop every block or two, and replaced the 16 bus and served the traffic that really does use University, people who are carrying groceries home from Rainbow or coming home from the U of M or Concordia, or who live in the middle of St. Paul but work in one of the downtowns.  (Seriously – does anyone think that anyone travels between the downtowns for anything but business?  And if they do, why would they not drive?  And if they don’t drive, why would they not take the 94 express, which gets you back and forth faster than the train likely will?)
  3. If you just have to have a light rail train – one that zips along at 55 miles per hour between stops that are a mile or two apart – at least build one from where people are to where they want to be.  This, of course, rules out both the current trains; outside of Twins and Vikings games and a  thin film of people who commute from the eastern reaches of South Minneapolis to Downtown, the trolley connects destinations that people would mostly much rather drive to.  And the Central Corridor is the wrong train designed to do the wrong job.   But the Southwest LRT?  A line intended to connect Minneapolis to the booming southwestern suburbs?  That almost seems like it could make some sense.  It connects where people are – the bedroom burbs of the southwest, the tony garrets and apartments in the city – with where they want and need to be, the jobs downtown or at the booming IT, insurance, service and light manufacturing businesses of the southwest.  If you have to have a train, this would seem to be the one to start with, if you are focused on building a train to, y’know, do something useful.

But that’s not how or why our trains were designed.  

I’ve opposed the current rail transit “strategy” largely because it’s designed not to move people from where they are to where they need to be – something that could, hypothetically, be a less-profligtate waste of taxpayer money than what we have.

And as “profligate”, I’ve accepted on faith the numbers that the Met Council released a few years back that showed that a single passenger ride on the Ventura Trolley costs $6 – of which the passenger fare pays $2, and the taxpayer pays $4.  

If you were running a business that was losing $4 on every $6 transaction, you might hang in there for a while until you found a market.  If you ran a business that ran those kind of losses and connected places where people weren’t with places they largely didn’t want to go (at least in numbers to generate the kind of ridership that would support the numbers you used in your business plan, the one you used to buffalo your investors), you’d have been lucky to go into business in the first place.  Or unlucky.  Hard to say.

I mean, paying 2/3 of the cost of all of our current rail transit just seems like a waste. The whole story seemed bad enough to me, as it was.

That’s where Dave Osmek comes in.

Dave’s an old friend of this blog, a city councilman in Mound, and now a State Senate candidate.  And he’s been grinding some of the numbers regarding the state bureaucracy’s mania for light rail.

And it turns out I was being too pollyannaish.

More tomorrow.

10 thoughts on “The Light Rail Money Pit

  1. Kermit: If you build a government-subsidized football stadium, you are obliged to build a taxpayer-subsidized choo-choo train to get the fans to the game. The old wig-wearing white guys who devised our founding documents couldn’t have foreseen the fact that MLB and the NFL would become clients of government – which proves our Constitution is an outdated document.

  2. Not just the SW burbs either: http://www.mnsun.com/articles/2012/01/12/brooklyn_center/news/fw12bottineau.txt

    Light rail up Hwy 81 thru Robbinsdale, Crystal, Brooklynx Center, Maple Grove, Osseo and further NW.

    The article says “State- and regional-level studies have concluded that roadway expansion will not be able to keep pace with future growth of travel demand in the Twin Cities.”

    Bullshit. The only reason roadway expansion won’t be able to keep pace with future growth is because the environmental movement won’t allow it to.

  3. Oh, and related to the SW corridor, UHG wants to build a huge 4 building corporate campus on the SW corner of 169 and 62 in the undeveloped land. Part and parcel with that will be a direct stop on whatever light rail line will go thru there.

  4. Pingback: Train In Vain | Shot in the Dark

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