Northstar-Struck

Yesterday was the first day for the “Northstar” commuter rail service.

Now, commuter rail is one of those areas where I break with some of my conservative friends – with a big, red asterisk.  Unlike Light Rail, which is a pretty universal money pit, Commuter Rail – heavy cars using existing right of way and rails – is relatively inexpensive.  The forty mile Northstar cost less than half of what the seven mile Ventura Trolley did, and is currently coming around a quarter of the ludicrous, city-destroying Central Corridor’s price tag at the moment.  Had the Met Council opted to buy used rolling stock (cars and locomotives) and build its stations on the cheap, and had gas prices remained high and pumped up the ridership, the Northstar could have hypothetically been revenue-neutral and self-supporting in relatively short order.  Which, for a government program, ain’t chicken feed…

…provided you get all those “ifs” out of the way.  The Met bought new rolling stock (enh) and as always used the stations as an excuse to subsidize local artists, and the price came in a good third higher than it might have.

Still, for those who are trying for whatever reason to recalibrate their lives around the shiny new toy, madness awaits:

Trains were on time — the first one arrived three minutes early — but the first day was not entirely free of glitches. At Target Field, the doors of the 7:10 a.m. train didn’t open for a few minutes, so its more than 300 passengers were stuck inside. Once they made their way upstairs to the Hiawatha station, light rail wasn’t there to greet them because of a mechanical problem. A replacement Hiawatha train left the station at 7:25.

During the afternoon rush, there were some frantic dashes for closing doors, some doorway stumbles and even a few people who missed trains and had to wait for the next one. Only one person missed the final train, arriving at Target Field two minutes late on a connecting light-rail transit train.

Metro Transit has a way of letting you down; I can’t count the number of times, back when I did a lot more transit, that buses would run late or sometimes not at all, or schedules would be inaccurate, or bus stops would be incorrectly marked; for that matter, in one year I had two buses break down on me in mid-trip.  Carrying a bike with you in one of the bike racks, I came to realize, is a bit like having a lifeboat on a ship.

Susan Sullivan of Andover hopes not. “When I got to the Government Center, it was 10 minutes later than my bus ever got me there,” she wrote in an e-mail. “And I will be paying $2 more each day for the ‘privilege’ of riding this.”

And then there are those for whom ideology swerves into irrationality:

The sole outbound morning train to Big Lake had 44 customers when it headed northwest at 6:05 a.m. Kate Pound of St. Paul, was one of them and had one of the more complicated commutes. She rode her bicycle to a bus stop, transferred from the bus to a light-rail train and then to Northstar at Target Field. She departed the Big Lake station via a Northstar Link bus to her job as a geology teacher at St. Cloud State University.

“It’s great, it’s cheaper, I’m doing the right thing in terms of my carbon footprint,” she said. “But what if I’m late and miss my connection in Big Lake? As long as I don’t get stuck, this is the way to go.”

Well, no, Ms. Pound – moving to Saint Cloud would be the “right thing in terms of your carbon footprint”.  What you’re doing is salving your precious environmentalist ego, while continuing to live the high-density urban life you no doubt came to love while attending Macalester.  If I were to guess, anyway.

Anyway – if you’re taking the train, enjoy.  It’s a less-dumb option than the Ventura Trolley, and vastly less criminally stupid than the Central Corridor is going to be.

20 thoughts on “Northstar-Struck

  1. Mitch said,

    “…provided you get all those “ifs” out of the way. The Met bought new rolling stock (enh) and as always used the stations as an excuse to subsidize local artists, and the price came in a good third higher than it might have.”

    Do you have any budget figures which show that stations and new cars (oh shock, what a waste, buying cars that aren’t beat to crap like Amtrak was forced to at it’s inception) – anyway, do you have any proof that this was the cause of the project coming in “a third higher than it might have”? I mean, it came in UNDER BUDGET, a fact you didn’t really comment on.

    Also, when you consider cost of these kinds of programs, please consider the following –

    Cost of building roads as an alternate (and maintaining them).
    Cost of polluting effects of those additional cars
    Cost of gasoline used by those cars

    I suggest that perhaps your calculus of what public transportation costs failes to recognize what it saves. Perhaps not, but I’ve seen no actual figures here (ever) which suggest that you’ve accounted for those numbers. If you have, and still come to this conclusion, ok, then please show those numbers – but if you are simply looking at the cost side vs. income revenue of the trains themselves, then you’ve left out massive other expenditures which are required if you DON’T put a line like this in place.

  2. Do you have any budget figures which show that stations and new cars (oh shock, what a waste, buying cars that aren’t beat to crap like Amtrak was forced to at it’s inception) – anyway, do you have any proof that this was the cause of the project coming in “a third higher than it might have”?

    I’ve seen figures showing that, as of the early 2000s, Northstar could have been brought in in the 180 million range if they’d gone with used equipment and more austere infrastructure. Given that government’s first order of business with public works is to make them monuments to themselves, that was asking a bit much, but it could have been done cheaper.

    And as I noted, keep your stereotypes to yourself; I don’t necessarily oppose mass transit, provided it has some chance of becoming revenue-neutral or, better yet, turns a profit. Commuter Rail has a chance to do this; once the (relatively low) construction costs are amortized, and presuming the I94 Corridor keeps growing, and that gas prices keep rising, Northstar very well could.

    Indeed, I’d have supported the idea of the Red Rocks line – from Hastings up to I94, and thence into both downtowns via existing rail lines. It would have been relatively cheap, carried a ZILLION riders, actually helped alleviate one of the most congested areas in the metro, and, with a little care, been a moneymaker (and supplanted the Central Corridor, which is just a stupid concept).

    Also, when you consider cost of these kinds of programs, please consider the following –

    Cost of building roads as an alternate (and maintaining them).
    Cost of polluting effects of those additional cars
    Cost of gasoline used by those cars

    I do. That’s why I express grudging support for commuter rail.

    I suggest that perhaps your calculus of what public transportation costs failes to recognize what it saves. Perhaps not, but I’ve seen no actual figures here (ever) which suggest that you’ve accounted for those numbers. If you have, and still come to this conclusion, ok, then please show those numbers – but if you are simply looking at the cost side vs. income revenue of the trains themselves, then you’ve left out massive other expenditures which are required if you DON’T put a line like this in place.

    Numbers? Perhaps.

    As I’ve said for most of the past seven years, again, I don’t necessarily oppose Northstar.

  3. Actually, calculating the cost/benefit of Northstar vs. roads is pretty easy. Northstar, at a cost of a quarter billion dollars, has six ingoing and six outgoing trains per day for a maximum ridership of about 3-5000 people per day.

    Compare with the new highway 212 from Eden Prairie past Chaska, built at about the same price and capable of carrying (without backups) 80,000 vehicles per day. Northstar is about 40 rail-miles, 212 is about 40 lane-miles.

    Long and short of it is that even before operating subsidies are accounted for, highway 212 is about 20-40 times more efficient than Northstar.

    Regarding fuel usage, rail isn’t as good as you would think. If we allow that a maximum of 50% of seats will be filled at any given time, the fuel efficiencies of steel on steel are largely squandered by the inefficiency of the transit setup. You lose a lot by going outbound in the morning and inbound in the evening, and even more when you require a ton of steel on the train to move you. Given that you’re burning diesel instead of gasoline, it’s not exactly an environmental win.

  4. If they would bag the Central Corridor, they could use the parallel freight tracks which run just 1/2 to 1 mile north of University and heavy rail. re-utilize the SPUD for downtown Saint Paul, build a small station at Snelling or Lexington to link with buses, build another small station near the U of M, and terminate near St. Anthony with bus service into downtown Mpls.

    Could be done for a small fraction of the cost of the Central Corridor

  5. Loren,

    Exactly. This was the subject of a couple of conversations on the NARN. The Met had a couple of options:

    1) If they HAD to have light rail, then use existing rights of way through the Newell, Como and Empire yards. You could connect the downtowns fairly simply and for a tiny fraction of the cost of ripping up Uni.

    2) Or run the line down the Short Line, which is disused track that already connects the downtowns. They’d have had to build a bridge for it (the existing Short Line bridge isn’t even rated for pedestrians these days), but rail bridges are relatively inexpensive compared with, say, highway bridges), but the right of way is already ready to go (which was the one thing that made the Ventura Trolley come in at less than a billion).

    3) Build a *trolley* down University; it’s relatively cheap, gets rid of the 16 bus, doesn’t disrupt the street, and provides the local service the neighborhood and the inter-city trip needs, stopping every few blocks rather than every 1/2-full mile. Use the trolley to connect people to the commuter rail systems and, possibly, a LRT to the southwest (which’d be a novel idea; building the light rail from where the people ARE to where they want/have to GO!)

    But no – they picked the worst/dumbest of all options. Well, no – it could have been dumber; they could have opted to build a freight line down Uni. Other than that? Dumbest decision they could have made.

  6. Cost of building roads as an alternate (and maintaining them).
    Cost of polluting effects of those additional cars
    Cost of gasoline used by those cars

    So, do only cars use highways? And do drivers pay taxes to offset the cost of building roads? Or do the Northstar Line trains haul freight? And is the Met Council (meaning the taxpayers) subsidizing gasoline purchases?

    There are plenty of other questions to ask, Peev.

    I don’t think the Northstar Line is a bad idea per se, but it won’t make a big difference in traffic on 94 or U.S. 10. The cities where rail works best are places like Philadelphia where the metropolitan area grew along the line over time. Imposing new patterns on an existing metropolitan area? Not as much.

  7. “Cost of polluting effects of those additional cars” = nil

    Peevee continues to impress readers by how little she says with so many words.

  8. Likely difference in traffic on I-94: 3000 cars out of about 100,000 that the highway can carry. Not. a. Big. Deal.

    Definitely not worth the cost of 25 to 50 lane-miles that could have cleared congestion in that part of the city–and saved a LOT more gasoline and diesel fuel than a train ever could.

  9. If we must have another boondoggle, buying new rolling stock is correct. The original MTC when it took over the bus lines immediately broadened service with cheap, ugly buses, beginning the exodus of the middle class from public transit. If this is going to work, you have to have bring back the middle class and you won’t get them without such an investment.

    But the fact remains this shouldn’t have been built for the simple reason that no private builder would, because it’s going to lose millions a year, not counting depreciation.

    Also, note that these are strictly commuter stations. Take the train to Elk River and where are you? At least a mile out of town. You have to drive to ride.

  10. “It’s great, it’s cheaper, I’m doing the right thing in terms of my carbon footprint,”

    Given that the earth is actually cooling, and that higher temperatures are actually better for us all (especially here in Minnesota), isn’t she doing the exact opposite of the ‘right thing’ in ‘carbon footprint’ terms? :-)

  11. Oh look! Teh Peevee is back!

    Did you get tired of rattling around your empty room, teh Peevee? Or has your inane scribbling filled every square millimeter of space on the walls?

    HAhahaha!

  12. Nearly $200,000 PER STATION. For art. In a train station.

    Leave the walls blank. The local yoof will supply the art. For free.

  13. Penigma raises an interesting issue.
    For what purpose was the Northstar line built? What is it supposed to accomplish?
    Most people have a very narrow set of interests. Some people wanted to see it built because it made their commute less expensive. Other people wanted to see it built because they would gain a job or sell some art. Some people may have even believed that it would provide more bang for the buck than building another highway. Others would rather not see it built at all.
    The Northstar Line was built as the result of a political process. The forces that wanted it built formed a coalition and were able to exert enough political pressure to make it happen. That’s the only reason any project that uses public resources is undertaken.
    If the goal was really to save money or save greenhouse gas emissions, the last thing you would ever do is subject it to a democratic process. The goals of the social progressives are not compatible with participatory democracy. Factionalism, not reason, prevails.

  14. I finally dug out my password to comment here. I hate password protection, but Mitch’s comments on my blog were stuck in a spam filter until I rescued them (and they were good, too. Sigh.)

    Transit is always part of a political process. It has to fight for its money against roads, which are also subsidized. There is very little in the way of useful information that is consistently presented on the net subsidy to transit or roads, nor on the real cost of operating the various vehicles.

    I believe in a Free Market as the most efficient way of delivering goods and services, including transportation. I call myself a “progressive” because I believe that Free Markets are often an ideal that has to be created, nurtured, or perhaps tweaked a bit to be sure that everyone has equal access and can achieve their full potential. But the basic idea is good.

    Free Markets mean that people are making cost / benefit trade-offs based on their own situation. But with such terribly poor information, how can we talk about transit versus roads in Free Market terms? I say the same thing about health care, but the truth is that there are many similar examples in our world. Transit is one area that determines an awful lot about how we live, how much we are dependent on dictators like Hugo Chavez, and how many extra hours we have to work rather than spend old fashioned quantity time with the kids. It’s very important, but we have almost no information to evaluate the choices well.

    So we take sides and scream at each other. Great.

    I think Mitch is right on here. Commuter rail is very likely a good investment, at least when the population density starts to go up. There are other transit options that also are probably a good investment here and there, but it’s hard to say exactly – especially since it depends on the situation. We can be sure that the Central Corridor is a horror, which I write about often, but without real information the engineers who make a living off of this stuff can bow and scrape to the politicians who think bigger is always better.

    We have to do a better job of quantifying this and other similar issues in ways that make the cost / benefit trade-offs clear. That, I’m sure of. Until then, we have only rough guides. What I can say is that with the courage to make small plans, remain flexible, and watch the opportunity costs before we sink a billion bucks into one project we can accomplish one Hell of a lot. We all need to be willing to be surprised, is all.

    Politics? It’ll be there. But politics isn’t the problem – bad politics, poorly done, is the issue. That won’t change until we insist on it, and that means that “progressives” and “conservatives” are going to have to speak rather gently to each other. I’m cool.

  15. Nearly $200,000 PER STATION. For art. In a train station.

    Thank G*d Met Council never been to St. Petersburg or better yet, Moscow subway stations. If they have, budget would have been no less then $1,000,000 per station to promote their socialist ideals.

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