The news from the Metropolitan Council this spring that the Southwest light-rail line has blown way past all cost estimates to $2 billion presents a great opportunity to find consensus on a big decision that will affect the region well into this century. The rail line has not been fully engineered, which means we are likely to see more cost increases, even after construction begins.
A lot of ink has been spilled of late, but Adam Platt’s candid Opinion Exchange article “LRT as engine: Churning or not?” (May 3) probably best reflects the ambivalence of many Twin Cities residents. He acknowledges that rail transit is exorbitantly expensive and will not improve general mobility. He even bluntly concludes that the Twin Cities does not need light rail.
Yet like many, Platt is not quite ready to let it go, ascribing to light-rail transit a role in the renewal of “thoughtful urban development and design.” Like many, he wonders if LRT is an agent of change or merely a frill. Platt’s tepid but continuing support for light rail was reflected in our recent State of Prosperity Survey, in which Minnesotans overwhelmingly (94 percent) support modernizing roads — and made roads a priority over mass transit (65 percent to 29 percent), but many people still like the idea of expanding light rail (61 percent).
This means that we at the Center of the American Experiment have our work cut out for us educating the public about the costs of the Met Council’s transportation and housing plan Thrive MSP 2040.
So far, with the Blue and Green lines operational, the “urban amenity” of light rail offers only spot congestion relief and, according to Platt, really “cheap” rides to the airport. The people riding it may be the same people who used to take the bus. We don’t really know. Some even say it has added to congestion along Hiawatha and University avenues.
Surely, this performance does not justify the additional billions of dollars it will cost to build and then maintain light rail for decades to come. The good news is that it’s not our only option. It is not even our best option.
In addition to investing wisely in our roads for cars and freight, regular buses and bus rapid transit — which carry more passengers than LRT — can be built, operated and maintained at a fraction of the cost, and we do not have to reorganize the entire metro area to deploy more buses. Or adopt new lifestyles or housing densities to sustain a highly subsidized train system. (See “Met Council Power Grab: How the Dayton Administration Intends to Transform the Twin Cities Region for Decades to Come” at http://tinyurl.com/nlrnnkl).
Buses can be used just about anywhere they are needed (dedicated or regular lanes), and the dedicated express lanes could also be used by other vehicles (imagine a fleet of commuter “Uber/Lyft-type” vans or other nimble, user-fee-based solutions that get people where they want to go).
So instead of the metro area being reorganized to serve a fixed transit rail system, bus transit can be built to serve residents faster, cheaper and more conveniently. One of Platt’s concerns was that commuters do not see buses as a very cool way to commute. SouthWest Transit offers coach buses with comfortable seats and Wi-Fi. These kinds of amenities will attract commuters who may need some coaxing to get on an express bus.
I worked and lived in Chicago as a young professional. That city has a big, exciting feel, with all kinds of transportation options for 10 million Chicagoland residents. When I lived downtown, I walked, took transit and cabbed it. If I needed a car, I rented one. After I moved to Evanston just north of the city, I commuted by big rail. I loved that part of my day — but I walked or got a ride to and from the train and once it pulled into the station, I still had to walk or take a bus to my office. Door to door was close to 90 minutes. I could do it before I had children, but after that, I needed a car.
The Twin Cities is not Chicago, which bumps up against Lake Michigan on its eastern shore, or even Seattle (from where I wrote this article), which grew between mountains and Puget Sound. And it will never be like the dense European cities so admired by many American urban planners. We need to get over all that — and embrace the actual topography, weather and density of our region so we can meet the housing and transportation needs of Minnesotans. We also need to get over the idea that all roads must lead to downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Our prosperous region, home to more than half of the state’s population, stretches out in all directions without hitting much of a bump, let alone a mountain or an unbridgeable body of water. We are not densely populated; land prices are relatively affordable, and our highway system offers people and business a lot of options. We have room to breathe and still grow.
Yet Minnesota has been lectured for years that it will become Fargo if it does not embrace the latest fashion in transit and pile its residents on top of one another near the cities. That we are unsophisticated Northern clods who will lose the competition for talent and capital to more enlightened regions — all because we do not have light rail that focuses on moving commuters and employers into the core cities.
When someone is selling that hard, it is wise to look for the money.
Light-rail advocates, driven by federal “New Starts” dollars and other funding streams, are like that high-pressure salesman trying to sell you something you do not need and cannot afford. They have an exciting sales pitch, promising to take cars off the road with sleek trains that will remake our region into this urbane and “sustainable” magnet where millennials and other cool people will flock to live and work. Under the glare of their utopian vision, we are all our smarter, more enlightened selves.
The utter failure of light rail to deliver on its promise and the federal programs driving it is detailed in Randal O’Toole’s April 21 CATO policy analysis “Rails and Reauthorization: The Inequity of Federal Transit Funding” (http://tinyurl.com/puae348.)
According to O’Toole, we are the victim of “the tragedy of the commons as cites and transit agencies realized that, in order to get ‘their fair share’ of federal funds, they need to select the most expensive, rather than the most efficient, transit alternatives in any corridor.” As a result, light-rail projects are hogging transportation dollars without delivering better transit service. Such projects are claiming that they will bring all kinds of new economic development, when in reality development around light rail would have taken place somewhere else and often using taxpayer subsidies to build near light rail. As a result, O’Toole says, expensive rail systems are depressing growth and even increasing congestion.
O’Toole also recounts the systematic tendency to overestimate the benefits of light rail and to underestimate its cost, both capital and operating. For example: The Blue (formerly Hiawatha) Line had a 186 percent overrun; the Green Line, 65 percent. Even after cutting out stations or amenities, what will the overrun finally be for Southwest LRT?
People argue that we can’t back out now; we have already spent $59 million on engineers, architects, and a variety of consultants and agencies counting on this project to keep them rolling in taxpayer dollars for years.
Of course we can back out. The region and the state have never reached a broad consensus on light rail. Advocates have not only overbuilt the solution; they have overbuilt the problem.
Kim Crockett is executive vice president of the Center of the American Experiment.