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When it comes to public subsidies, Twin Cities light rail seems a bargain

When you factor in many of the costs of driving, you have to come to the conclusion that light rail isn’t such a bad deal after all.

The Hiawatha Light Rail line is one of the least-subsidized forms of public transit in the metro.

A few months ago, I was sitting at a meeting of the House Capital Investment Committee at the Capitol. Our elected reps were discussing the bonding bill. It’s a list of projects — usually stuff of a permanent nature, such as buildings, roads, dams and so on — that the state will borrow money to finance.

As you can imagine, not every item on the list (a building upgrade there, a heating system here) is riveting.

Just as my eyelids were drooping, one legislator went ballistic and woke me up.

The object of his ire: the proposed Southwest Light Rail Line, which would start downtown at Target Field and wend through St. Louis Park and Hopkins to terminate in Eden Prairie. The Dayton administration was asking for $25 million, an amount the federal government would match nine-to-one.

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“Light rail?” the legislator railed (pun intended). “That’s a total waste of money.”

He went on to complain bitterly about the Hiawatha LRT. The fares didn’t begin to cover the expense of operations, he ranted, leaving the state on the hook for endless subsidies. He didn’t explicitly say, but it sounded as though he would have been happy to see the entire thing — cars, tracks, stations and passengers — mothballed in a warehouse in Owatonna.

The upshot was that the $25 million for the light rail was scooped out of the bonding bill, and the state left $225 million in federal funds on the table where they could be snapped up by, say, Paducah, Ky., or Lincoln, Neb.

The other day, I happened to mention this incident to Jim Erkel. He’s the director of the Land Use & Transportation Program at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, a nonprofit that works with the government, courts and business groups.

It was his turn to go a little apoplectic. The LRT, he said, “does better on fares than any other element in the transit system.” This was news to me; so he gathered up some evidence to prove his point.

Before diving into the numbers, however, you have to know that taxes subsidize every form of transportation — even walking. Sure, you bought the shoes and own the feet, but the government of the town you live in built the sidewalks, roads and paths you use — and repairs them. Unless you pay a fee that covers the expense every time you walk down the street to the grocery store, your travel is being subsidized.

System (2008)Subsidy per
passenger/trip
Urban buses, local$2.17
Suburban buses, local$4.98
Express bus$2.48
Light rail$1.44

So the issue isn’t what is subsidized — everything is. The question is: How much goes to which form of transportation? The table at right shows how things shake out among different types of transit.

Another report, this one from the Office of the Legislative Auditor, compared the efficiency of the Twin Cities LRT to systems in other cities.  And, you’ll be happy to know that we ranked fourth on subsidy per passenger. That is to say, only three other cities, Denver (98 cents), Portland ($1.35) and San Diego (82 cents) spent less than our $1.44. Pittsburgh paid the highest subsidy, $5.22. Fares provided 38 percent of the cost in the Twin Cities. Only Denver and San Diego did better, and fares in Seattle covered only 5 percent of outlays.

Your next question is going to be: How does that compare with driving?

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After sweating over my calculator for a couple of hours, I realized that there’s no easy way to calculate that. But using my own form of goofy-nomics, here’s what I came up with.

From a report done by the University of Minnesota called “The Full Cost of Transportation in the Twin Cities Region” (PDF),  I learned that in 1998, state and local governments spent upward of $1.5 billion on roads and highways. Using an inflation calculator, I updated that to 2010 (the furthest I could go) and came up with a figure of $2.04 billion in government expenditures, give or take.

Divide that by 365 days, and you see that governments spends $5.59 million per day fixing and paving all those roads.

Back in 1998, Twin Cities metro drivers covered 71 million miles a day. Interpolating that with the report’s projections for 2020 gave me 89.8 million miles. I subtracted 15 percent of that to cover all the transit riders and was left with 76.3 million miles.

According to the report, Twin Cities drivers averaged about 32 miles per trip. I upped that to 35 for no other reason than that we have more sprawl than we had 14 years ago and probably drive a little bit further. After dividing trips into miles, it turns out that Twin Cities drivers make 2.18 million trips a day. That sounds like a lot, but remember, many people take at least two trips a day, to go to and from work. And just think of all the grocery shopping, child pick-ups, medical appointments, van deliveries and so on, and the number starts to seem reasonable.

OK, so then you take the number of trips per day (2.18 million) and divide it into the daily cost of $5.59 million, and you get $2.56. That’s about how much tax money goes to subsidize the average car trip.

I didn’t include all the money drivers spend to buy, insure, maintain and gas up their rides. For those depressing cost of ownership numbers, you can consult Consumer Reports.

With all that, you have to come to the conclusion that light rail isn’t such a bad deal after all.