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

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.

“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
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?

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.

Comments (43)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Richner on 06/07/2012 - 08:44 am.


    Presumably the legislator who went ballistic was perennial LRT opponent Mike Beard (R, Shakopee). Following last year’s shutdown, he whined that too much money in the deal that was eventually made went to Metro Transit, complaining that his “friends” in SW Transit weren’t getting enough of the pie. Beard’s friends are likewise threatened by a big ol’ Metro Transit-run light rail line running straight into the heart of their turf.

    Thank you for the subsidy comparison. The Met Council has the numbers concerning subsidy-per-ride for buses vs. light rail available for everyone to see online in their annual reports, yet politicians are routinely allowed to claim that light rail subsidy-per-ride is greater than suburban buses without ever getting called out (at least in most media) on their misinformation.

  2. Submitted by Sean Huntley on 06/07/2012 - 09:17 am.

    Queue the right wing collectively getting a case of the vapors in 3….2…..1……..

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/07/2012 - 10:20 am.

    Thank you for the calculation

    The method seems fairly reasonable to me, and probably at least approximates the taxpayer cost of roads for individual drivers. I’m glad you also took into consideration that buses also use those roads, and probably overestimated the discount from public transit commuters because rail doesn’t use roads. So, if anything, your calculation probably underestimates the cost of a car on the road.

  4. Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/07/2012 - 10:24 am.

    Your numbers

    have a number of problems, not the least of which is that you assumed one passenger per vehicle. On a per person basis, and assuming only 1.1 passengers per vehicle per trip, the per passenger subsidy for autos drops to about the same as or significantly less than all but light rail.

    It does suggest it’s time for a more rigorous analysis of the type you’ve attempted here.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/07/2012 - 11:07 am.

      About the same as

      If you assume 1.1 passengers per vehicle, which would probably be generous, the cost is not significantly different and in fact only less than local suburban buses.

      • Submitted by James Hamilton on 06/07/2012 - 07:27 pm.

        The arithmetic

        If the subsidy per auto trip is $2.56 and one assumes ridership of 1.1 per trip, the subsidy per rider is 90% of the total subsidy or $2.30 per rider.

  5. Submitted by Sean Olsen on 06/07/2012 - 10:26 am.

    A good exercise…

    … to evaluate the subsidies of each mode of transportation. But the methodology here is really sloppy. For instance, one could argue that gas tax revenues should be counted as the equivalent of “fares” for driving. And the extrapolation of last-century reports to today — really? Guessing how many miles per trip? Where are the links to the data from the OLA report?

    This one needs a little more work.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/07/2012 - 12:02 pm.

      Gas tax should also be applied as a credit to buses, then, as well. The calculation is crude and far from comprehensive, but I don’t think that there’s a good way to calculate a complete subsidy dollar amount. If you could, you’d have to take into consideration things like traffic control costs, parking subsidies (yes, including park & rides), emergency assistance costs, uninsured driver medical costs picked up on public tab, etc. It would be incredibly complicated and probably wouldn’t provide you with any more information than we have with this crude calculation, and that is that transit by car costs at least as much as most busing and definitely more than rail.

  6. Submitted by Charles Holtman on 06/07/2012 - 11:16 am.

    When considering the level of subsidy for transportation modes, the dominant element is the level of subsidy for the energy used both to create the infrastructure (road/vehicle, sidewalk/sneaker) and for propulsion. Fossil fuels of course are massively subsidized; it would not be far wrong to say that our entire military/intelligence budget is an externalized cost of our fossil-fuel use, the environmental and social costs are extreme, and indeed the damage to civilization from climate change would need to be included as well. Even very conservative assessments (e.g., including only a small part of the military budget and not including the collapse of civilization) have concluded that gas would need to be upwards of $12/gallon at the pump to reflect externalized costs (the UMn study treads very lightly here). So the real means of comparison would be to determine how much energy is used per person-mile for different transportation modes. A light-rail car carrying one person wouldn’t fare so well but light-rail as an institutionalized replacement for single-occupancy commuters would fare very well. Southwest LRT isn’t being built for whom it will carry tomorrow, it is being built for how it will serve us 25 years from now.

  7. Submitted by Steve Roth on 06/07/2012 - 11:50 am.

    Who was the legislator?

    You really should have identified which legislator it was. It would be great to know who’s head is deepest in the sand.

    Years ago, prior to light rail getting started, Metro Transit had a big display at the State Fair, with a real-size version of the train, maps, details, etc. Part of the big PR effort. I got to speaking with the representative there, who was a temporary lobbyist/hired marketing/PR person specializing in transit. I asked her about the reception she got from our legislators vs. other cities/states. She said she was surprised at how “backwards” reps from both parties were, especially the GOP, when it came to transit – no long term thinking, misinformed, etc. She said it was probably the worst of the several cities she worked in on transit issues. I asked which cities were the best, and she mentioned Dallas as an example, where you would expect them to never see beyond their cars, right? Au contraire, she said, saying that the cities there were “tripping over themselves” to get stations in their districts, to extend the line further.

    When cities in Texas are more forward-thinking than MN, you’ve got to wonder.

  8. Submitted by Jeff Klein on 06/07/2012 - 11:57 am.


    Thanks for this. Every time we try to talk about rail there is this misinformation that somehow roads grow on trees but rail has to be subsidized. Everyone complains about a cost and it takes ten years to get done. But every time we rebuild a $1 billion highway interchange nobody bats an eye.

    All of this on top of the facts that rail travel produces less carbon, and being electric, could produce even *less* as we transition to renewable forms of power. It creates denser, more efficient neighborhoods with less wasted space. And it encourages biking and walking, which is essential to help our deteriorating public health situation. If anything, rail *should* be subsidized.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/07/2012 - 12:23 pm.

    The majority of cars are single occupant

    Well, since the majority of cars are single occupant, and we’re talking about averages here, I think the calculation is in the ballpark. Anti transit people always ignore the fact that their travel is heavily subsidized, and whine about transit’s failure to “pay” for itself.

    There are lot of other “costs” associated with auto that are minimized by mass transit, and not included here. Air pollution and it’s associated health care effects, energy consumption per passenger, parking, etc. all push automobile travel over the top in terms of over-all expense, and subsidy. A single occupant car that gets 40 miles to the gallon, is still only moving one person at 40 miles per gallon while a bus that gets 10 miles to the gallon can move 40 people for one fourth the cost per passenger. Light rail gets the equivalent of something like 300 mpg per passenger. With transit you have no parking issues, no land off the tax rolls for public parking ramps, etc.

    Furthermore, according a quick google on the subject, drivers are only paying 60% of the subsidy directly through gas taxes, the rest is either borrowed or funneled from other funding sources.

  10. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 06/07/2012 - 02:33 pm.

    money left behind

    Pawlenty used to do the same thing, veto infrastructure work and thereby throw away the matching funds. What point he thought he was making I never knew. I can’t believe this unnamed legislator isn’t going to anger his constituents by denying the state a nine times match. Maybe he’s hoping they just won’t know or will vote by party name.

  11. Submitted by James Murck on 06/07/2012 - 04:06 pm.

    Probably another Corporate Shill

    This legislator is probably from the district of British Patroleum…

  12. Submitted by rolf westgard on 06/07/2012 - 04:20 pm.

    Thank you

    for this excellent article. As one who has both testified and merely attended St Paul legislative committee meetings, I am astounded by the incompetence.

  13. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/07/2012 - 04:42 pm.

    It’s about time

    Nicely Done, Ms. Harris. I don’t think the numbers have to be absolutely accurate in this case to make the point a valid one.

    I’ll also second most of the comments. This is an issue that gets far too little attention to begin with, and when attention *does* get paid to it, the story is usually filled with misinformation about the costs of driving. Jeff Klein is correct, I think, in pointing out that transit opponents would have us believe that roads somehow are “free,” or are totally paid for by “user fees” in the form of auto taxes and fuel taxes. That’s not the case, but ideologues rarely let the facts get in the way of a good argument.

    I like Eric Ferguson’s point, as well. Turning down multiple federal dollars because we don’t want to spend one of our own dollars is fiscal stupidity of a rather high order. Isn’t Minnesota sending money to Washington in the form of federal taxes? Why would we not want to get as much of that money back as we can, especially when it’s helping to build infrastructure that should be usable for at least a couple generations?

    Maybe your legislative story is apocryphal, but if not, that legislator ought to be ashamed of himself. He’s certainly not serving the public that elected him.

  14. Submitted by Joe Rico on 06/07/2012 - 05:55 pm.

    Need more info

    Do these figures include the $715 Million spent building the line?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 06/13/2012 - 05:39 pm.

      Good question

      But if this number must be considered, we must also consider the initial cost (in current dollars) of building the roads, too.

  15. Submitted by Ethan Fawley on 06/07/2012 - 05:31 pm.

    True, but numbers a little off

    Most transit is a very worthwhile investment with a high return and good cost-benefit. And the “subsidies” argument against transit is certainly strongly overstated given the subsidies for roads you mention.

    The average Minnesota household “subsidized” roads $950 a year during that period in general taxes. The statewide average road spending per vehicle mile driven from 2004-2008 was 6.8 cents–half of which came from property taxes, sales taxes, and bonding that isn’t covered by “user fees” like the gas tax.

    We clearly need to get past idealogy on transit, and look to the facts: our population is aging, our region is still growing (Met Council estimates 30% more people in 30 years), and people–especially young people–want transportation options. If we don’t invest in transit, we’ll:
    –have an aging population that is increasingly isolated as they can’t drive;
    –our roads will get ever more congested (Mn/DOT estimates it would take the equivalent of a $2-per-gallon increase in the gas tax to expand highways enough to just limit congestion growth);
    –and we’ll struggle to compete with other regions to attract companies and young talent who look for options and high quality of life.

    I will note that there were actually an average of 7,699,899 auto trips per day or 3 per person in the Twin Cities in 2000, according to the Metropolitan Council’s Travel Behavior Inventory. The average trip length was 7.27 miles.

    Given the spending per mile and the average trip length, the average road cost per vehicle trip is actually about 50 cents. That, of course, is just one of the costs of the trip. An even greater one–in many cases–is the cost of storing the vehicle: parking. Government spends millions and millions supporting free parking and private sector provides billions more. When you factor in other government spending (parking subsidies, law enforcement, etc.), you reach about 9 cents per mile in 1998 according to the U of M report referenced here (not counting transit spending). That’s about 65 cents per trip. That still leaves out external costs, like air pollution, injuries and fatalities, military spending related to oil, etc. The U of M report estimates those external costs at 3.4 to 23.5 cents per mile in 1998 or 25 cents to $1.70 per trip. That’s a big cost. So, while the $2.56 per trip estimate is high, it may be pretty close with the external costs included. And that’s just looking at the public costs–the personal costs are much greater than that.

  16. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 06/07/2012 - 05:42 pm.

    All roads are not created equal…

    Some roads, like 35W from downtown to 494 is pretty well traveled, so I would suspect that the subsidy there is a lot less. On the other hand there are roads in outstate Minnesota that go for miles and only service a handful our people. Miles of road is maintained, plowed in winter and graded in summer and it may only see one or two cars per day. Its got to be costing a ton of money for us to be subsidizing that lifestyle.

  17. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 06/07/2012 - 08:22 pm.

    Parking consumes expensive downtown real estate and is often subsidized by employers. In outlying areas, it appears to be free, but its cost is still built into leases and the price of products. Because suburban land is relatively cheap, parking spreads out instead of up, creating greater run off when it rains and requiring more snow removal per vehicle.

    Finally, an excess of parking spaces is required by zoning based on occupancy or projected customer counts of individual buildings. Most of it sits unused most of the day, radiating heat, taking away habitat, etc.

  18. Submitted by Wilhelm Achauer on 06/08/2012 - 01:53 am.

    Build For Long Term

    I’m astonished that in America light-rail is considered by conservatves to be practically a socialist/social engineering/nanny state agenda. A true conservative would look at the data and cost benefit analysis and conclude that this is a long-term bargain of an investement that would last generations. Nine to one US Govt match. That is a 900% return on investement! Building for the long-term used to be a conservative agenda. Maybe in Dallas, but not here. In Europe conservatives build rail, in America they drink and eat dogma.

  19. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 06/08/2012 - 07:23 am.

    This is a meaningless exercise

    You people are missing the point about why conservatives and other thinking people are opposed to light rail versus other forms of transportation and it has less to do with cost (unless you include the total waste of every dollar invested in it) than its relative utility.

    I have never ridden the light rail system and I don’t foresee ever riding it. Why? Because it doesn’t go where I want and need to go. It rides on a fixed rail which means that if my destination is not somewhere along that route, it’s useless to me. And before you suggest that people could walk a few blocks or miles to their ultimate destination, let me remind you that not all our citizens are healthy enough to make the trek.

    Even a system of buses is more flexible as a public transportation method because a bus is not limited to a fixed track. Routes can be re-drawn to accommodate changes in the needs of the public.

    So instead of attempting to measure and compare the public value of systems based on the level of public subsidies, the more accurate measurement would be relative utility, i.e., what percentage of citizens can reach their destination in a convenient and timely manner using a car, a bus, or the light rail.

    Whichever system has the highest percentage of citizenry using it for its convenience and timeliness is the most effective and deserves whatever public subsidy it receives versus the other systems.

    I’m betting it wouldn’t be light rail by a long shot.

    • Submitted by James Blum on 06/09/2012 - 07:15 am.

      This is the sine qua non of conservative comments!

      Conservative; “This is a bad idea because it doesn’t benefit ME PERSONALLY!” No, but it does benefit the 27,100 people who ride it on an average day. I know Conservatives don’t give a rip about them because the vast majority of them aren’t wealthy, but since they make up 12% of total public transit ridership, I think there is an easy case to be made for investing in their commutes versus, say, the 3X more expensive commute of a bus rider in Shakopee.

      My second-favorite part of the comment? “…it doesn’t go where I want and need to go.” Okay, so you don’t ever go to Target Field, downtown Minneapolis, Franklin Avenue, Lake Street, my neighborhood (Longfellow), Fort Snelling, the Airport, or the Mall of America. Two comments: (a) you’re missing out on some of the best things the Twin Cities have to offer and (b) again, a WHOLE BUNCH of people do go to those places and appreciate a ride that is cheaper than taking an automobile.

      My third-favorite part of the comment? “…not all our citizens are healthy enough to make the trek.” Even if this accounted for 25% of the population (my guess is it is more like 2% of the population), why would we not invest in public transit that can provide an inexpensive benefit for 75% (or more) of the population? Oh, yeah, it’s that “doesn’t benefit ME PERSONALLY” thing again.

      And now we get to the weird part of the comment: “…the more accurate measurement would be relative utility.” I honestly never expected to see a Conservative discuss utility without regard to cost! And the grand finale: “Whichever system has the highest percentage of citizenry using it for its convenience and timeliness is the most effective and deserves whatever public subsidy it receives versus the other systems.” Really? It “deserves whatever public subsidy it receives?” Again, no cost-benefit analysis? Just throw whatever public money is asked for at the transit solution that benefits ME PERSONALLY?

      At this point, I’m beginning to think that I’m the conservative here …

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/09/2012 - 10:16 am.

      We one light rail, going on two….

      Tester’s making a circular argument, the ONE light rail we have doesn’t go where he wants… well that’s why we want to build more lines. by the way, despite the fact that the Hiawatha line is limited, fixed, etc. etc., it’s the single most used mass transit line of any kind in MN. That one line accounts for 12% of all transit use. If you had four lines, and they all got the same ridership, those four lines would account for nearly 50% of all ridership.

  20. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/08/2012 - 08:07 am.


    Mr. Tester has a point about “relative utility.” Unfortunately, his point is largely self-determined. As long-time residents of the area know better than this newbie, half a century and more ago rail lines went to far more places than they do now. Streetcars were in wide use, and mass transit was the norm, not the exception. That was certainly the case in the St. Louis metro area, where I spent my first half century or so.

    That transportation system changed with the combination of postwar prosperity and the destruction, around the country, of mass transit systems already in place. That destruction was, in large part, the result of massive propaganda, not to mention assorted financial “incentives” provided by General Motors and the highway lobby, to fundamentally change the way urban areas work. When your business is selling cars, you want the country to adopt a transportation system that relies on cars.

    “Conservatives” opposed to light rail should be an oxymoronic phrase, since rail transportation is what the society relied on for nearly a century. It’s the automobile that’s the modern-day interloper, as it were, and because fossil fuels are already in increasingly short supply, we’re probably already on the road (pun intended) back toward mass transit, of which rail is the most cost-effective.

    At present, light (and commuter) rail serves a limited number of people because the alternative – the automobile – is widely subsidized throughout the society, and a sizable part of our economy is dependent on its continued dominance. When oil gets expensive enough, we’ll have to rethink the whole transportation environment. Mr. Tester may be correct that, in a century, light rail may not be the most common form of transportation in and around urban areas, but in a century, there’s no guarantee that it will be the automobile, either.

  21. Submitted by Nathan Roisen on 06/08/2012 - 08:37 am.

    No one, outside a few people on the very fringe, advocates an approach toward transportation funding that seeks to do away with the automobile.

    The investment is not one of light rail at the expense of cars, but rather what balance between the two is appropriate for the metro area as a whole.

    One of the reasons that LRT offers a relatively competitive operating subsidy is largely because lines are only built where they are appropriate, (MOA/Airport, Dowtowns, U of M) and shot down where they are inappropriate (several proposed corridors through lower-density neighborhoods outside Downtown Minneapolis and St Paul)

    If there was a rush to defund automobile infrastructure across the state in order to construct LRT, then the arguments of people like Mr. Tester would be more valid. But even in this period of investment in rail transit, the car still gets the lion’s share of transportation dollars. The Stillwater Bridge will cost nearly 75% as much as the entire Central Corridor light rail, for instance. Just one bridge and its approaches. Other interchanges – 494-169, for instance – have price tags running well into the hundreds of millions.

  22. Submitted by Doug B on 06/08/2012 - 01:49 pm.


    To quote the article: “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”

    Those ‘federal funds’ are OPM (other people’s money). You need to include that OPM in the construction costs. The Federal Gov is over $15 trillion in debt – where do you think that money is comming from?

    I believe the auto is under attack. Instead of building the LRT above/below grade – they build it on grade – completely ruining the road for efficient auto travel. IMO University Ave is a nightmare.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/08/2012 - 02:17 pm.

      “The auto is under attack”

      You sound like Joe Soucheray. Do you also think, as he does, that transit is a social-engineering project to get people to move into the inner cities and vote for Democrats?

      Talking about about where the federal funds are coming sholdn’t be limited to the costs of light rail. It should also be a part of the discussion of all transportation costs, including highways. It’s also not saving any money to refuse to take it. As the article points out, if the state of Minnesota turns down the funds, it will not be rebated to the taxpayers. Instead, it will go to other states that know what the term “invest” means.

      • Submitted by Doug B on 06/08/2012 - 03:25 pm.

        I don’t think you understand economics

        “It’s also not saving any money to refuse to take it.”

        We (the Federal Government) keep printing money, the Federal Reserve keeps buying the bonds – we are monetizing the debt. The Federal money is debt (with interest) that has to be repaid – by all of us. It’s not ‘free’ money – nothing is free.

        The other obvious anti-auto social engineering is the way they have ruined Lyndale and Franklin aves. If you get behind a bus on Lyndale – you’re not going to pass it. They took a tight 4 lane road, and turned it into a nightmare 3 lane road, where you cannot drive down the road with continually adjusting the steering wheel left/right.

        You didn’t say anything about ruining University Ave for auto traffic.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/08/2012 - 04:47 pm.

          Yes, I understand economics, but you missed the point

          I am aware that federal money is not “free” money. I am also aware, however, that the money turned down by Minnesota does not disappear. The debt is not written down, but the money just goes somewhere else. When the state of Minnesota declined federal funds for the Southwest Corridor, someone else got it. There was no savings; in fact, the taxpayers of Minnesota are putting out even more than they receive in return.

          In a big, crowded city, it makes sense to promote transit over cars. Social engineering, or efficient planning? BTW, it I remember driver’s ed from high school, a good driver is always making minor steering wheel adjustments.

          I haven’t driven down University Avenue in a long time, so I have no idea what the problem is. I understand from other sources that it’s temporary, during rail construction.

        • Submitted by Dave VanHattum on 06/08/2012 - 06:22 pm.

          Lyndale Ave

          One flaw with the critique of the changes to Lyndale Ave — no buses run on the section that is 3-lanes. At that point on Lyndale Ave South, the buses, have moved over to Bryant Ave.

  23. Submitted by Dave VanHattum on 06/08/2012 - 02:17 pm.


    Perhaps, before we get too engrossed in a discussion of subsidies, we should define the term. My dictionary describes subsidy as “monetary assistance granted by government to a person or a private commercial enterprise.”
    I think what we are all talking about here is public investment in public goods. Notice that you never hear people talk about subsidies for public education. There is tacit agreement that we invest in public education because it is a public good. The same should be true for public transit.

    Our primary concern is total return on investment in public transit (not the amount paid for directly by users) which as many commenters have pointed out includes a whole host of benefits – reduced traffic for other travelers, environmental protection, equitable access to opportunity—that we don’t get with car travel and public roads.

    A non-subsidized transportation system would presumably be funded wholly through user fees. But what is a user fee? If the user if fully paying for the exact service (and still desires that service), why can’t that service be provided by the private sector? The answer is that transportation access is a public good whose provision is best provided by a public monopoly (in this case several interwoven monopolies). Imagine, if you can, transportation access wholly provided by the private sector. I imagine that to be extremely chaotic and inequitable. There are compelling efficiency and equity arguments that explains why transportation access is publicly provided across the world.

    Roads in Minnesota receive a large share of funding from revenue sources (property tax, sales tax and registration fees for cars) that have very little relationship to use. And even the gas tax is not a true user fee. While nearly all the gas tax revenues in our state are spent on roads and bridges, that doesn’t make the gas tax a true user fee—i.e. the user pays a fee equivalent to the cost of providing that road. A true user fee would be tolls set at rates based on when users are on the roads (i.e. we have to build huge roads, in expensive locations, to accommodate peak period demand) and how much damage their vehicle does to roads.

    Next time someone questions the public investment in buses and trains ask them if they are willing to pay tolls for all their road use. It turns out, based on Mn/DOT’s own calculations, that consumers are only willing to pay (via tolls), at most, 50% of the cost of expanding roads in our metro highway system.

    As the article notes, there is public investment in all transportation modes. Public transit, as numerous return on investment studies demonstrate, is a highly efficient investment in urban locations. And it doesn’t require an $8,000+ per year private investment in a car. If you don’t believe the studies, the experience of every large city in the world may be instructive, as well as recent trends toward substantially increased transit use and no growth in car travel.

  24. Submitted by Dudley Horscroft on 06/09/2012 - 01:35 am.

    Investment – public goods

    Dave Vanhattum has got it right except for one thing – the use of “public goods”.

    Unfortunately this term is often used as he does above – to denote goods that are, or the user thinks should be, supplied by one of the levels of government. The correct usage is “a good that if supplied to one person cannot be denied to another”. This covers defence, quarantine, and possibly public health matters, though many items in ‘public health’ certainly can be denied to particular persons. Not much else.

    Thus police, education, roads, even voting, are not ‘public goods’.

    And public transit is certainly not a ‘public good’. Witness the witless politician who considered it should be denied to residents and workers who would have used the South West Rail Line. Very few transit operations permit all and sundry to use their services without appropriate payment – no pay, no travel.

    Roads not a ‘public good’? You are not permitted to drive a vehicle unless you are licensed to do so, and even if you are you must be (nearly) sober. On certain roads you must pay to use a particular stretch of road. Hence not a ‘public good’.

    And no, rarely is the capital cost of the transit system considered in the discussions. Generally the road system is taken as a ‘given’ for buses, whereas the tracks are an ‘expense’ for rail. But, unless the road has been specially constructed to permit a reasonable life when used by buses, it will need reconstruction to a high standard when used for rail’s alleged competitor, Bus Rapid Transit, at a cost closely approximating that of a rail service. Where new rail tracks are off road, these are effectively releasing road space for other vehicles as it replaces the bus service. Where tracks are on road, it greatly increases the capacity of road to shift people – a tram service can shift 10 000 persons per hour per direction (eg Budapest routes 4 and 6), which is far in excess of the 1000 to 2000 persons per hour per direction that cars can give.

    So the capital cost of an on-road rail service is, or should be, considered as an investment, not an expense, (especially as tramway lanes in a road should last 40 years or more, compared to 30 or less for a road subject to a reasonable bus service. And, as Miss Harris found, the operating costs are lower – US data from the FTA statistics suggest that for comparable operations, the cost of a rail operation is about 2/3 that of a bus operation. Enough said!

  25. Submitted by Doug B on 06/09/2012 - 09:27 am.

    rejected incomplete name The real deal

    “Where new rail tracks are off road, these are effectively releasing road space for other vehicles as it replaces the bus service.”

    But University Ave does neither. The tracks are on grade, taking up space where vehicles used to drive, and I hear there will still be busses on Universtiy ave.

    Let’s face it, University ave is mostly low income/ghetto. I’m sure real thought was to ‘give’ these people a transportation system, and build section 8 apartments right near the transit stations, so we can import even more immigrants. and entitlement recipents We all know this.

    • Submitted by Virginia Martin on 06/09/2012 - 07:21 pm.

      low income ghetto

      Yeah, it sounds like a communist conspiracy, to import new immigrants and entitlement recipients (I suppose you mean Social Security, an “entitlement” which I get because I have paid into it for 50 years) and then house the poor, illegal immigrants, and old people in section 8 apartments.
      Do you know where University is? Have you been down there recently? There are many restaurants, stores, many ethnic shops providing special foods or goods, popular ethnic residents, small businesses, banks, health clinics, St. Paul’s newest library, and unusual small businesses like the Textile Center, coffee shops, a large group of assisted living homes and apartments. By the way, I visited one of these “entitlement recipients” recently, or maybe she was an immigrant. Surely an ethnic of some kind. She’s a well-educated woman who has worked as a manager in several enterprises, including government, she’s a writer, and well respected among a large group of friends. No doubt she was hiding her poverty or her at least her reliance on SS, or maybe her immigration status, or ethnicity. Must be something like that because those are the only people in this ghetto–we all know that.

      Don’t make ignorant sweeping statements about an area of which you know nothing..

  26. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/09/2012 - 10:29 am.

    Inchorent definitions

    Dudly’s definition of “public goods” is simply incoherent. No government government service of any kind is “free” since they are financed by tax revenue, and users to do not pay “fees” for police and fire protection. Some government services charge fees, other don’t, but the “fee” absence of it doesn’t determine public “goodness” of the service, we’re just talking about different ways of paying for services. In theory, a fee could be charged for everything.

    What Dudly is missing is the fact that some government services administer services associated with “Rights” like national protection, voting, etc, and other “privileges” like fishing and driving etc. The public “good” is the primary concern regardless.

  27. Submitted by Pete Barrett on 06/10/2012 - 12:43 pm.

    Social Engineering

    The Interstate Highway system was the largest social engineering project in this country’s history. The GI Bill and the FHA (which tolerated restrictive covenants and racial discrimination) were pretty big too. Light rail is a blip on the radar.

    Wait, Maybe Jim Crow laws were bigger than the Interstate Highways.

  28. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/11/2012 - 09:56 am.

    Cost comparisons are difficult

    If you’re talking about at grade level tracks, the track themselves are less expensive than roads. The calculation that missing in the comments here is the number of people moving on a given transport system. If you look cost per lane/mile estimates roads are cheaper, but if calculate the number of lanes needed to move as many people in cars as you are on the rails you find that you need six to eight lanes to move as many people, and that brings the costs of roads to near parity with rails. Rails are more durable and easy to maintain than roads. We’ve all seen what happens to roads almost the minute the open, within a year your filling potholes, and once they start to degrade there’s no going back. Rails last longer, and it’s faster and easier to replace track and shore up bedding than it is to resurface a mile of road. It took a month to do the two block long street in front of my house.

    The thing that drives rail construction prices up is the stations, bridges, tunnels etc. The only cost not similar to roads is the stations, otherwise tunnels and bridges for rails are less expensive than tunnels and bridges for roads because they are narrower. Space is actually a big advantage with rail, because you can run a track with a mush smaller footprint, and move a lot more people on a lot less land. Of course if you elevate the rail, or run it in a subway system it will be more expensive to built, but you keep the transportation system off the street, which has esthetic and practical advantages. You just don’t have that option with roads. Imagine moving all roads downtown underground, or elevating them above the street? How mush would THAT cost? I’ve seen plans to put an automated people mover down in the Greenway trench, there’s actually more than enough room down there for that without losing the bike lanes. There’s no way you could put a road down there.

  29. Submitted by Mike Setzer on 06/14/2012 - 11:12 am.

    But it’s a great discussion

    I love that people are quibbling about what to include in the analytical comparison. Becasue it means that grown-ups are talking about what it really costs to move around and what we get for our dollars, instead of ideologues talking about what mode they “believe in”. And by the way we should be willing to pay more tax dollars for rail transit than other modes, because it takes the smallest bite out of our limited resources like breathable air, urban real estate, and safe mobility.

  30. Submitted by Helton Knuth on 06/18/2012 - 04:09 pm.

    Minneapolis Light Transit is the reason we are visiting

    We are NY city residents and will be visiting relatives in northwestern Wisconsin in July. We want to take in a Twins game. The first thing we did in planning was to see the public transportation options (which got us to your Minnpost) because we did not want to get stuck in traffic in downtown Minne-apple. We’ll park at Fort Snelling and then off to spend some money in Minnesota. The only way you got the 4 of us is because of your mass transit; without it we would not be coming. We’ll probably spend a grand or more on our day tripping; your mass transit pays in other ways too!

  31. Submitted by Rip Gates on 06/19/2012 - 02:45 pm.


    Let’s say a light rail train was free. Let’s say it will zigzag up and down the hills of residential St. Paul and then head out to 3M and Woodbury. Is it still a bargain?

    Is it a bargain because, over time, families will move their kids away from having train tracks in their front yards?

    Or is the bargain in the ridership, that doesn’t currently exist but might in the future?

    The Hiawatha Line construction costs have been estimated at $715 million. The final cost has not been published; the original cost was $480 million.

    The annual operating cost is $25,727,471 (for 2010).
    The annual fares received is $10,361,080 (for 2010).
    So, the annual loss is $15,366,391

    However, the Hiawatha Line is not operating in the red. They receive $2,121,351 from the motor vehicle sales tax and $5,174,001.00 from Minnesota appropriations. So the Hiawatha Line has a net income of $218,249 (according to Metro Transit).

    Central Corridor started at $957 million and back in February was $11 million over budget. Southwest Corridor is starting at $1.25 billion, and the Gateway Corridor zigzag will be $1.3 billion. The four trains total $4.233 billion to start.

    What a bargain!

  32. Submitted by brenden smith on 05/10/2013 - 03:51 am.

    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.
    police interview

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