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‘Belt and suspenders’ for transit would be more like a noose

Courtesy of Metro Transit
Light rail has enormous costs that will be a burden to future generations.

Conrad deFiebre recently wrote that the state of Minnesota should employ both bonding and a sales tax to fund transit. He likened using both as “a belt and suspenders” for supporting transit.

dillon photo
Norann Dillon

By his own reasoning, the current rail dominated transit plan will be a noose on future generations.

He admits the current quarter-cent metro sales tax for transit had to be “shifted to plug operating deficits” and that transitways have “deficit-riddled operations.” Yes! We all agree they lose money! So why do we want this?

In many arguments in favor of larger transit “investments,” the ‘falling behind our peers’ premise is brought out, and deFiebre uses it too. Portland’s TriMet budget problems are so severe, they are raising fares, cutting service and dealing with labor strife. San Jose’s light rail system has the dubious distinction of being “the least efficient in the country and suffers from low ridership and high operating costs.” In Dallas, transit ridership fell despite billions of spending on light rail.

Better to fall behind peers

With results like these, I’m very pleased that we’re ‘falling behind our peers’ in their race to bankruptcy.

I find it strange that a Fellow for a progressive think tank would advocate for higher sales taxes. He even admits that they “hit hardest on those of low incomes.” I guess it’s OK since it’s just a little here and there. Remember that “the average Minnesota family of four will pay less than $5 a month extra in sales tax [for the Legacy Amendment].”

And the Twins “Ballpork.” And the current transit tax. And the convention centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul. It’s like death by a thousand paper cuts.

Distribution of sales tax burden by population quintiles (2008)

The sales tax is already a large burden on lower-income Minnesotans. Transit advocates want to quadruple the current transit tax to a full penny. It’s disingenuous for liberals to advocate so strongly to increase sales taxes, especially for a “solution” that will only benefit about 4 percent of the population.

Costs will burden future Minnesotans

Light rail has enormous costs that will be a burden to future generations. If we’re going to pursue transit options in the Twin Cities, then let’s choose bus rapid transit, which can be built for about half as much. The Urban Land Institute says “bus rapid transit can offer the look and feel of light-rail service at substantially lower cost.”

Let’s have bold leadership and get the best value for our tax dollars instead of hanging the “deficit-riddled operations” of light rail around the necks of future generations.

Norann Dillon is a stay-at-home mom with an interest in public policy.  In 2010, as a candidate for the Minnesota state senate, her campaign was widely acknowledged for hard work, remaining issues-based, and respectfully challenging people’s assumptions about what is the purpose and role of government.  The Plymouth resident writes occasionally at


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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Brillhart on 05/03/2013 - 09:09 am.

    You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t give two snits what a stay-at-home mom in Plymouth thinks about our needs for expanded transit service, which includes both bus and rail in ALL major metropolitan areas of 3+ million and growing. If we don’t get this transit sales tax now and start an accelerated build-out of the system, myself and other young talented folks will be looking for jobs in places like Denver or Seattle and skipping right over MSP.

  2. Submitted by Todd Kringler on 05/03/2013 - 09:18 am.


    Typical editorial by a conservative. What she doesn’t talk about is the enormous cost of our current freeway-based transit system. This system was designed back in the ’50s and ’60s when gasoline was 10 cents a gallon. Back then we could pay another 10 cents in taxes to pay for the build out of the freeways and their maintenance. Norann seems to think that the freeways are free and never need to be plowed. This is typical thinking for conservatives who’ve had everything handed to them throughout their lives. They just can’t fathom that you need to pay for things. We can’t afford to pay for the freeways anymore as oil production is leveling off and China and India are consuming an ever larger share. To raise gasoline taxes to keep up with maintenance would be at least $1.00 a gallon. We didn’t build the replacement I35 bridge with highway taxes. That was a gift from congress. We need to start thinking about a new transit system that doesn’t rely exclusively on oil. If we don’t, we will find ourselves stranded in our McMansions in Plymouth.

  3. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/03/2013 - 09:23 am.

    One big advantage of Bus Rapid Transit…

    … – it’s reconfigurable ! As circumstances change, a BRT system allows moving components and resources to suit new needs.

    Try moving a rail line.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 05/03/2013 - 11:43 am.

      BRT Mobility

      Steve, that’s also the downside to Bus Rapid Transit: it can be moved. Developers and the people who buy and rent from them prefer rail for the very reason that it is permanent. One of the reasons developers pick certain spots to build is because they know a transit option like rail is an amenity they can sell to their tenants. And those place command higher prices because of it and it’s factored into the business plan.

      Buses, while nice, can be moved tomorrow and therefor the area near them is correspondingly discounted. They don’t spur the kind of development you see around a light rail system.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 05/03/2013 - 12:37 pm.

        Great point

        Also I think that it is more likely that suburban people will use light rail – maybe even Norann.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 05/03/2013 - 01:46 pm.

        If development is a primary purpose, I would agree with you,…

        …but in my view, the purpose of mass transit is not to stimulate development, it’s to move people and reduce vehicular traffic and its associated problems – pollution, congestion, etc.

        However, if you begin with the idea of development as primary, then your point follows and is well-taken.

        While it’s true that the flexibility of re-allocating resources in a BRT system could be viewed as a downside, it is also true that Metro Transit has numerous bus routes which have not changed significantly in many years. Where they have changed, it’s in response to new facts.

        And those same developers who boast of train service to prospective tenants would hardly be mute about the benefit of good bus service in the same area. Either is a plus.

        Development and the trains themselves could also be viewed with a downside – else why all the howling from residents in the areas where the trains are planned ? Many do not want either the development or the noise.

        Finally, because of the economy of BRT over rail, we can get more extensions to the current system for the same amount of money when invested in BRT.

  4. Submitted by Rolf Westgard on 05/03/2013 - 10:14 am.

    Great. Let’s have more cars, more pollution, and more traffic jams. Stay at home Norann needs to visit Europe and Asia, even Portland, to see how public transit really works. Other developed countries use half the energy we do per unit of GNP.

  5. Submitted by Marc Drummond on 05/03/2013 - 10:58 am.

    A deficit of reasoning

    Funny how there is always great concern over whether or not transit is operating at a deficit, but there never seems to be the same concern over whether roads and highways are operating at a “deficit.”

  6. Submitted by Bill Lindeke on 05/03/2013 - 11:08 am.

    There’s a big difference here…

    … between stadium subsidies (which I also loathe) and transit costs. Transit is a tremendous long-term investment that reaps more rewards than spending on more freeways, capitalizes on our already-existing infrastructure and urban places. In the future, thousands of people will be able to forgo the many expenses of driving because of this wise use of tax dollars. Don’t lump transit in with other government boondoggles.

  7. Submitted by Rachel Weisman on 05/03/2013 - 11:22 am.

    Every road costs money.

    Remember when I-394 finally turned a profit? It didn’t. In fact we don’t have a roadway in Minnesota that makes money. Every road costs money and, by your same reasoning, is a burden to future generations. I think we need to fund and build light rail transit.

  8. Submitted by Ken Wedding on 05/03/2013 - 11:43 am.

    Deficits from highways

    And how much deficit are we passing on to the future for streets, highways, and pollution? Do any streets or highways make profits or cover costs?

  9. Submitted by Sean Fahey on 05/03/2013 - 12:10 pm.

    LRT Skeptic

    We can all go ad hominem on the author, but there are good points here for those of us that are skeptical about LRT, especially when used to connect distant suburbs to the core.

    My drum beat on these LRT articles is that we are sacrificing land reclaimed from old rail tracks that have now become wild spaces, and turning it back into rail without a solid evidence that suburban LRT will help the areas it passes through on it’s way to the Twins stadium. And it costs $1 billion + $30 million in annual operating expenses to find out how well it works. It’s like there is a great national experiment going on using LRT in all kinds of different contexts, and nobody has definitive data yet on the net benefit to a region.

    We can reduce our gas usage in smarter and more equitable ways by repurposing our existing transportation infrastructure. For example, we could be massively subsidizing electric cars for each and every projected rider of LRT and still come out ahead. We could be using electric buses that have the flexibility to change routes as demographics change.

    • Submitted by Todd Adler on 05/03/2013 - 01:46 pm.

      Right Of Way

      Sean, many of those former rail beds were scooped up and turned into trails specifically for the purpose of future light rail.

      To throw some more data your way, how much does a road cost to build? How much does it cost to maintain on a yearly basis? Are there no other benefits to light rail that would mitigate those yearly costs?

      As a side note, the new Stillwater bridge will cost what, about $750 million? And that is for a single bridge, not an entire road. All so 30,000 people can get to Wisconsin a little faster.

      Electric cars are a nice idea, but they’re not quite ready for prime time yet. And an electric car doesn’t address the needs of every driver. Plus it does absolutely nothing to reduce congestion on roads. Nor does another car help someone who can’t drive (young and elderly), aren’t allowed to drive (tourists without a U.S. license), or choose not to drive, such as tourists and those who don’t want the expense of a vehicle.

      Yesterday I ran some figures on how much it costs me to drive to and from work and it runs $3000/year for gas, parking, and wear & tear on the car. It ain’t cheap! And I only have a 7 mile commute.

      To wrap up, LRT is not some great national experiment. It’s been put to good use for decades in other states and countries and has proven over and over again to be a safe, reliable, and cost effective method of transportation.

      • Submitted by Sean Fahey on 05/03/2013 - 02:27 pm.

        Could use more data

        We should reduce systematic subsidy on gas-powered transportion, and be concerned about cost of further road growth. I agree with you completely about the waste of money that is the Stillwater bridge. I’m not convinced that relieving traffic congestion in the suburbs should be a billion dollar priority, as this congestion puts pressure on the people to live closer to where they work. This LRT project only encourages people, those lucky enough to afford the mobility, to live further away than they do now, and park and ride to a station.

        An electric car is expensive today, but not out of reach compared to the cost of a luxury SUV. Think about 10 years from now, since we’re talking about the LRT ridership as important to the metro of 2030. I’m not sure what you mean about “needs of every driver”, but a car (or bus) is much more flexible than a train.

        Tourists are not going to be travelling from downtown to Eden Prairie, if they want to they can arrange a cab, or Metro Mobility. We’re not talking about the Hiawatha or University lines here, these are lines that currently go no-where, and somebody will go to more sprawl. Of course, a well-funded bus system should be the continuing bedrock of our transit system.

        Here’s one regional study that was mixed on traffic reduction benefits (though they found routes going into their core to be more beneficial than routes that did not): (source article is paywalled) I would like to get some hard data though if you have some good sources. I haven’t had much luck finding independent studies of these systems.

        • Submitted by Todd Adler on 05/03/2013 - 03:36 pm.


          The issues I was pointing out with cars is that some people can’t drive, some can’t afford to drive, some choose not to drive, and some shouldn’t drive. We’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and money building up extensive infrastructure for a vehicle that not everyone can use. Now I’m not saying we should eliminate cars as that would produce the same problem we’re trying to eliminate here: namely that one form of transportation does not fit every need.

          For example: take any one item out of the transportation mix, whether it’s cars, planes, buses, ships, or bikes and the whole system suffers because of it. The same is with trains, especially considering they can move more people for a fraction of the cost of a car or bus.

          If you want to delve into the specifics of why someone can’t or won’t drive a car, I thought I went through the pretty thoroughly in the original post. But if you want I can rephrase and reiterate it to make it clearer.

        • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/06/2013 - 08:25 am.

          Out of reach

          But most people don’t own a luxury SUV, nor can they afford to. That’s a big problem when looking at the cost of handing out electrical cars. While it would be lovely to replace all those monstrous Escalades with reasonably sized electric cars, it would do very little to improve transportation woes in the cities. And, besides which, however would rich people fit their apparently gigantic children into such small spaces?

          Even if we presumed that most middle class households could afford to simply buy a new car, the most affordable fully electric vehicles have a range of less than 100 miles. That means, when spring break comes around, those households are going to want a different car. So, they have an electric car and a gas car, rather than just a gas car and public transportation, so that they can get to granny’s house. So, not only have we not reduced congestion by simply replacing gas cars with electric ones, we’ve actually forced some households to double their car ownership. Not only that, they might just use their cars more often. I mean, hey, if they’ve got two car payments, they just as well USE them, right?

          In any case, it would be foolish to rely on electric cars if we don’t reduce congestion. Any vehicle will lose efficiency if it sits idling in traffic. While some electric and hybrid cars can do some recharging by converting braking energy into battery charge, that doesn’t work so well if you’re simply stopped. You’ve reduced your mileage and increased the frequency with which those cars need to be recharged. So, then, we merely change energy waste from one form to another.

          And, while buses and cars are more flexible, they are less reliable. On any given day, rain or shine, you will be able to catch the light rail on time at any of its stops. In contrast, bus service runs relatively on time, but only during good weather. Other times, bussers stand out in the rain and sleet and snow, hoping that the next bus isn’t packed to the gills. And cars, being most flexible, are also the most likely to be waylaid during heavy traffic. That is why some people prefer public transportation to driving. Even if it takes a bit longer in some cases, it tends to run more on time than getting into their own car does.

        • Submitted by David Greene on 05/08/2013 - 11:48 am.

          NOT just for suburbs!

          Here is where a lot of people misunderstand LRT, particularly the Southwest LRT line.

          The Southwest LRT doesn’t only serve suburban residents. I would go as far to say it doesn’t even *primarily* serve suburban residents, at least not those 2nd- and 3rd-tier suburbs.

          This line will open up whole new areas of job opportunity for people in North Minneapolis, Hopkins and St. Louis Park. These are communities that desperately need access to jobs. These are communities struggling economically because we’ve cut them off from our transportation system. *That’s* the importance of Southwest LRT.

  10. Submitted by Jim Dawson on 05/03/2013 - 12:11 pm.

    Living with Trams in Europe

    I’m a former Minneapolis resident (22 years) who has spent the last three years living in Vienna, Austria. The transit system here … like it is in much of Europe … is remarkable. There are trams virtually everywhere, plus a modern subway system (U-bahn), surface “fast trains,” and buses. Minneapolis should be so lucky.

  11. Submitted by Todd Adler on 05/03/2013 - 12:13 pm.

    Hard Figures

    Ms. Dillon conveniently misses some important points when sharpening her ax. She comments “It’s disingenuous for liberals to advocate so strongly to increase sales taxes, especially for a “solution” that will only benefit about 4 percent of the population.” As if advocating additional transit options is a liberal-only point of view. The Twinwest Chamber of Commerce, Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce, and St. Paul Chamber of Commerce all advocate for additional transit. And it’s a pretty safe bet to say that they’re not bastions of pinko commie liberals.

    The position that transit only benefits 4% of the population is a head-in-the-sand point of view. Each car holds 90 people and each train a total of 270. At peak load, which is usually during rush hour when the highways are choked, that takes 270 cars off the road. The reduced congestion and reduced pollution benefits everyone in the region, not just the people who are riding the train.

    I would give Ms. Dillon a lot more credit for her story if she presented both sides of the issue in a fair and impartial manner. As it is though she simply looks disingenuous.

  12. Submitted by Joe Laha on 05/03/2013 - 01:18 pm.

    BRT v.LRT

    The author does a pretty good job of regurgitating the same old anti-tax, anti-transit talking points we’re used to hearing from conservatives. She’s long on cherry-picked facts and figures but short on possible solutions.

    She mentions Bus Rapid Transit as a “cheaper” alternative to LRT. This article does a good job outlining how BRT and LRT should be considered complimentary modes of transit.

    The problem with BRT, this article points out is one of public perception:

    “The real divisions between bus and rail are political: For those who would fight for improved transit systems in their cities, the truth is that rail projects do certainly have more appeal among members of the public. Thus a billion-dollar rail project may be easier to stomach for a taxpaying and voting member of the citizenry than a quarter-billion BRT line. While the former is qualitatively different than what most car drivers are used to, the latter mode is too easily lumped in with the city bus, which car users have already paid to avoid.”

  13. Submitted by Brad James on 05/06/2013 - 03:48 pm.

    BRT operating costs

    I applaud the author for suggesting some form of mass transit rather than just focusing on more lanes and cars. But if you are concerned about ongoing costs of a transportation system then you would realize that BRT is more expensive for similar capacities.

    In every rich country paying drivers is the most expensive part of the transit equation. A typical BRT vehicle can handle about 70 passengers. A three car LRT train-set can handle 270 passengers with the same labor costs as a bus.

    In order to meet demand for more urban living, the state, counties and cities need to invest in higher quality transit and allow for more dense development to leverage transportation investments.

  14. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/08/2013 - 09:30 am.

    More bogus facts from Dillon

    The blog Dillon points to to make the claim that Dallas has lost ridership is out of date. That blog claims that ridership is 66,000 per day however that was in 2010. Since then DART implemented a new more accurate counting method and discovered they were under reporting about about 16%. The actually ridership in 2011 was 94,000 (up from 78,000 which is still higher than the 66,000 Dillon is relying on).

    The street car systems is actually seeing HIGHER than expected ridership:

    Arguments based on misinformation defeat themselves.

  15. Submitted by David Greene on 05/08/2013 - 11:58 am.

    Clarifying Things

    “It’s disingenuous for liberals to advocate so strongly to increase sales taxes, especially for a ‘solution’ that will only benefit about 4 percent of the population.”

    No, what’s disingenuous is pretending to care about low-income people by opposing a “regressive” sales tax that funds a service that benefits a large proportion of those same low-income people.

    You see, regressivity isn’t just about the source of the funding, it’s also about the *use* of that funding. I talk to a lot of poor and transit-dependent people. You know what they say about the proposed sales tax dedicated to transit? “Bring it on!” They understand that paying a few cents more for goods (and hopefully services) is far better for them than to lose access to their jobs when their bus line gets cut due to lack of funding. Not only that, increased investment in transit opens up *new* job opportunities for those same people because now they can get to employment centers they couldn’t access before.

    I’ve been bringing people to public hearings on transit funding for a decade. Not *once* have I heard any low-income person oppose a sales tax dedicated to transit. On the contrary, they are regularly the most supportive.

    As for the claim that transit only benefits 4% of the population, the author rolls out another common deceptive tactic: that of presenting aggregate statistics. Sure, metro-wide probably only 4% of people use transit. But that’s because most people don’t even have *access* to transit.

    Guess what? *40%* of commuters to downtown Minneapolis use transit. How about that?

    You’ve got to look at the places targeted by transit investment. We’re not going to run LRT out to Rogers. We’re putting LRT in a very few select corridors where ridership and right-of-way availability present an opportunity that makes sense. And we’ll put buses where buses make sense, streetcars where streetcars make sense and so on. We don’t put freeways everywhere, just as we don’t expect to use two-line country roads to provide all of our auto-based transportation needs.

  16. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/10/2013 - 09:34 am.

    Mislabled chart

    Not sure why this comment got trashed but I simply pointed out that the Chart Dillon identifies as a “sales” tax chart is actually a income tax chart. You can see this clearly if you follow the link. It doesn’t help when authors get their facts wrong. And yes, our current income tax structure is more regressive than progressive.

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