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The Republican war on trains is drastically misplaced

Courtesy of Metro Transit
Modernizing transit shouldn't be a partisan issue.

The Republican war on trains is drastically misplaced. Our future does not lie in more asphalt, more cars, and longer commutes. Modern mass transit is our future, yet Minnesota Republicans, as well as congressional Republicans, are saying it is causing a credit-card problem. The reality is that the Minnesota GOP is having a credibility problem.

Dave Mindeman

The recent Community Voices piece, “Don’t put another train on our kids’ credit card,” by Kim Crockett of the Center of the American Experiment, is just another biased treatise, in my opinion.

First she asserts that the national debt will only be increased by funding these train projects — which, frankly, is true for just about any spending project. Defense, roads and bridges, human services — all of it will increase the debt because we do not generate any revenue, even for the things we have committed to fund.

We have been using the kids’ credit card not just for trains but for everything. This obsession with tax cuts is the real culprit, not the things we have needed for years. And a good mass transit system will eventually pay dividends because there will be less pollution, fewer traffic jams, fewer single-occupant cars, more development around rail which increases the tax base, lower maintenance costs (as compared to roads), and more construction jobs. Yes, the initial investment is high — but it is not going to cost less if we delay and obstruct.

Crockett says that “most local and state officials” say no to trains. Well, that is partially true, but only from one party. The Republicans have cast their majority lot with rural Minnesota, where it is easy to demonize mass transit. And as retired Republican legislators begin to overrun county boards, it will only get worse in that regard.

Support for modernizing transit

Democrats overwhelmingly support modernizing our transit. Gov. Mark Dayton supports it. City councils are generally on board. And most of our congressional delegation support it as well.

It shouldn’t be a partisan issue. And this is especially true when metro areas are already committing their monetary resources to make this happen. General funds are part of the mix, but not nearly as much as the Republican legislators try to have us believe. Metro sales taxes cover the bulk of metro transit. It is a fair funding mechanism.

Crockett also includes an opinion from the CATO Institute, another GOP think tank:

“Light rail is an obsolete form of transportation that will be made even more obsolete in a few years by self-driving cars,” said Randal O’Toole, a CATO Institute senior fellow and public transit expert. “Congress should stop funding light rail, including the Southwest line, as well as other obsolete transit programs, such as an extension of the Northstar to St. Cloud.” 

Yes, self-driving cars may be in the works, but you will still have to maintain roads for them. You will probably still have single occupants. And the pollution effects have the same probabilities as human driver cars. It depends on what type of fuel you opt to buy into. So how cars that drive themselves will change any of the things that we look to mass transit to solve is a mystery — and Crockett does not offer analysis for that.

Kill it now, when costs will be higher later?

She tells us that “costs will only rise with time.” Well, yes, they will, which is why we must follow through on this now. We have the SWLRT project under way. We have the route laid out. Some of the rail cars have already been bought. So, kill it now?

You know there will come a time when we will want to revisit this. We don’t want to come back and start over do we? Like the Dan Patch line study, which was legislatively ended and which local officials want to resurrect.

These are not projects without supporters. The problem seems to be that those supporters just don’t offer that same support to obstructive Republicans. 

Minnesota’s future should not be a partisan war. Other major population centers are ahead of us on transit solutions. If we want to compete with them for visitor dollars and major development projects, then we need to find better ways to move people and reduce our carbon footprint.

Dave Mindeman lives in Apple Valley. A version of this commentary was published on the mnpACT! blog.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Mary Gustafson on 04/28/2017 - 10:58 am.

    Thank you, Thank you,

    Thank you. I appreciate an article with correct facts (how can a fact be anything but correct but…?) and real world information. Especially from someone who lives “down south” – I live north – and has to mostly deal with those at the local level who don’t want to modernize transit.

    Kudos to you, Dave.

  2. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 04/28/2017 - 01:21 pm.

    Light rail and buses

    The latest I’ve seen from the MN repubs is a cut to buses by 40% and zilch for light rail.
    Difficult to understand repub opposition to light rail. It’s true that to build a new light rail system has a cost structure similar to building a new highway…but when the highway is congested, you need to build more expensive lanes…but with light rail…all you need to do is add more train cars or more trains…and maintenance is a much less costly approach.
    Repubs claim that they’re not getting the same kind of financial support for their rural highways, but the truth according to a recent StarTribune article indicates they get more.
    Perhaps the solution is to base these transportation funds by population for each county. Maybe then these conservative in rural areas will realize that revenue sharing…as we’re seeing today…is a good thing and that being selfish is not…but then again…I have little hope that logic fits todays repubs.

    • Submitted by Monica Millsap on 04/28/2017 - 03:37 pm.

      That’s typically true of light rail. However, it seems the Green Line’s design limits number of cars and trains that can be added. I don’t think the stations were built to handle more than 3 cars, so it doesn’t seem like there was much foresight into future use. With the train’s already slower speed and needing to stop at traffic lights, it would also seem challenging to add more trains without them bumping into each other. Already, there are discussions of the expense for the needed upgrade to Snelling-University station when the soccer stadium is active there.

      I’d love to see more of an active dialogue from rail supporters to learn from past projects and discuss improvements to next projects. While there will of course be anti-rail opinions, I think admitting new projects could be better, admitting mistakes and understanding what needs are yet unmet would go a long way towards increasing support. I say this as an active transit user who thinks rail could be better than buses if done right.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/29/2017 - 07:09 am.

        Closing the Barn Door

        Once it was opened and running, it took me just a few days to figure out that the LRT down University Ave should have been elevated. Get it out of the traffic so it can actually get moving. I don’t know if this was discussed, or what the increased construction costs would have been, but when building a transpiration system one needs to think 50 – 100 years into the future.

  3. Submitted by John Clouse on 04/28/2017 - 02:34 pm.

    Light rail is a beautiful solution to traffic jams. Wish doubters would factor in ALL the costs of auto/highway travel.
    Why is it that MN is no longer progressive and that other cities are creating future-looking transit with our Federal dollars?
    And by the way, the Republican legislature in IN just passed a gas tax to improve infrastructure!

  4. Submitted by Paul Hamilton on 04/28/2017 - 09:22 pm.

    Republicans and Light Rail: It’s Not Comlicated

    Republican opposition is a simple matter. It’s not based on logic, a financial analysis or any other red herring argument they put forward. It’s based on their opposition to government in general. The success of the Blue Line despite their opposition demonstrates that government works and they hate nothing more than that.

    Choke the roads with more traffic, then blame government. Watch bridges and roadways collapse due to lack of funds and blame government. Isolate minority populations from the economic opportunities in second ring suburbs and blame government for decaying neighborhoods. The cut budgets even further because, after al, government doesn’t work.

    Rinse and repeat.

    Privatizing services of course would solve all. Build car pool lanes and open them to those who can pay for the privilege. Oppose subsidies, except when it comes to well healed professional team owners. As long as the rich get richer, all is good in the world. Light rail is on a different track.

  5. Submitted by Derek Thompson on 04/29/2017 - 12:42 pm.

    Rural Resentment

    Republicans have become experts at cultivating and exploiting rural peoples resentment towards urban areas and the people who live in these areas. They get these people all worked over the train and talk about how subsidized it is, but fail to mention how subsidized roads are. They see public transit as subsidized transportation for poor urban people(AKA people of color). Republican’s have been demonizing them for decades, with people like Reagan calling them welfare queens and now Trump calling them rapists and murders.

    Meanwhile the Republicans continue their anti-government agenda which will end up hurting their constituents most and stealing from society with massive tax cuts to the rich. When the roads lack funding its the rural roads that will be hurt most. When the cities can’t compete with our peer cities for talent because we didn’t invest in our people it will be those subsidized rural areas that will be hurt. I am all for helping the less fortunate areas of the state, but the resentment they have for urban areas sometimes make me wish we lived in a Republican utopia where everyone had to pay their “fair share”. The Star Tribune article a month back shows how much the metro subsidizes greater Minnesota. Those rural areas would change their attitude quick if they didn’t have the city supporting them.

    • Submitted by Alan Straka on 04/30/2017 - 05:33 pm.

      those who benefit should foot the cost

      I am not a Republican but I do live outstate. I have no problem with light rail as long as state funds are not being used to pay for it. If the metro area, those who will benefit from the project, want to put up the money, I say go for it. Maybe the transit authority can issue bonds to be paid off from fare revenue.
      Roads and bridges do generate revenue. The cars that travel those roads and bridges run on fuel that is taxed and that money should go for maintenance and new construction of those roads and bridges. I would be quite willing to have an increase in the gas tax if I was assured the monies generated would go for our roads and bridges. The Star Tribune article pointed out that greater Minnesota has far more miles of road and if you look at it from that perspective, the metro area is receiving more than their share. Look at it this way, if it weren’t for rural roads used by trucks bringing food into the city, you would all starve. So who needs whom the most? If you look at projects other than transportation (think of things like extravagant stadiums for professional sports) I think the metro area is doing just fine when it comes to snagging their share of funding.

      • Submitted by Derek Thompson on 04/30/2017 - 08:45 pm.

        Fairness

        I will probably never use 90% of the roads in this state. Does that mean my taxes shouldn’t go to those roads? Should we just make every road a toll road or double the gas tax?

      • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/05/2017 - 10:45 am.

        How many of those roads are necessary to transport food? Having lived in a rural area, I can honestly say that I’m pretty sure we could close many rural roads without significantly impacting transportation of goods. I would go so far as to say that most of them could be closed without preventing food from being transported, probably more efficiently (if slightly more inconveniently). Heck, the most efficient way to move goods overland is rail, so to the extent that a road gets to a railway, that might be sufficient. I wouldn’t advocate that, however, because part of paying taxes is about contributing to the well being of society, even individuals within that society that don’t give a whit about me. So, it’s in society’s best interest to make sure that rural dwellers also have access to things they not only need, but want.

        But let’s take a look at who needs who, again. How well do you think the rural part of this state would be doing if it didn’t have mouths to feed in cities? That’s a heck of a lot of corn to eat all by yourself. And how do you think the people in cities pay for that food? Jobs. Those jobs, for the most part, are not located at their homes. Making their commutes more efficient and/or affordable seems to be a good idea because, believe it or not, we can’t just pave over the entire city in order to get all the cars in the future on the roads. The answer is to reduce the number of cars (and fast!) so that people can make their living and money that they pay for food and in taxes that subsidizes the excess roads in rural Minnesota that are there for the pleasure and convenience of people who live there.

        Like it or not, the city needs the rural areas and the rural areas need the city. We pay for each other because doing so not only benefits ourselves financially, but because lives in both places are important.

        As an aside, I suspect that, if we suddenly cut off all food from rural areas of this country to the cities, most people would not starve. There are a lot of green lawns and a surprising amount of undeveloped areas (including farms!) in the Twin Cities that could serve as food production. We probably wouldn’t have a lot of beef, but that’s not that big a deal. Many of us could even go on doing our day jobs and still eat pretty reasonably. But, to suggest that is pretty dystopian. Something pretty awful would have had to happen to cut off cities entirely from rural areas. There would be little point in doing our day jobs if that happened. And it’s likely that both urban and rural folks would be much worse off without each other.

  6. Submitted by Richard Adair on 04/29/2017 - 09:36 pm.

    Learning from past mistakes

    In response to Ms Rasmussen’s request, above: A lot of these “mistakes” were related to Republican-mandated budget reductions.

    The Blue Line was planned with station platforms long enough to handle three-car trains, but to appease some skeptical legislators, they were built for two-car trains. Later they had to be retrofitted (expensively) for longer trains. “See how expensive rail transit is?”.

    The Northstar line was planned to go to St. Cloud but budgetary pressures from skeptics forced it to end at Big Lake. Who wants to go to Big Lake? “See–low ridership!”.

    The Green Line extension (Southwest) has already been forced to drop two stations and dramatically cut park-and-ride capacity by the budgeteers.

    The lesson is: do it right the first time. You’ll save money and gain ridership. In fairness, I’ve been to many planning meetings and have gained enormous respect for professional transit planners–dedicated and knowledgable public servants. We should give them the tools to do their job.

  7. Submitted by Shawn Smith on 04/30/2017 - 11:41 am.

    Dave doesn’t just “Live” in Apple Valley

    Dave Mindeman doesn’t just “live” in Apple Valley. He is a DFL Senate District 57 Director, a DFL State Central Committee Delegate, and a State Standing Committee Member. I just see this article as another DFL insider attacking Republicans on a partisan basis using Light Rail talking points. He is saying Light Rail is affordable (At $1.9B per line just to build it, it is not), it reduces congestion (it won’t), it increases development (why should developers get rich off of the taxpayers), and that we need to reduce pollution (Southwest increases carbon omissions over the “no-build” alternative).

    He is saying transit should not be a partisan issue, and conveniently omitted his partisan status.

    • Submitted by David Mindeman on 04/30/2017 - 09:08 pm.

      Let’s try to be accurate

      The only thing true about your comment is that I am a local district director with the DFL. I am not a member of the state party central committee and have very little to do with state party politics. I don’t hide my status and I talk about transportation in general. I happen to agree with the Democratic approach and therefore support them. Republicans are trying to obstruct and destroy light rail transit and disagree stongly with that.

  8. Submitted by rolf westgard on 05/01/2017 - 05:01 am.

    Bravo!

    Bravo, Dave!!

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