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Legislative News and Views - Rep. Linda Runbeck (R)

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Let's press pause button on light-rail expansion

Friday, April 24, 2015
Dear Neighbor,
What is the urban planners' fascination for light-rail transit all about? Is it a goal to increase mobility for commuters, or is it more about economic development or redevelopment?
If one new line costs $1 billion and moves just 35,000 riders per day, thereby increasing the metro transit-trip share by just .25 percent of daily metro trips totaling 12 million, is light rail a good use of taxpayer dollars?
When the numbers of people commuting by transit to work has scarcely increased since 1970 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau) despite the expenditure of billions in transit infrastructure nationwide, isn't it time to question these investments?
When nearly one in 10 Green Line boarders skip paying the fare box, and fare box revenues for light rail lines pay for just 28 percent of the operating costs, can we afford to keep this vision of transit going? Considering that only 7 percent of commuters in any major American city can access their jobs via transit in under 45 minutes, making it a less than attractive travel option for most, should we reconsider piling more debt for light rail on Minnesotans?
If good old-fashioned buses carry 90 percent of all transit passengers in the Twin Cities (Metro Transit), but are receiving only 20 percent of the transit investment, are our priorities upside-down?
Can the proposed 16-mile Southwest Corridor (Southwest Light Rail Transit) line really deliver the projected 22,800 daily riders when demographics say that just 14,554 people from the Eden Prairie hub travel into Minneapolis every day? At a projected cost of nearly $2 billion, those subsidized riders will receive a benefit worth estimated at $2,000 yearly. Could these optimistic projections turn out to be reminiscent of several recent examples of advocates' hopes far exceeding reality (e.g., e-pulltab revenue for the Vikings stadium and MnSure enrollments that fell short by 90 percent)? Has anyone taken a pencil to these ridership projections? Does anyone care, considering that $1 billion of the investment is coming from the federal government?
These are the questions growing numbers of people are asking of the Met Council as it persists in building a transit network costing $4.5 billion (the initial phase) plus $500 million in annual operating subsidies paid for by the taxpayer.
The bottom line is that light rail lines are not self-sustaining, are capable of increasing metro transit ridership by only trivial amounts, and require continuous and substantial subsidies.
As chair of the Subcommittee on Metropolitan Council Transparency and Accountability, I'm aiming to push the pause button on light rail expansion to get taxpayers a better bang for our transit investment by making sure we take advantage of lower cost options such as buses, bus rapid transit, park and rides, and HOV lanes.
A bill I chief-authored, H.F. 899, would limit the Council's ability to invest capital from the 1/4-cent transit sales tax in light-rail projects if operating costs and debt service costs are not covered.
This proposal would save tax dollars and require more fiscal responsibility in the transit expansion plans of the Council. Moreover, this bill saves the state $67 million per biennium in light rail subsidies allowing those dollars to be used for roads and bridges.
Beyond initial construction costs of new light rail lines, replacement costs should also be a significant concern. Recent reports indicate Boston's MBTA will need to spend $6.7 billion to repair and modernize its trains, rails and stations, an amount more than double a previous estimate. Los Angeles is in the process of a $1.2 billion overhaul of its 23-year-old rail line connecting the city with Long Beach, a cost double the original estimate. Weren't these proclaimed to be 40-year investments?
A further consideration is the lack of clarity in our state laws regarding the goals and purposes of transit for the region. The Office of the Legislative Auditor found, "There are many organizations involved in transit in the Twin Cities region, and each serves a somewhat distinct but overlapping role." In effect, there is no regional transit plan.
Taxpayers deserve capital investments of this magnitude to receive rigorous examination and a more transparent process so they know where their tax dollars are being spent. The light rail transit dream is a black hole that will eat up all our transportation dollars – unless Twin Citians begin demanding the Met Council take the blinders off and start providing answers to all these lingering questions.
Rep. Linda Runbeck
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