One of the arguments for light rail is that it is supposed to have lower operating costs than buses. But Minneapolis’ Hiawatha light rail is losing so much money that Hennepin County wants a region-wide sales tax to cover the costs of what Minnesota Governor Pawlenty calls “these very expensive transit projects.” The feds were subsidizing it with a $10 million grant, but that ended last year.
This one 11.6-mile light-rail line costs more than $20 million a year to operate. Farebox revenues cover only about a third of that. Half the rest is paid by the state of Minnesota and most of the other half comes from Hennepin County property taxes.
The light-rail line does not go outside of Hennepin County, so clearly most riders are residents of that county. But some commuters from Dakota and other nearby counties drive to park-and-ride stations and use the rail line. “There is no rational basis why the property taxpayers in Hennepin County ought to be paying for people from Dakota County to use the LRT line,” says one official.
But are they? Half the operating costs are paid by state taxpayers, including taxpayers from Dakota County. All of the construction costs were paid by federal and state taxpayers, including taxpayers from Dakota County. Considering the subsidies Hennepin County transit riders have received, they should pay Dakota County riders to take the train.
The Hiawatha light-rail line has received positive reviews, mainly because ridership exceeded the anemic projections made for it. Transit agencies have learned that politicians and editorial writers are basically innumerate, so instead of making unrealistically high projections of future ridership, they lowball the numbers.
The Hiawatha line was projected to carry only 9,000 riders a day who weren’t previously taking transit. Since Twin Cities daily auto travel grows by 9,000 trips about every two weeks, 9,000 riders a day (not all of whom would otherwise have driven a car) hardly justified the $480 million the line was projected to cost. Yet Ted Mondale (son of the former vice president and then-executive director of the Twin Cities’ regional government) touted the line as the solution to congestion.
Minnesota residents, who had to pay most of the construction costs, were in for a series of shocks after the legislature approved the project following rancorous debate. First, construction costs quickly escalated: the project ended up costing $715 million. Transit officials claimed these weren’t cost overruns and that they could have built the line for close to the original budget. But the local congressional delegation happened to “find” extra money for the project, so they spent it on things like station-area art. Even if true, it raises the question of why the transit agency so willingly spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on things they claim they didn’t need.
$200 million worth of station art? Photo by Stephan Louis.
When the rail line opened in 2004, auto drivers who expected congestion relief were stunned to find that light-rail significantly increased congestion. The line parallels Hiawatha Avenue, AKA state highway 55, and crosses many of the streets that cross Hiawatha. While signals on Hiawatha had previously been coordinated to allow smooth progression of traffic, the new arrangement gave the light-rail line signal priority over autos. This disrupted the signals on Hiawatha, adding 20 to 40 minutes to people’s commutes.
“This is not a sinister plot to make traffic as miserable as possible and move everybody onto the train,” a Minnesota Department of Transportation official told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. He was soon proven wrong. Documents uncovered by state Representative (and rail critic) Phil Krinkie soon proved him wrong. In 1999, the documents revealed, a consultant warned that giving light-rail signal priority would severely disrupt traffic. Yet the state decided to give the trains priority because, said a state planner, “transit had to have an advantage” over autos. After studying the problem for months, the state finally concluded that the traffic would have to stay disrupted because they did not want to interfere with their precious light-rail schedules.
Light rail opened for business on June 26, 2004. First fatal accident on September 26, 2004. Photo from Minnesota Daily
The Hiawatha light rail was involved in its first fatal accident just a few months after it opened. Transit officials blamed the late auto driver. The accident certainly was not the fault of planners who put 200,000-pound rail vehicles in the same grades and intersection as 2,000- to 3,000-pound automobiles.
The next shock came to transit riders who believed that light-rail would improve the entire regional transit system. Instead, the transit agency began cutting bus lines throughout the region. The agency claimed that these economy measures were unrelated to the cost of light rail. But if they did not have to spend $20 million on one transit route, they could have spent that money improving bus service elsewhere.
In 2000, before light-rail construction began, Twin Cities transit carried 73.5 million transit trips. In 2005, the first full year of light-rail operation, transit carried 69.7 million trips. Light-rail’s legacy is a 3.8-million trip decline in annual ridership.
Of course, none of these things bother rail advocates, who claim the Hiawatha line is a success story. Success for who? The pork-barrelling interests who built it? The transit officials who want a rail empire? It is certainly not a success for taxpayers, commuters, or transit riders.