It’s déjà vu…all over again
Like Yogi Berra once said, “its déjà vu all over again.” And so it is with the proposal for the Central Corridor light rail line between Minneapolis and St. Paul; a project whose current estimate sits at $1.25 billion. But if the construction histories of the Hiawatha light rail line and the Northstar Commuter rail line are any indication, in five years we could be wistfully looking back at the $1.25 billion price tag and think that a billion dollar boondoggle was a bargain.
Last week, Governor Pawlenty issued a stern warning: unless planners can cut the cost of building the Central Corridor light rail line down to $840 million, he is threatening to withdraw his support. This would be a good outcome, but unlikely.
Right now with the estimated costs climbing to around $1.25 billion, or almost 50% above that target, Metropolitan Council Chair Peter Bell says: “It’s getting down to crunch time.”
But, nobody should be surprised at the cost escalation. When the Hiawatha light rail line was proposed, it was estimated to cost around $450 million, but wound up costing $715 million, a nearly a 60% increase.
Unfortunately, the real scandal is not that costs are skyrocketing, but that anybody is considering building the line at all.
Let’s look at the facts: the biggest transportation problem facing the Twin Cities region is growing traffic congestion. Not only does nobody deny this, but politicians are scrambling to raise taxes to supposedly help alleviate congestion.
And what will the Central Corridor do to relieve congestion? According to the Environmental Impact Study used to justify the project, the answer is nothing. In fact, it’s likely that building the project will make congestion worse as the trains constantly stop traffic trying to cross University Ave (just as the Hiawatha LRT has increased congestion along Highway 55).
The same study of the Central Corridor LRT indicates transit ridership increases by about 2%, and reduces automobile use by much less than 1%. This is due to the fact that the Central Corridor already is a heavily used bus line.
So what exactly are we buying for somewhere between $840 million and $1.25 billion? Four hundred new transit riders a year with the same or worse congestion and operating costs of $15-20 million per year. The Central Corridor LRT isn’t a transportation investment at all, it is a trophy.
Yet Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, the Metropolitan Council, the Governor, and the Legislature have all expressed support and even enthusiasm for building this disaster. Most people think that trains are nicer than buses, but is the difference worth a billion or more?
When it comes to true congestion reduction, consider this: the I-694/35E “unweave the weave” project will double the number of lanes in one of the worst bottlenecks in the Twin Cities, and is costing taxpayers $188 million. Fixing the 35W/Highway 62 Crosstown Interchange, one of the worst bottlenecks in the country with more than 200,000 vehicles a day, is projected to cost $288 million to again double the number of lanes.
It makes no sense to waste our scarce transportation resources to reduce the number of cars on University Avenue by less than 1% when for the same kind of money you could buy four to five projects of the magnitude of “Unweave the Weave,” or three to four projects on the scale of fixing the Crosstown Interchange. Dreaming of building a trolley line down University Avenue for a billion dollars is foolish when there are dozens of road projects to build which would truly reduce congestion.
If state lawmakers were serious about reducing congestion, they would take every dime available in the 2008 bonding bill and spend it on fixing our roads and bridges.
The reality is transit advocates will be calling on lawmakers to pass higher gas taxes, tab fees and yes, even higher sales taxes, so that St. Paulites can have their trolley too. Unfortunately, state lawmakers will likely proceed with funding the Central Corridor regardless of the construction costs and the on-going operating subsidies.