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Top 8 Reasons to Hit the “Pause” Button on Light Rail and Fund Proven Steps to Reduce Congestion

As Minnesota road congestion grows, great sums of public dollars are being committed to an expensive and slow fixed rail system that moves few people and no freight. New transit spending should focus on much more cost effective ways to connect people to jobs, such as bus rapid transit. And projects to reduce congestion is the surest way to benefit our entire region.

1. Roads Work: Despite our social planners’ dreams to the contrary, the reality is that Minnesota’s businesses and workers overwhelmingly use roads to get to work and make the economy run. Over 87% of workers in the Metro area commute by car and nearly everyone else takes a bus. And trucks carry about two-thirds of the freight into and out of Minnesota.

2. Congestion is Expensive and Hurts Our Competitiveness and Prosperity: People’s time is valuable, we must give more consideration to economics in finding cost-effective improvements. According to a Texas A&M Transportation Institute study, congestion in the Twin Cities wastes $1.26 billion when the value of extra travel time, fuel consumption, and increased truck costs are added up, putting us fourth highest among areas our size.

3. Adding Capacity Actually Works: Despite defeatist claims to the contrary, stats show that adding lane miles really does reduce congestion and costs only $5-10 million a mile compared to the Southwest Light Rail line that comes in at $125 million a mile. Minnesota taxes were raised $2.1 billion in 2013, too bad none of that went to roads.

4. Set a Goal: The state should prioritize congestion relief by setting a goal and focus resources on the effort. Just as the state set a goal of achieving zero road deaths empowered MnDOT to work toward and achieve a big drop in fatality rates, setting a congestion reduction goal can help them focus their resources in a way that will fuel Minnesota’s economic engine and improve everyone’s quality of life. MnDOT should use their experience and know-how clearly identify the return on investment expected from each project.

5. Transit Costs are Huge: Transit fares are competitive with the cost of driving (about 25 cents per passenger mile) but when subsidies for operations and capital costs are added total transit costs spiked to $1.13 per passenger mile in the Twin Cities in 2011. This subsidy is 88 times the one penny per passenger mile that roads receive.

6. How to Help the Poor: Cars offer door-to-door convenience while transit is slow and inconvenient. Unsurprisingly, research has found a strong correlation between commuting speeds and worker productivity. According to USC Professor Genevieve Giuliano: “In most circumstances, private vehicle access is the key to improved mobility for the poor.”

7. Another Way to Help the Poor: If the goal is to help people out of poverty, helping them gain access to a car is far more likely to succeed than spending huge sums on public transit. A University of California study found that closing the black-white auto ownership gap would close nearly half the black-white employment gap. Car ownership is so important to helping people out of poverty that welfare agencies in more than 50 urban areas have started low interest loan programs to help poor people buy their first car.

8. The Future is Flexible, Not Fixed: The promise of new technology from self-driving cars to Uber carpools and busses will likely disrupt our current planners’ light rail dreams and cement any decision to move forward on the Southwest track as a very expensive mistake. Here’s the vision of Google co-founder Sergey Brin from a 2013 Atlantic Monthly piece: “If cars could drive themselves, there would be no need for most people to own them. A fleet of vehicles could operate as a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls. They’d be cheaper and more efficient than taxis—by some calculations, they’d use half the fuel and a fifth the road space of ordinary cars—and far more flexible than buses or subways.” Expect self-driving cars to begin to take off within five years.

Our transportation policy should embrace the future, economics, cost-effective solutions, and respect the idea that Minnesotans know where they want to go and how they want to get there. And planners should stop trying to impose their costly vision of an ideal society.

Peter Zeller is Director of Operations at Center of the American Experiment.

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