Now we all get to watch the Northern Lights Express fail
I’ve explained before just what a total waste of money the proposed Northern Lights Express will be. It will be a slower, more expensive, and less convenient way of moving from the center of Minneapolis to the center of Duluth. It will have no beneficial economic impact on the communities it will trundle through, empty, a few times a day. All it will do is make a few train enthusiasts happy.
Sadly for the state, the most fiscally incontinent government in state history was not likely to pass up the opportunity to waste another $200 million. On Sunday, the $8 billion Transportation Bill passed both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature. Under the bill, the state government will spend $194.7 million on the Northern Lights Express — which is 20% of total costs — but will unlock the other 80% in federal funding.
So what now? Well, we get to watch the whole thing fail and consume a lot of resources on the way down.
The first stumble will be construction costs. There can’t be anybody in the solar system who believes that the Northern Lights Express will actually cost what its advocates say it will. After all, none of the other projects, like the disastrous SWLRT, have. So at some point in the not-too-distant future, the project’s advocates will be back at the capitol rattling the begging bowl, peddling the sunk cost fallacy, and saying that having wasted so much money so far, our only option is to waste some more.
At that point, legislators should deep-six the whole thing. We might get lucky and maybe they will do exactly that. Or they may not. After all, if politicians love anything, it’s spending lots of your money so they can stand in front of a camera waving a shovel and wearing a high-vis vest and hard hat.
Which might bring us to the second stumble: hardly anyone will use the Northern Lights Express, and certainly not enough people to cover its costs. There are a number of reasons for this.
Northern Lights Express will be more expensive than the alternatives
As I’ve written before:
One-way fares are expected to cost around $35. You can fill your tank for about that and drive, and you can fit your whole family in the car. Even if kids travel free on the train, it would cost my family of four twice as much as driving. And that doesn’t include the cost of parking by the station.
And, if you don’t have a car, you can get a bus for $9 one way. Sure, it takes about an hour longer than the train, but it costs less than a third as much.
Northern Lights Express will be slower than driving
Again, as I’ve noted before:
The train will take 150 minutes. At present, you can drive from the Depot in Duluth to Target Field in 140 minutes.
Northern Lights Express will be less convenient than driving
There is, finally, this crucial point which I’ve made before:
And that assumes you want to go from the Depot to Target Field. If you want to go from, say, Hermantown to the Mall of America, you have to add travel time on either end of the train journey. There’s an 18-minute drive from Hermantown to the Depot, and then you have to park your car, and a 46-minute light rail ride, for a total journey time of 214 minutes. The drive is 143 minutes.
And that doesn’t factor in waiting time. When you drive, you can choose when you leave and, to a large extent, when you arrive. With a train, you have to work to a timetable. Let’s say departures of the four proposed trains a day are evenly spread between the hours of 6:30 a.m. (to get commuters into work before 9 a.m.; I’m generously assuming they all work right by Target Field) and 5 p.m. (to let them get the last train home). That is 10½ hours, so we have trains departing every 210 minutes. That is at 6:30 a.m. (arriving at 9 a.m.), 10 a.m. (arriving at 12:30 p.m.), 1:30 p.m. (arriving at 4 p.m.), and 5 p.m. (arriving at 7:30 p.m.).
Now, imagine you live in Duluth and have an appointment in Minneapolis at midday. You would have to leave the Duluth station, after traveling there from your house, at 6:30 a.m., then kick your heels in Minneapolis for two hours. Alternatively, you could drive, setting off at 9:30 a.m., arriving a little before your appointment and cutting your traveling time by a whole three hours (not including the journey to the station).
Northern Lights Express will be a total waste of money
A number of people on social media have indicated that they will “rebut” these points. They never do. Instead, they concede the point — they have to because things like time and cost are taken from the supporting documents — and then scream about it, which is not the same thing.
So, at this point, we face the same choice: do we ditch the whole thing as we did back in 1985 when we had this service before and nobody used it, or do we keep on shoveling money into this white elephant?
We have a massive, pointless waste of money to look forward to and you can’t say you weren’t warned. The upsides are that A) it will become a textbook example of why not to bother with these things in the first place and B) it will keep the train enthusiasts happy, although you might question whether that is value at $200 million and counting.
Rest assured, dear reader, that I will be chronicling this ongoing disaster. Watch this space.