Southwest Light Rail: An expensive mistake

Lots of alarm has been coming from the Star Tribune editorial page during the past few weeks, regarding the Southwest light rail project. The Strib is fretting over the possibility of losing “free” federal money for the project, and charges opponents with a short-sighted failure of vision. But in the desperate pursuit of the “free” $928 million from Washington, no one mentions the hefty operating costs (starting at $32 million and reaching $58 million a year by 2040) we will be locking ourselves into.

The Star Tribune is worried about the $140 million already spent on the project, but better to learn an expensive lesson that would be recouped within a few years of saved operating costs than spend $800 million more for the project and commit ourselves to huge ongoing costs.

But perhaps most disturbing is that “experts,” who study, get advanced degrees, and attend seminars on urban planning, push such an expensive, inflexible monstrosity. Are they blind to the advances in mobility just a few years off that promise to transform Southwest Light Rail Transit into a boondoggle of Biblical proportions?

The vision of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, articulated in a 2013 Atlantic Monthly piece, is taking flight:

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.

The future is flexible, not fixed. Recent news stories describe how driverless cars will reduce labor costs, fuel consumption, and accidents. A recent New York Times headline: “Ford Promises Fleets of Driverless Cars within Five Years.”

Another argument for Southwest Light Rail Transit is that it will be the “train to equity,” connecting North Minneapolis with Southwestern suburb jobs. But 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.”

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.

Most of the Southwest corridor has enough right-of-way to support the current track for freight and bus lanes. That could be used for a Southwest bus rapid transit line and connected to a badly needed high-occupancy vehicle lane on Hwy. 169 to serve the SW suburbs. This project would both improve transit and reduce congestion, and could be done, according to one transportation expert, for about $500 million, less than one-third of the $1.86 billion cost of SW light rail.

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 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.