Not all LRT projects are created equal – or promote equity
By far the largest proposed public works expenditure in Minnesota history, SWLRT prioritizes and would overwhelmingly serve a select exurban and suburban area of the metro area and Minnesota as shown by route selection, ridership projections, and distribution of project expenditures.
- Approximately 45% of SWLRT riders are expected to use stations in the two most distant and affluent municipalities on the route, Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.
- The median household income in Eden Prairie is $96,000, per U.S. Census Data, with Eden Prairie average household net worth estimated at $842,000 per Realtor.com.
- Minnetonka median household income is $80,000, with average household net worth estimated at $792,000.
- The Minnesota state median household income is $61,000.
- Eden Prairie and Minnetonka commuters have a shorter mean travel time to work than the state average per census data and already have better transit than most areas in the state and metro with the Southwest Transit Express bus, a wi-fi-equipped bus service that would be retained and actually compete with SWLRT.
- Southwest metro freeways are not used efficiently or up to capacity due to extremely high one-driver-per-car/SUV usage. Carpooling on Hwy 100 is likely at least 3-5% below the national average of 10%.
SWLRT avoids both urban density and the areas of most concentrated poverty.
- Overall, 83% of projected SWLRT riders would use suburban stations and 17% would use stations in Minneapolis.
- By 2030, projected roundtrip ridership is 266 individuals at the 2 stations skirting urban areas of concentrated poverty.
- The urban station with highest projected usage, Calhoun Station at the very edge of Minneapolis, is situated in an affluent area and designed to serve Edina and affluent parts of St. Louis Park.
SWLRT sharply increases the inequity of jobs access that already overwhelmingly favors suburban residents.
- The Minneapolis Foundation found that less than 25% of the total jobs in the city are held by Minneapolis residents (One Minneapolis, 2011).
- The Brookings Mind the Gap study found that a higher percentage of well – paying jobs are located in the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, rather than in the suburbs. As stated above, southwest suburban residents already have excellent transit and freeway access to these well-paying urban jobs.
- According to the Minneapolis Foundation, while 58% of the 275,000 jobs in the city paid an annual wage of $40,000 or more in 2011, Minneapolis residents held only 19% of these prime jobs.
- In fact, the jobs filled by Minneapolis residents are more likely to be the city’s lower wage jobs.
- While SWLRT promoters tout improved transit access to 60,000 jobs in the LRT corridor, suburban commuters already have excellent transit and freeway access to these jobs, and both lower skilled and professional positions in the urban core are filled disproportionately by suburbanites commuting into the city.
Prescribing LRT to the suburbs as the way to improve jobs access and equity for inner city residents is grossly misleading and a misdirection of resources for the purpose of state and metro equity goals.
- Improving jobs access for urban residents in terms of transit would focus on improving inner city transit rather than transit to jobs in the suburbs.
- To actually reduce structural rather than cyclical unemployment, Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program research recommends a very different solution from suburban rail for choice riders, and that is, narrowing the educational gap to level the playing field and enable competition for well-paying jobs (Brookings, “Education, Jobs Openings, and Unemployment in Metropolitan America,” 2012).
- Brookings research also shows that improving education simultaneously stimulates entrepreneurship, economic growth, and job creation (Ibid).
- For those urban core residents without employment, the primary barrier is not transit access, but education.
LRT Done Right 1/5/2016
The Southwest LRT is an expensive, flawed plan.
LRT projects and other transit modalities need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. The cost of SWLRT has risen to $1.8 billion from the 2012 estimate of $1.2 billion. The State’s share is currently $177 million, and is very likely to rise: in the August 2015 Project description, the Met Council states SWLRT is “likely to accrue costs for which cost estimates are not presently feasible.” (emphasis added)
- The high project cost divided by the low ridership count projections yields an unacceptably high cost-per-rider. Per Project data, the majority of SWLRT riders will be existent bus riders transferred to SWLRT. Counting all round-trip riders, including those switched from buses, taxpayers will spend about $104,000 per rider. Looking at costs for each new-to-transit SWLRT rider, taxpayers will spend about $295,000, per rider, in capital costs alone.
- Unacceptably high ongoing operating costs: SWLRT is expected to cost $30 million annually to operate, or about $1,750 per projected round-trip user.
- Extensive and expensive new infrastructure needed for SWLRT: The Project requires 34 new bridges and two major tunnels. Bridges need repair from Roseau to Rochester, but the Met Council spends taxpayer money to build 32 new ones for a costly and unneeded transit project.
- Transit, road, and bridge repair are needed throughout the state: The Met Council concentrates its transit dollars on certain geographic areas. It is particularly striking in the case of SWLRT, which is duplicating an excellent service already provided by the Eden Prairie Express Bus – also paid for by the Met Council.
- Little congestion relief for $1.8 billion: Two-thirds of expected riders are already taking transit. In fact, the Met Council no longer claims congestion relief as a purpose of the project in its 2015 report to the FTA.
- Liability for disaster: It is risky to allow ethanol-carrying freight trains to run within 15 feet of electrified LRT. Ethanol is in the same class 3 risk category for flammable liquids as Bakken oil. Railroads generally do not have remotely adequate disaster insurance, so State/other governmental units would likely be on the hook. So would the thousands of residents who live within the blast zone.
- Location under Twins Stadium: Freight trains carrying Bakken Oil, ethanol, and other hazardous materials now run under the ballpark. The Northstar Commuter Rail and Cedar Lake Bicycle Trail also converge there. The Met Council proposes adding 220 electrified light rail trains daily from SWLRT to this same narrow, enclosed space.
- No environmental benefit: SWLRT is seen as a way to decrease regional energy use and address climate change, but the 2012 environmental study found the decrease to be so negligible it declined to quantify it. It also said the overall reduction in air toxics predicted to occur by 2050 would be due to federally required improvements in vehicle efficiency, not due to SWLRT.
- Construction jobs: Any major spending project would create jobs. Of $1.8 billion for SWLRT, less than $300 million will support construction jobs. Just because jobs are created doesn’t mean the money is well spent.
- Transit dollars are limited: Even if new taxes are imposed, transit funding is limited. The above capital and operating costs will forever, inflexibly commit too many of those limited dollars, for too few people, and for a poorly located, fixed route.
Other options are more flexible, and a much better value.
- Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is a far better value: By comparison, the proposed Orange Line BRT would cost $150 million to build, with $15 million coming from the State. It would cost about 1/12th of the SWLRT and provide about 1/3rd of total rides – four times more rides per dollar spent.
- BRT can deliver much more in development per transit dollar: According to a 2013 Institute for Transportation and Development Policy study, “Per dollar of transit investment, BRT can leverage more (development) investment than LRT or streetcars.” For example, Cleveland’s Healthline, a BRT project, has generated $114 for each invested transit dollar while Portland’s Blue Line, a LRT project, has generated $3.74 per dollar invested (Forbes: Bus Rapid Transit Spurs Development Better than Light Rail or Streetcars, 9/15/13).
- At most only 6,000 cars will be taken off the road at rush hour by 2035 – in 20 years: This is a tiny fraction of the current 132,000 cars daily on I-494 at Hwy 169. Attaining a 9% carpool rate among these drivers over 20 years – only 300 new carpoolers per year – would achieve the same congestion relief at almost no cost.