Light rail is the right investment


My old Star Tribune colleague, Mike Meyers, weighed in the other day on the newspaper’s opinion pages with a long kvetch about light-rail transit. While I’ve admired his work in the past, I have to differ on this one.

Meyers (not to be confused with comedian Mike Myers; he bears more resemblance, physically and ideologically, to movie polemicist Michael Moore) seems to think that public transit should serve only, or mostly, the huddled masses of the urban poor – in other words, those without the resources to drive their own cars like “normal” Americans. Therefore, he reasons, rail transit diverts scarce public funds from the real deal:

“Buses surely are a more democratic form of mass transit than is light rail,” he writes. “We’re still waiting to hear about plans for a light-rail line through the neighborhoods of north Minneapolis, which have more than their share of poor and minorities.”

News flash for Meyers: Months ago, Hennepin County officials selected from among four alternatives for the planned Southwest Transitway, the only route that does serve north Minneapolis. The Metropolitan Council is expected to ratify that choice later this month. Another proposed transitway high on the Met Council’s priority list, the Bottineau, would ply the heart of the North Side, West Broadway.

If North Siders get light rail, will that make it “a more democratic form of mass transit”? And what does that mean, anyway?

Is it because, as Meyers points out, light rail carries only one in eight transit riders in the Twin Cities? To Meyers, “that makes caring for the expansion of the bus system a higher priority than adding more whistle stops on the Light Rail Limited.”

This is circular logic at its worst, more commonly employed by conservatives. There are more than 200 bus routes in the seven-county area versus a total of one light rail line, the Hiawatha. That means the Hiawatha alone carries the equivalent of 30 bus routes combined, at an average operating subsidy per passenger of two-thirds the buses’. But you won’t ride light rail if it doesn’t go where you want.

Doesn’t that lead to a conclusion diametrically opposed to Meyers’? For improved operating efficiency and attention to customers’ preferences, light-rail expansion should get the nod over more buses.

Meyers correctly points out that light rail’s upfront capital costs of around $100 million per mile (one-third the hit for rebuilding the mile-long Crosstown Commons freeway interchange) greatly exceed those for buses. But he goes off the rails when he suggests that Metro Transit could add 4,000 buses to its current fleet of around 900 for the same cost as three rail lines.

Imagine that for a second. Each of those diesel burners would need drivers and space on the Twin Cities’ already congested streets and highways, which in transit-bashers’ fantasies are taken for granted as a gift from on high, never needing extra maintenance due to increased loading. Rail transit requires many fewer operators and generally reduces traffic congestion.

Smart transportation policy that supports jobs and economic development must rest on offering the public choices so we’re not all stuck in traffic in cars or buses. Light rail and commuter rail, like the new Northstar from Big Lake to Minneapolis, are the best alternatives currently available. They give us a chance to build a Twin Cities for the 21st century, not just more of the overstressed systems of the past.