Use Transit Dollars Wisely
by Senator John Marty
March 20, 2000

Although the Minnesota legislature has finally committed more money for transit, the bus system remains starved for funds, while over a half billion dollars is being earmarked for one light rail transit (LRT) route. I like trains, and enjoy the rail systems in other communities, so I understand the appeal of light rail. But we should invest in LRT only if it makes sense in our community.

Clearly, effective public transportation costs less than expanded freeways. We can never construct enough roads to build our way out of traffic congestion. But, neither can we afford to make unwise transit investments.

Take a look at the costs and ridership projections for LRT. Compare them with other potential investments in transit. Which will best increase transit ridership, reduce highway congestion, protect the environment, and provide the fastest and most convenient transportation for transit users?

Compare the options:

$548 million -- net ridership increase of 6600 passengers per day
for LRT in Hiawatha Corridor

$430 million -- net ridership increase of 70,000 passengers per day
for Comprehensive Transit Package (details follow)

$70 million for an exclusive busway in the Hiawatha corridor and clean-fuel buses to operate on it. Bus travel in the corridor would transport passengers as quickly as LRT.

$100 million to reduce all bus fares in Metro Transit system to 50 cents per trip. Reduced fares (through employer-subsidized bus passes and free return trips) have increased ridership. A simple, flat bus fare of 50 cents would entice more people to leave their cars behind and take the bus. This single change would increase ridership far more than the entire LRT project.

$200 million to Metro Transit for long-overdue capital projects to increase the convenience, speed, safety, and frequency of service. These are not glamorous projects (building bus shelters, preparing more highway shoulders for buses during rush hour, buying clean fuel buses, building park-and-ride lots) but they improve service and attract new riders.

$30 million for Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). This is a very promising, but still untested Minnesota technology that would be much less expensive to build and operate than LRT, while delivering passengers to their destinations faster. $6 million would be used for final engineering studies and development of a prototype of PRT. After completion of the engineering study, the state would be able to invest the remaining $24 million to construct one or more local PRT systems.

$10 million for incentives to reduce single vehicle occupancy, such as downtown parking preferences for car pools.

$20 million for improvements in transit systems in greater Minnesota.

Some LRT proponents argue that we cannot afford to pass up the federal money expected to pay for much of the project. But the federal government is attempting to make transportation funding flexible to meet the needs of local communities. If Minnesota changes its transit plans to more effectively meet local needs, the federal government should be pleased to support our efforts to stretch federal dollars further.

If we are serious about reducing congestion in the Twin Cities area, our goal should be to double transit ridership in the next five years. That's a quarter million new rides per day. 6,600 new riders from LRT are only a drop in the bucket. For a half billion dollars, we can do better than that.

This isn't a minor issue. The difference between the two options in attracting riders isn't 10%, it's 1000%!

Despite the appeal of light rail, the Metro Council projects only a minor overall increase in transit use. When a smaller investment yields ten times the benefit projected by LRT backers, it is time to step back and rethink our plans.

{Additional information on ridership statistics:

Current Metro Transit daily ridership is 245,000.

According to the Metropolitan Council, the year that LRT begins operating in the Hiawatha Corridor, total ridership for light rail and buses in the corridor will be only about 6600 passengers per day greater than the 20,000 bus passengers per day projected if LRT is not built.

The 70,000 ridership increase for the alternative proposal is calculated conservatively as a 30% increase in ridership based on increases in quality and frequency of service, and a significant reduction in fares. (An experimental free bus fare system in Texas several years ago almost doubled ridership.)}

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