Newspaper article

Who's Running the Regional Railroad?

Newspaper article

Who's Running the Regional Railroad?

Article excerpt

Ramsey County will soon have a renovated depot with virtually no trains, while Hennepin County has hundreds of trains with no depot. It makes you wonder who the heck is planning our rail transit system.

The answer is that rail transit planning in the Twin Cities metro area is being driven by the counties, each of which would like a rail line or two. Never mind whether they pass muster from a regional perspective.

The fault lies with the Minnesota Legislature, which authorized the metro counties in 1980 to each create a regional rail authority and levy property taxes to advance its goals.

This has enabled the counties to hire consultants, lobbyists and public relations firms to promote their favored projects, seek federal and state funding, and carry out the early planning. The Metropolitan Council, the body responsible for regional transit planning and operations, has largely sat on the sidelines until rail projects are ready for engineering and construction.

The problems with transit planning and governance were compounded in 2008, when the Legislature authorized the metro counties to create the Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) and levy a quarter-cent sales tax for the development and operation of rail and bus transitways. Five of the seven counties took advantage of the law.

Who has the checkbook?

While on paper the Met Council remains responsible for transit planning, CTIB is the body that has the regional checkbook. And it has not been shy about producing maps showing rail lines favored by the counties that aren't even in the Met Council's 2030 transportation policy plan.

Some would argue that this dysfunctional system has worked, producing the Hiawatha light-rail transit (LRT) line that opened in 2004 and the Central Corridor LRT line that is scheduled for completion in 2014. Both of these corridors were identified as priorities in the Met Council's first LRT planning efforts back in the early 1980s.

Hiawatha is averaging about 30,000 riders per weekday, greatly exceeding pre-construction estimates, and Central is projected to carry 40,000 riders per weekday by 2030.

However, this same planning system also gave us the Northstar commuter rail line, which thus far been a major disappointment. Opened in late 2009, the 40-mile, $317 million line from Big Lake to downtown Minneapolis averaged fewer than 2,000 riders during its first year of operation. That's 40 percent below the pre- construction estimate for its first year of service.

In 2010, the public subsidy per Northstar passenger was a whopping $18.49 (one way), enough to rent a car for every rider. In 2011, weekday ridership climbed to 2,300, but it still has a long way to go.

Issue of depots

But let's get back to the issue of depots. You'd think this is a subject that would call for some careful regional planning. …

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