Saturday, January 01, 2005

Northstar Commuter Rail

I'm listening to David Strom on the radio at the moment (Taxpayers League Live, on am 1280, and also found at Our House). He's hammering on a topic near, if not necessarily dear to me: The Northstar Corridor.

The Northstar is a commuter rail project intended to use existing rail lines enabling riders to get from Big Lake (in the first phase - eventually it's supposed to extend to Saint Cloud), through a series of other suburbs, and eventually into downtown Minneapolis.

From a broad perspective, the background is simple. The suburbs have grown at a pace faster than the freeway system has been able to accomodate. This has lead to problems of congestion during rush hour, which has lead to general discontentment. The Northstar project is one of the more glamorous results.

David, being a taxpayer-watchdog kind of guy, is agin' it. And makes his case rather concisely:

“The simplest cost-benefit analysis shows that commuter rail is an even worse deal for taxpayers than light rail. Every criticism that applies to light rail is even more true of commuter rail, and if you look closely, the two projects are even related and funded together.

“There is one significant difference, though, that may play out politically: Northstar runs through some politically powerful suburban areas. The only reason this project has had the staying power it has had, despite the misgivings of the federal government and the consistent opposition of the legislature, is that the corridor runs through a vote-rich and pork-poor area of the state. Combine that with millions of tax-funded lobbying dollars, and you get the result we see today,” Strom said."

I admit that I was sucked in by this project when I first heard about it one the following basis:

  • Traffic congestion is a growing problem, and it's hard to imagine highway construction will keep pace with it.
  • One of the stations is planned to be built 3 blocks from my house - so it would be super-convenient for me.
  • Building on existing rail lines sounded like it would be far less expensive than building light rail, so my opposition to light-rail didn't seem to apply here.
Sounds good, right? Well here is what I have learned since then. My source is the Northstar Corridor Development Authority (NCDA)'s website :
  • Commuter rail will accomodate such a tiny number of riders compared to the whole it will have no serious effect on traffic congestion. The NCDA estimate is "5,600 trips per day." One assumes a single commuter counts as 2 trips.
  • I no longer work in downtown Minneapolis; and even if I did commuting from Fridley into downtown Minneapolis is quick and easy already. Personal selfish motive negated.
  • My assumption about cheap costs for using existing rail lines was simply wrong. Cheaper than building new ones? Perhaps. But not cheap all the same. Estimated construction costs according to the NCDA: $265 million (FY 2008) (50% federal, 33% state, 17% local); operation costs are estimated at "Approximately $11 million per year."
So with unjaded eyes, I can re-examine the matter, and as I do some interesting questions about the way our government operates spring up.

For example, take another look at this impressive website advocating the Northstar line. It's really quite nice, and obviously updated on a regular basis. But I have a question. Who pays for it? As far as I can tell, it's funded by the NCDA. But where does the NCDA get its funding? Unless I'm mistaken it comes from the Minnesota Legislature. Which means it's taxpayer funded.

An organization using citizens' tax dollars to lobby our own government and voters in advocacy of a major new spending program? Am I the only one who finds this absurd?

Where is the government funding for a group playing devil's advocate and opposing building the Northstar Line? There isn't any of course. And that's the problem in a nutshell. The legislature has tilted the playing field, offering support and funding to the advocates, before making a supposedly "impartial" vote on whether or not to go forward. That stinks to high heaven.

The legislature will likely vote on funding for this project next session. The advocates have the advantage of "free" lobbying money, a taxpayer funded organization, the support of local governments who would benefit from the construction project, and even (disappointingly) Governor Pawlenty.

Against that, what does the opposition have going for it?

Super Strom!!! (And he looks eager at the challenge)

(Hat Tip to Chumley for the picture)


Blogger R-Five said...

That's why the Light Rail passed. It was a hydra, no one face to debate, came at you every which way. And, barring a miracle like Pawlenty finding his spine, it will happen again.

I have this idea that all these rail projects are for is to suck up highway money to contain urban sprawl. It also keeps the downtown centric model alive for another generation.

5:07 PM  

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