Light rail cost gives weight to alternatives

On Wednesday, the Minnesota Department of Transportation released revised cost estimates for the proposed Hiawatha light-rail line that are significantly higher than those originally proposed. Although these increased costs will diminish the benefits of light rail for many area residents, the plan will still be implemented. The only important consequence of these new figures is delaying the completion of a light-rail network throughout the metropolitan area. The Minneapolis City Council and the Metropolitan Council should use the delay to make more fundamental changes to the transportation system — changes that recognize the benefits of providing several transportation alternatives.
The project’s original total cost estimate of $400 million has been increased to $500 million for four reasons. The purchase of land in Bloomington adjacent to the Mall of America caused an unanticipated increase of $30 million. The state Legislature revised the original plan, deciding to extend the line through downtown and past the mall. This not only increased the costs, but changed the route. The new route would require the electrical and telecommunications utilities on Fifth Street, owned by Northern States Power, Co., and US West, to be moved, further increasing costs. And the original estimate was made in 1997 dollars, a fact that some contend was not illustrated clearly enough.
The delayed implementation of light rail should be used to provide Minneapolis and the metro area with a model transportation system that offers several alternatives that would cost little to implement. The first initiative would develop a network of bike-highways. For many, bicycles are the ideal form of transportation. The cost of ownership is a fraction of any other mode of transportation, bicycles produce no pollution and the risk of serious injury is slight. But the designs of the larger urban areas of the United States discourage their use. By designating just a few underused streets as bike-only, a simple and efficient bike-highway system could be implemented.
Several underused streets could also be used for bus-only service for a few of the more frequently used Metro Transit routes. Buses are a popular and convenient means of transportation for many inner-city and suburban residents. By designating certain streets as bus-only, the bus network would become more efficient, buses could be driven much less on the shoulders of freeways and highways in diamond lanes and traffic on important arteries would be reduced.
Several streets that are well-placed for suburb-to-city transport could be converted to small three- or four-lane one-way arteries. This arrangement offers many advantages, including greater efficiency than two-way streets, less physical obtrusion and maintenance than traditional highways and freeways and heavy traffic only during one period of the day.
The delay of a more thoroughly developed light-rail system offers Minneapolis and the metro area an opportunity to create a model transportation system. Minneapolis and metro area officials should realize that an ideal transportation network is a result of dense development and complementary transit options. The opportunities afforded by the delay should be utilized.