MnDOT critics, national experts debunk light rail

by Travis Reed

Construction of the Twin Cities light-rail system received heavy criticism Tuesday as grassroots community leaders, lawmakers and academics took shots at the Minnesota Department of Transportation.
The state House Finance Committee heard testimony from four national experts who denounced purported benefits of the rail system.
And earlier that day, local activists held a press conference accusing MnDOT of corruption and calling for a federal investigation of issues relating to the development of Hiawatha Avenue.
When MnDOT sends its funding request to Washington, D.C., next year, such strong vocal opposition could raise questions about the viability of light rail in the Twin Cities — jeopardizing Federal Transit Administration support, something vital to the project.

A question of cost
In the 1998 session, the state Legislature passed a bill requiring the completion of a cost-benefit analysis for all state projects with budgets of more than $5 million.
A Nov. 4 report issued by MnDOT revealed the rail project is only 42 percent cost-effective — a dismal figure indicating that light rail wouldn’t deliver even half the benefit it should for its price tag.
But even that figure might be too generous, said Randal O’Toole, a Thoreau Institute economist. His calculations indicate that light rail would only be 13 percent cost-effective and that light rail wouldn’t do anything to alleviate congestion or remedy other Twin Cities traffic woes.
O’Toole was one of the scholars on hand at Tuesday’s Finance Committee meeting to discuss the benefits of the proposed transit system.
He and his colleagues at the hearing forecasted a gloomy future for light rail in the metro area. They said the high-tech transportation alternative has been little more than a multimillion-dollar disappointment for most U.S. cities.
“Minneapolis is suffering from a serious case of light-rail envy,” he wrote in testimony presented to the Finance Committee. “The effects include … the deterioration of transit systems … and an increase in congestion.”
Jonathan Richmond, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, presented empirical data from cities with light-rail projects to the committee. In Buffalo, N.Y., Portland, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif., metro councils used inflated ridership figures to garner support. But all of the projects enjoyed only a fraction of the riders estimated, Richmond said.
But Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, a member of the House Finance Committee, said efforts to stop the project are too little too late.
Despite the comments presented to the committee, Kahn still calls the decision to implement light rail “a good idea,” and doubts that today’s hearings will affect construction.
“With local government and national senators firmly in support, I don’t think a bill to cancel the project will work,” she said.
State representatives aren’t the only ones questioning the advancement of construction along the Hiawatha Corridor.
During the press conference, local activist John Reinhardt announced his Minneapolis neighborhood unanimously approved a resolution calling for a federal and state attorney general investigation into MnDOT’s handling of a 1993 meeting.
Reinhardt said the meeting was held to determine whether enough public concern existed to merit another environmental impact study. Instead, he said MnDOT officials manipulated the meeting’s record to exclude concerns that might have delayed the project.
“They solicited neighborhood input, but threw it out when they didn’t hear what they wanted,” Reinhardt said.

Travis Reed covers environment and and welcomes comments at tree[email protected]. He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3235.