Not Obsessed with LRT, but with a Healthy and Competitive Future

The Star Tribune recently featured an Op-Ed by Mr. David Osmek of Mound (Stop the light-rail obsession; February 1, 2012). Transit for Livable Communities responds to some of the questionable statements in the piece, which sought to undermine the expansion of the public transit system in the Twin Cities.


Osmek: Stop the light-rail obsession.

TLC:  And be prepared to fall behind our peer cities in attracting jobs and talent. Denver, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, and San Jose, to name a few, have transit systems 2-4 times the size of ours, judging by the number of LRT cars they have in service. And some are moving faster than we are to build new lines. Some of these cities are ambitiously building more than one line at the same time to better serve more residents.


Osmek: Riders pay only 99 cents.

TLC:  The base fare for Metro Transit light rail is $1.75, rising to $2.25 in rush hour. The Twin Cities’ Metro Transit system ranks high among peers in fare-box recovery, according to the National Transit Database, the federal reporting data for required of all public transit systems.



Osmek: The true cost of a ride “does not include the amortized cost of bonding for the build-out of the line.”

TLC:  The cost of Southwest LRT and light rail in general is substantial, but pales in comparision to the cost of roads and driving.  While some road costs are covered by user fees, billions of other costs for local roads, vehicle parking, and traffic safety are subsidized by non-transportation sources.  There also are costs involved with owning and operating private vehicles – an annual expense of up to $8,000 per vehicle that can’t be avoided or reduced when there are not options like bus and rail.


Osmek:  Rail, “in my opinion, has a negligible effect on traffic congestion.”

TLC:  Really?  50% of the 30,000 daily Hiawatha LRT riders previously travelled by car. Imagine all those people back in a car on crowded Hiawatha Ave or I-35W. And a rail car uses a tiny fraction of the transportation right of way that cars do to move a comparable number of people. In a corridor with many destinations and a high number of jobs and residents (all of which the SWLRT corridor has), light rail is a very efficient way for people to get around. A 3-car LRT train easily carries 400 people and it runs every 7.5-10 minutes at peak times. A typical bus carries about 40 passengers. The average occupancy of cars during the work commute is 1.05 people.


Osmek:  MnDOT studies have proven that roads have a benefit/cost ratio greater than one. “

TLC:  MnDOT studies have also reported “for every $1 invested in public transportation, $4 is generated in economic returns” (2009 MnDOT Transit Report, p 3). The Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) reports that each dollar invested in the nation’s public transit system provides $6 in benefits, in the form of time savings, parking and travel time savings, avoided job loss, avoided welfare payments, avoided vehicle crashes, avoided congestion and pollution, increased central city labor opportunities, increased mobility for young people without access to private vehicles, and improved educational opportunities (AASHTO Press Release, Washington, DC, January 14, 2009).


Osmek:  The Hiawatha Line was projected at 0.42 (benefit/cost) in 1999, meaning that for every dollar spent, we receive 42 cents in value.”

TLC:  Osmek doesn’t provide a citation for this projection because none exists.This is just a repeat of his earlier mis-statement regarding Hiawatha LRT farebox recovery.*  A comprehensive investment framework (pdf) for the Central Corridor projects $6 billon in future development along the line, on par with results in Dallas and Portland. There is every reason to believe that the SW LRT will have a comparable economic benefit to the cities along the line.

Update: Thanks to for finding the the benefit/cost assessment Osmek refers to, “Final Hiawatha Corridor LRT benefit-cost analysis,” Mn/DOT, 1999. The report states (p.3), “Hiawatha LRT is the most cost-effective means of achieving the goals and objectives of the stakeholders.” Many of the key data inputs used to project the benefit-cost assessment turned out to be off the mark. For instance, the report said ridership in 2020 would be 24,558/day when in 2011 it already was 30,500/weekday. The value of avoided auto trips was estimated using $25.9 cents per mile, when the current IRS reimbursement rate (used by most employers across the country) is $55 cents per mile.

Transit currently saves the Twin Cities region $80 million annually by reducing congestion delays, according to the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Report. Our own state transportation agency, MnDOT, has said that the state cannot build its way out of traffic congestion. Investing in transitways, especially in corridors with the level of jobs, residents, and congestion as the Southwest corridor, provides residents with an alternative to congested travel (“u text, we drive,” as Southwest Transit likes to say) and is a step toward a more affordable transportation for residents and businesses alike.