The Boondoggle that is Light Rail

(With all apologies to Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and others who are actually funny for a living – the following post is no laughing matter.)

It’s about time the Star Tribune finally came to its senses and printed a sane, sound critique of the boondoggle that is light rail.  Moreover, liberal socialist elitist responses such as this one by our very own Bill Lindeke at are pure drivel, a “train to nowhere,” if you will. Even discussions by so-called “engineers” reek of anti-road demagoguery. Their positions will ultimately be “derailed” by the reality that cars are here to stay.

First off, David Omsek, the author of the excellent Star Tribune piece in question, cites the average rider pays 99 cents for light rail trip (what a scam!), not the $2.25 posted at stations and at the Metro Transit website for a peak-period (rush hour) ride. He notes that the real cost of a single ride is $6.42, meaning we the taxpayers get saddled with subsidizing each ride at a rate of 85%. Combine that with Mr. Omsek’s calculation that combining the annual operating subsidy and the annual amortized build-out cost of light rail in Minnesota totals nearly a quarter billion dollars. Wow, that is a lot of zeroes! Whether or not facts are accurate or compared to other facts isn’t important; what matters is how forcefully you believe that light rail is a boondoggle.

And to think, freeways are free! Finally, we’re talking some sense in to this debate.

Mr. Omsek is shrewd to note that a family of four going to a Twins game costs them $3.96, but costs us soaking-wet taxpayers $43.36. I mean, have you been on a train on game days? Twins fans are the only ones who ride the train! Why should we pay for their transportation when they can take their car on free-ways and pay for their own parking in municipal ramps? It’s ludicrous, really.

For Mr. Osmek to say nothing about the fact that is costs just $700 million to build a single new bridge across the St. Croix River to serve a St. Croix County, Wisconsin population of 84,000 spread sanely across 736 square miles, well that pure brilliance! I mean, those are federal dollars, so it’s not like we Minnesotans paying the entire cost of the bridge, right? That’s chump change to us. And it will be free to drive on, so let’s put the top down and take ‘er for a spin!

The Hiawatha Line light rail boondoggle, which cost about $800 million to build (and remember, it costs “us” $57 million per year to subsidize), only has 17,000 households already living within a half-mile of stations, and only a few thousand more under construction or planned. Seems to me that is less than the 84,000 people in St. Croix County. You do the math (Mr. Osmek is pretty good at it), but let’s compare apples to apples here, folks! And the train itself only has 30,000 riders per day, just a hair more than portions of Hiawatha Avenue, which is free to drive on and runs parallel to the line. So really, who benefits from light rail?

I’m really glad Mr. Osmek didn’t mention the increasing price of gas and its impact on households of all incomes. Come to think of it, he didn’t mention households at all, just the poor taxpayers propping up this excessive waste of money on light rail. It is good he didn’t mention the intrinsic link between transportation and housing, because the combined cost of housing and transportation is meaningless as long as we can drive for free. Don’t bother checking out the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s H + T page or the Congress for the New Urbanism’s website to learn more – they are a waste of time.

Am I living proof of the benefits of light rail or the ability to walk or bike to meet daily needs? Doesn’t matter! Did I, like so many others in my neighborhood, buy or rent a short walk from a permanent train platform for the easy 15-minute ride downtown or 10-minute ride to the airport? Does it save my household money? Who cares! I fill up my beloved SUV with gas just once a month in the summer, saving approximately $150 per month versus topping it off weekly because I simply don’t need to drive as much (not to mention the cost of the vehicle itself and repairs, which I said I wouldn’t mention). None of this matters because the four train lines in the Twin Cities will one day cost us a quarter of a billion dollars per year. Yikes! I really shouldn’t “excercise” my freedom to walk, bike, or ride the train and just drive, baby, drive! I can always take the bus in a pinch, right? That’s pretty cheap, too.

Lastly, Mr. Omsek was right to not mention the relationship between the type of transportation we choose and corresponding land use with their cumulative effect on the environment. After all, cars pollute less when they are cruising along free-ways versus being stuck in traffic, so what we really need are more free-way lanes. Besides, sprawling out over more land and acres with road and building projects probably results in more construction jobs.

And so it seems the pro-light rail and smart growth ideology promoted by the Star Tribune has finally run its course. Light rail is a boondoggle and the only logical “road” forward to a better future for Minnesota and this country is to abandon all rail “spurs” and sink our teeth in to a roads-only “diet” that allows us the freedom to move about like real Americans on our free-ways. Thankfully, we won’t bankrupt our state or nation by taking the fork in the road that is light rail.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is