There are a lot of modes of transportation. Save for walking and (hopefully!) cycling, they’re all pretty expensive. You’ve got your $676 million dollar freeway interchanges and your $20,000 Toyota Camries, and your $957 million dollar Green Lines and your $76/month Metropasses. Because it would be a hassle for everyone to own their own road to work and to the market, in western society we have historically and also more recently decided that transportation infrastructure is one of those things that we’ll all build and use together.
There are a lot of different financial arrangements for all the different modes of transportation in all the different jurisdictions of the world. In the United States, none of these arrangements–including roads–involve being completely sustained by user fees, and generally if you’re building any sort of system, it requires large, visible-from-orbit stacks of money from the general and other funds of local, state, and federal governments. (Why do transportation projects in the United States cost far more than in other developed countries? A mystery!)
Assuming that the status quo of expensive projects and scarce funding continues, we should weigh transportation projects carefully, especially major mass transit projects that, for the past couple decades, have been rolling out about decennially in the Twin Cities. Good ones, at least–it would probably be fair to say that the consensus on the Northstar Commuter Rail line is “oops” and while it may be politically too soon to say the same for the Red Line, that was also an “oops.” The Green and Blue Lines have been a success, even considering various political constraints that limited their potential a bit.
So we’ve got two local examples of wildly successful transit lines and two duds. Using our experiences with those and examples around the country and also a smattering of uncommon sense, how should we consider mass transit projects and their benefits, when considering where to site a once-in-a-decade line?
Benefits and the Best Benefit
Mass transit, as a mode, has a lot going for it. In addition to the “carries a lot of people efficiently” part, you’ll hear lots of other reasons to build mass transit and to build specific lines for specific reasons. Assuming we’re talking about rail, any given proposal’s benefits may include:
- Economic Development/Redevelopment
- Congestion Reduction/Mitigation
- The Millennials™
- Air Quality Improvement
- Less Un-sustainability
- Reduced Dependence of Foreign Oil
- Rail Bias
Is anything missing here? Yes, the most important one…
Enabling a Car-free Lifestyle
The highest and best use of transit is to enable a car-free lifestyle, because if you build transit to enable a car-free lifestyle for as many people as you can, you accomplish every single other item on that list. Building transit for the other goals on the list will not accomplish all the other goals on the list. It will also accomplish bonus goals, like improving the mobility of children, the elderly, the disabled, and other people unable to drive. It will also spare low-income people from the financial burden of car ownership.
(While he himself does not own one, the author is not explicitly anti-car. He took two different cars to and fro a cabin this past Memorial Day weekend. Cars have many practical and real uses, like buying a dresser or more than two tubs of cat litter. Notably, there are even three cars on the moon–bringing an entire light rail vehicle, track, ballast, catenary, etc. were ruled out due to cost and other considerations.)
But when we think about what makes our own transit lines successful and what we need to take into consideration in the future, the real success stories are places where people feel enabled to use transit as an lifestyle, not just a commute. Can tens of thousands of people walk up to your transit line and take it to a park, or a stadium, or a university, or a grocery store? Will a lot of people ride your train, running on fixed tracks at good headways with a conductor eating up most of your operating budget, at 2:00 PM on a Tuesday, or any Sunday in late winter? If so, your transit line will be very successful and a non-bad use of your limited resources.
A Local Action
And the reality is that this logic will preclude large stretches of the Twin Cities from landing any sort of large rail transit investment. Do we suppose, for example, that any significant amount of people will move to a market rate transit-oriented development in Minnetonka, Minnesota, and forgo car ownership? Seems unlikely!
Not that that restricts us to central city routes–above is the Minnetonka/Hopkins border. It is far more likely that someone would want to live car-free in Hopkins, a walkable town with a street grid and a grocery store and a movie theater and bars and restaurants, than in Minnetonka, which does not have these things. This is probably a good argument for ending the Green Line extension in Hopkins.
Does a city like Minnetonka or Eden Prairie have the potential to redevelop tens of acres of land around stations to be more like Hopkins? Sure, after decades and hundreds of millions of dollars of private sector investment. Take the local portion of that $500 million dollars you’ll save cutting the line off at Hopkins, and build rail in the Midtown Corridor, a line that many thousands of transit users (including thousands of new transit users) would use every day at all times for countless reasons. You will still get your transit-oriented development and associated new riders along the Midtown Corridor.
It’s Pretty Simple
The above is just one recent and relevant example. Maybe its limited geographic appeal is an obstacle, but building bad lines which become political fodder for people who are opposed to the entire idea of transit is also not a good plan. Have you ever had Northstar’s operating subsidy thrown back at you by a transit opponent who knows the numbers? It really screws up the whole flow of your argument.
Thinking about the whole universe of transportation costs for governments and individuals, it makes sense to locate billion-plus dollar transit investments in places that will enable tens of thousands of users to skip the thousands of dollars associated with the upfront and ongoing cost of car ownership. If your transit project is planned with the transportation goal of, not even eliminating, but merely shortening the car trips of ten thousand or so downtown commuters who otherwise require a car to buy a stick of gum on a Saturday, then your transit project is a bad idea.