An Alternate Universe of Transit, Or, Explaining the Political Ideology Gap in Transit Funding

What if the Minneapolis-St Paul region chose to intentionally grow as a truly multi-modal region rather than one dominated almost entirely by private vehicles starting back in the 1950s? What would it look like? A person can dream, right?

MSP $1bn Proposal_1

This is not not not a fantasy map post I promise.

Admittedly, this post is less about wasting time dreaming of an alternate world as it is about evaluating it. That said, you’ll still have to suspend reality for a bit to imagine the scenario. We’ll have to ignore the political and funding realities of the time (at all levels of government) which, truthfully, aren’t that different than today, despite us having notched two light rail lines on our belt over the last decade. I don’t want to hash out a history lesson or even question how likely it’d be to change things now.

So, what if we, in the interest of being a more equitable region that costs less to serve (when factoring public and private costs), used a set of guiding principles on land-use and transportation expansion:

  • Build grade-separated transit at a faster pace than (but coordinated-with) our urban interstate and highway network, serving existing population and job centers but also areas for future growth
  • More clearly differentiate local streets from inter-city roads. Limit expansion of county- and state-aid roads by requiring high-amenity transit be run on them to manage demand and provide alternatives. If the land use extended along the corridor can’t also pay for transit, it doesn’t get built or expanded.
  • Require a high-quality, safe pedestrian and bicycle network in all new development and existing places
  • Restrict zoning and permitting abilities of local units of government, allowing more housing choices in more places, particularly near the transit network discussed above (some potential examples)

I’m not interested in the exact mechanics of how these rules would play out, more the outcomes. I don’t even know what the network would look like, since freeway locations and land uses would have evolved differently than it did. For all we know it could be this:

Transit Map

I kid.

I can’t say with certainty, but I’d imagine Minneapolis-St Paul would look very much like Munich or Milan or Frankfurt. Which is to say, still many single family homes with yards available, lots of people driving, just maybe not solid tract developments skipping over the Minnesota River almost all the way to Elko. Maybe there’d be a few more apartments near those detached homes, and maybe our neighborhoods wouldn’t be as segregated by income or race. Ahem. Who knows.

Let’s run a basic scenario analysis here to see if we’d have even saved any money.

The Costs

We’ll have to make some assumptions for this thought experiment:

  1. Transit Spending – Let’s shoot the moon here. Metro Transit’s 2014 capital and operating budget was just shy of $800 million. This was a year where the Green Line was completing construction. Let’s say we committed so hard to building a rail network with a supporting bus system that we’re spending $3.2 billion, or roughly 4 times what we spend today. Yes, I’m picking this number out of thin air. It’s hard to compare current vs. past costs, but put it this way: we built a bunch of tunnels and rail lines at much cheaper (inflation-adjusted) costs in the 50s and 60s and would now be in maintenance/replacement mode with light expansion and a bus system with four times the funding.Other regions spending in this realm (per National Transit Database information, including all transit agencies serving each metro) include: Boston ($2.4 billion), Washington DC ($2.8 billion), Chicago ($3.3 billion), Philadelphia ($1.8 billion), and San Francisco + San Jose ($4.1 billion). I’ll note these regions have at a minimum 50% more residents than we do, so that should frame the level of investment and bus service, and the resulting job access we’d all have, we’re talking about here. Take a look at their system maps or ridership and compare to ours, if interested (or, these fun thought experiments).

    MBTA Subway and Commuter Rail Map

    Something like this is much larger than our network, even if commuter rail service favors the core. Source: MBTA

  2. Road Spending – This one is tough to estimate. We know that total city, county, and MnDOT road spending across the region was about $1.65 billion in 2014 (source, slide 7). How much less could we be spending? Fewer freeways like this, more local streets like this. Let’s assume the savings are 33% less than what we do now in the metro area on all roads and streets (this is fairly conservative in my opinion, but as we’ll see later, the amount doesn’t matter much, since…).
  3. Resulting Car Ownership and Use – As fellow writer Mike Hicks pointed out, the road lobby frequently leaves out private automobile costs, which typically dwarf public expenditures on roads. With more people living and working in places that require fewer cars to get around, household vehicle ownership would drop:
    MSP_VehiclesPerHH_1While I think rates could be even lower, I used an average number of vehicles per household from those peer-regions above using the latest American Community Survey data and applied it to our region. We’ll also assume that it costs 20% less to own and operate each vehicle in this alternate universe thanks to people taking fewer trips by car and driving fewer miles when they do. As a baseline, I used 1.78 vehicles per household currently in MSP and the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ average annual household expenditure on vehicles in the US of about $9,000. So, we’re privately spending about $5,000 a year per car in the metro, and that could be reduced to around $4,000.

Here’s another point of comparison to those peer regions to validate transit infrastructure’s role in living and commuting patterns:

ACS 2014 data

Source: ACS 2014 data

Given these assumptions, here’s how all public + private transportation costs would look compared to today:


We’re basically looking at a world where roughly 3 million people collectively spend about $12.5 billion a year compared to the real world where that number is $13.8 billion. In other words, about a 10% reduction. I think it’s a fairly conservative estimate, since Germany’s government spends about 74% per capita (not including private costs) on all levels of transportation, yet their vehicle mode share is drastically lower than ours (not a fair comparison since that includes all rural and inter-city roads, not just within major metro areas).

Of course, this doesn’t include related infrastructure where costs are dependent on land uses, nor does it take into account externalities or the value of human life. We’re not debating whether we’d be building or providing transit cheaper than we are today with more experience. It doesn’t take into account equity or any other factors. It’s just a cold hard look at the costs of transportation.

Explaining Political Rhetoric

It may or may not be an obvious takeaway from that bar chart above, but here is a statement I believe to be true:

A large metropolitan region that relies on transit, biking and walking as much as roads will cost society less but cost the government more.

This is a theme I skirted around in my evaluation of Minneapolis property taxes, which are higher than most of its suburbs owing in part to the fact that city services that make living car-free, in an apartment, or with a disability cost a bit more.

A member of the MNGOP would look at the chart above and see the red and green segments only. Sure, we could have saved 20? 30? 40? percent annually on roads, but if that means we have to spend 2-4 times our current budget on more competitive transit accessing more places across the region, we’ve just blown all the savings from the road reduction, then some. And, they’ll point out there’s still a sizable chunk of people who will own multiple vehicles and never take the bus or train who now see their taxes go up without saving much on vehicle operations.

There’s a free-market message too; even if total spending is higher in our world, it’s mostly done in the private market creating jobs based on consumer choice rather than government provision. And we haven’t even scratched the oh-so subtle reasons many conservatives don’t like transit.

Setting aside the MN DFL’s willingness to build more roads because “economic development,” there’s a real argument that there are many people blocked from opportunity thanks to land uses that don’t allow them to live close to opportunity and can’t get there without expensive cars. Transit is not just a means of getting people from A to B and reducing public outlay on roads and sewers, but part social service, in addition to air quality/climate change mitigation and any number of other things you’ll hear quoted in local papers.

So there you have it. For reasons of mostly pure ideology, the transit cost debate is framed in ways that are nearly impossible to align well for negotiation or change in future priorities. Which is a bummer since there’s a proverb that says “the best time to build a rail line was 20 years ago, the second best time is today.” Or something.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at