Metro Blue Line Light Rail Transit Mall Of America

$129 Million Spent on Botched Blue Line Extension, Equivalent to Three Completed C Lines

Metro Transit Blue Line

The METRO Blue Line in Downtown Minneapolis. Photo: Metro Transit

Yesterday, we received the dismal news that the promised route for the Bottineau Blue Line light rail extension was only a dream, and that dream is now officially scuttled. What is more troubling is that $129 million in local, county, metro, and state funds were spent on engineering and planning the project when rail company BNSF had not signed an agreement with Metro Transit and Hennepin County to use 8 miles of its rail corridor. That’s right, $129 million in our local tax dollars — no federal dollars — on a project that hadn’t yet secured a right-of-way necessary for its design.

This fiasco got me thinking, what could that local funding have done instead? A recent example of a transit project that was completed on time and on budget was the METRO C Line bus rapid transit route. Bus rapid transit, or “BRT”, is where larger buses stop at improved stations that allow for paying fares before boarding and rolling directly into the bus without a step-up, just like with light rail transit. Because of this, BRT offers many of the same benefits as the light rail system without the steep capital investment that light rail requires. For example, the 8.4 mile C Line BRT route with 20 stations cost only $37 million, and took less than two years of construction to complete. In comparison, the Green Line light rail project had a total budget of $957 million.


Rider's Almanac BlogA Metro A Line bus at Ford and Woodlawn. Photo: Metro Transit

Now, you may be thinking “but surely the Green Line has higher ridership?” That is true. In the fall of 2019, before the pandemic, METRO Green Line averaged 47,538 weekday riders. The METRO C Line, by contrast, had 6,849 weekday riders over the same period. (I have copied that data into a Google Sheet here.) Just looking at those engineering, planning, and capital costs, however, the Green Line costs about $20,131 per weekday rider while the C Line is only $5,402 per weekday rider. In other words, we could have bought a new Toyota Corolla for every weekday C Line rider for the upfront costs of the Green Line.

These numbers really highlight how far the $1.5 billion dollar Blue Line Extension budget could go if it were instead invested in more cost-effective transit options such as BRT. A $1.5 billion investment could pay for over 40 new BRT routes. If all those were as successful as the C Line — and granted that’s a big if — a $1.5 billion investment into new BRT routes would serve an additional 277,000 weekday riders. Given that the A Line BRT, a suburban route, had 5,675 weekday riders in the fall of 2019 and a lower project cost of only $27 million, we could expect additional investments into new suburban BRT routes to support an even higher number of additional weekday riders.

Metro C Line Art Metro Transit

“Check out a sneak peek of the beautiful artwork by
that will be featured on posters for the opening of the METRO C Line! Be there on June 8 to see the full poster and get one for yourself! 23 days!” — Metro Transit

There are many factors going into these calculations, and these are undoubtedly very complex decisions. However, I think it is important to start from a common set of facts, and it is clear that BRT has many of the same benefits of light rail at a far lower cost to build. The $129 million that was spent on the botched Blue Line Extension could have funded three new BRT routes based on the cost of previous BRT routes.

As several people have noted on Twitter, it is well established that not all transit riders are treated equally. Let’s treat this multi-million dollar boondoggle as a sunk cost and focus on finding more cost-effective transit solutions that are going to better support transit-underserved communities.

What are your wheels? What’s your favorite Metro Transit route? Share your insights and your hot takes in the comments.

21 thoughts on “$129 Million Spent on Botched Blue Line Extension, Equivalent to Three Completed C Lines

  1. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm

    This is the issue with building projects around federal matching funds. When this project first entered the pipeline, it was designed under ridership standards that favored new, suburban riders over existing transit riders. This made any discussion of a subway tunnel directly serving North Minneapolis moot, not because it wouldn’t be useful, but because the cost would be great and it wouldn’t add anything to the project’s arbitrary FTA grade.

    And then when Hennepin blocks BNSF from being able to connect their branch line to CP, Bottineau has no choice but to sit and wait for four years because of the sunk cost and the prospect of losing its place in the federal funds queue.

    I don’t think the correct question is “Was $100 million on the Blue Line extension a waste?” because the money wasn’t really spent on the Blue Line at all – it was spent on things required by a federal government that wants to make transit planning as byzantine and ineffectual as possible.

    The correct question I think is “How do we revisit our approach to planning projects so that we don’t have to spend $100 million to try and build what the federal government thinks a transit project should look like, and instead spend it on what Minneapolis needs from its transit.” Some of that is more priority on rapid bus and local service investment, no doubt. But where rail makes the most sense, it’s time to find ways to build it without the FTA telling us what our public transit should look like.

  2. Elizabeth Larey

    People should lose their job after this. But since the Metropolitan council is an appointed group that will never happen. I’ve never seen a state waste money like Minnesota. Or I should say the Twin Cities. Article last week mentioned Mayor Carters 4 new hires were from outside MN. The starting salaries were 156K. I couldn’t believe it. It used to be government jobs were not high paying but had great benefits including pensions. I guess they now have both. And every government person I know gets to work from home. What a gig

  3. Eric Ecklund

    Once again another article stating buses are cheaper than light rail which automatically means they’re better even though it’s not that simple. That isn’t to say routes like the A Line and C Line should’ve been light rail, but some routes like Southwest and Bottineau make more sense as light rail, especially if we’re considering tunneling. We could have and should have done that with Southwest through Uptown, and now we’ll see if it’s seriously considered through North Minneapolis for Bottineau.

  4. angela

    METC seems to pick routes with the least access to the riders who really need them.
    GL bypassing Uptown was absurd this line could have been underground on Nic mall and Blasdell .Nic was redone at the cost of over $50 would have cost more bus but would have serve most the high ridership bus lines #4 6 10 17 18 .
    GL on UNIV was better option but the city refused to preempt the lights for the trains and wanted more 3 stations also too many stations were added and two deviations making it slower than the bus.Some 16 buses are faster then the GL now that fewer people are riding it
    Robert & TCF stadium deviations.

    Downtown should have 3 stations not 5

    10th/Robert stations

    Now they wanted to waste money on Orange Line, Rush line & Gold line lines build them where few people and walk to them .
    Orange line has a deviation off the highway for P/R and it bypass Burnsville mall Currently the Limited stop bus that it will replace cannot support all day services ,they had to cut the weekend services due to very low ridership.

  5. Gordy

    A couple quibbles with some of the arguments presented here: “Just looking at those engineering, planning, and capital costs, however, the Green Line costs about $20,131 per weekday rider while the C Line is only $5,402 per weekday rider.” Isn’t this only looking at the total “cost per ridership” of ONE single weekday?! This is a disingenuous argument! The Green Line alone has served millions and millions of riders since it opened in 2014. Neither the Green Line or the C Line literally “cost” or have cost X dollars (per riders on only one day) as described above.

    Additionally, the A Line is described as a “suburban route.” Under what definition are Minneapolis or St. Paul (where the vast majority of the A Line and its stations are) “suburban?” Just because a bus line has 2 stops in a suburb doesn’t mean the whole thing can be classified as suburban.

    1. Max

      Exactly this. When he called the A-Line suburban, he lost all credibility in my mind.

      Also, let’s remember, mode isn’t really as important as capacity. The Green Line was made to relieve pressure on the Route 16 bus which was carrying over 16,000 daily riders at the time…far more than the BRT routes. Implementing aBRT on University would have led to even more overcrowding. Rail was the only way to address this, which is why it was built.

      The Blue Line had estimated ridership of 30,000, far more than an aBRT route could comfortably handle without a dedicated, fully separated alignment. This is just another article by a grumpy opinionated white dude who should be advocating for BOTH light rail AND better busing. It is not an either-or. Let’s get that B, D, and E line built. Let’s get BRT on Robert and West 7th. And get moving on environmental review and community consultation for light rail in the greenway.

  6. Ian R BuckModerator  

    I’ve never heard anyone refer to the A Line as a “suburban route” before. It’s not wrong, but definitely doesn’t capture the spirit of a route where all but three of its stations are within St Paul and Minneapolis.

  7. Saumik NarayananSaumik Narayanan

    I think it’s misleading to describe aBRT as cheaper than LRT without talking about the differences between aBRT and BRT. If you want to talk about suburban BRT, you should really be comparing costs and success between Light Rail and routes like the Red and Orange Lines, not the urban aBRT routes like the A and C lines.

    Alternatively, you might actually be arguing that the money from the Blue Line Extension would be better spend on serving local aBRT corridors within the core city, something that I definitely agree with. But since you’re conflating aBRT and BRT in this piece, it’s not clear to me what you are actually suggesting.

  8. Andy E

    Maybe now Hennepin County will focus on getting the D line BRT up and running. Could be completed by the end of 2021 and would make an immediate impact in North Minneapolis (especially with the C Line operating).

    And instead of focusing on a Blue Line extension to the North, how about they start looking at concrete ways to run a major transit line from West Lake Station along Lake Street/Greenway to the river, and do it in a way that would allow Ramsey county to finish the line into Downtown St Paul. LRT would be expensive, but a huge boost to regional transit if running from West Lake Street to Down St Paul.

  9. Brian

    There are a lot of people who would never take a bus, but would take a train. A lot of people think buses are only for poor people.

    Trains have the huge advantage in the winter of only being slightly delayed by snow. It could be faster to walk than to take a bus during a snow storm. Now, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should build LRT for a dozen snowfalls per year.

    1. Monte Castleman

      While the idea is interesting there’s a good reason that the preferred location for the new freeway bridge is where it is and not closer to Monticello and Becker- routing all the traffic onto US 10 before Clear Lake creates a problem with the traffic signal there, as well as an access management problem between Becker and Clear Lake. You’re also seeing the area around Monticello and Becker rapidly turning into hobby farms.

      Any savings with co-locating the rail on the new freeway bridge would be eaten up by dealing with these issues. Maybe a new railroad bridge is a good idea and maybe not, but revisiting all the studies that have been done for the freeway bridge is not.

      1. Adam FroehligAdam Froehlig

        Regardless of whether the 94/10 connector gets built or not, an interchange to replace the Clear Lake signal has been on the long-range burner.

        I don’t think the Clear Lake signal would be as much of an issue as you make it out to be. A Monticello-Becker connection would pull the majority of the traffic currently using Hwy 24 off, which means a lot more usable green time for Hwy 10. Also, regardless of whether the 94/10 connector gets built or not, an interchange to replace the Clear Lake signal has been on the long-range burner, though it’d be a tight fit.

        Either way, I see a railroad-only bridge at that location as logical and would be far more easily doable than adding a highway component to it. The reason there hasn’t been a 94/10 connection built already is because there simply is no money for it, despite the environmental studies having been completed since 2007.

        Now, that said, given it has been over a decade since those connector studies were completed, a supplemental study would need to be done before any construction could begin. The old rail ROW along 94 is still more or less intact to just before Hasty, so a combined rail/highway corridor along the former Alternative D could be re-evaluated. This would still be reasonably close to Becker but avoid the need for Hwy 10 improvements in Becker proper, and would also provide a direct connection to Hwy 25 North.

  10. Eric Larsson

    The cost of the SWLRT is already budgeted at over $2 billion. And that is the money spent before the first rider steps on board. Then the estimated cost over the next 30 years is another $1 billion. So the total cost is $3 billion.

    Divide that by the pre-COVID ridership expectations and the cost is well over $20 per one way trip.

    But that’s not the total cost to the commuter. Unless they live within a quarter mile of the station, they are adding another bus, bike, or car trip to get to the train. In addition to the money expense, they are now at over an hour of commuting time. If they are a working parent, they are adding another half hour to get their kids to day care. One way. So the equity for the disadvantaged is sketchy at best.

    Taking for granted that commuting is viable post-COVID, at the huge cost per trip, wouldn’t this money be better spent on ride-share models?

    1. Mark

      How many parents do you know that have kids at a daycare 30 minutes away? Me, none. Our kids are 10 minutes away. We also did this so it’s on our way to work, as do most parents, so the impact is somewhat mitigated.

    2. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm

      Nobody does this sort of analysis for road and highway projects. In fact, the retort is often that we make the money back up in GDP growth so of course we have to build the infrastructure at a loss.

      The development along the existing Green Line has more than made up the cost of the infrastructure with additional tax revenue, be it from property or increased retail sales from busier commercial nodes. There’s zero reason to think this won’t be the case with the extension, especially considering multiple projects are already underway.

      Also the whole point of dedicated, long term infrastructure is to change patterns over time. It’s a silly argument to say “This car-centric day care example won’t work with the train” when nobody is saying it will. But now that the infrastructure exists for commuting patterns to follow a train line instead of a highway, there’s a good chance a New Horizons or similar daycare will open near stations to take advantage of this shift.

      I know sometimes we’re set in believing everyone lives their lives like our own experiences, but do you seriously think that there are no children in Chicago and New York and there can’t possibly be a way for this to work without a car?

      1. Saumik NarayananSaumik Narayanan

        Agreed that highways are not subject to this same type of analysis and number waving.

        “There’s zero reason to think this won’t be the case with the extension”. Well the biggest reason is the extension is located in the suburbs. The development that has already started up is a good sign that the SWLRT will be more like the Green Line than the Red Line though.

        “There’s a good chance a New Horizons or similar daycare will open near stations”. There is actually a daycare center built right next to the Burnsville Transit Center, so this isn’t even a hypothetical scenario!

  11. Scott

    I’m so glad the Blue Line extension fizzled out. The proposed route in Minneapolis was awful- down the middle of a newly-reconstructed, six lane Olson Highway and then into a rail trench along a golf course and regional park. Outside the Robinsdale stop, the rest of the suburban route wasn’t great either. Do transit planners understand what a walkable urban environment is?

    The Green Line had nearly 50,000 daily riders because land uses are generally walkable and it serves transit-dependent people connecting them to other walkable destinations. It’s not that hard. Send the new Blue Line extension through the heart of North Minneapolis to serve people who need it. If that means a subway tunnel, so be it. At the same time, let’s get moving on funding the ABRT routes too.

    1. Monte Castleman

      I’m sure transit planners do, but my understanding is that the north side wasn’t even sure they wanted it due to the massive disruption it would cause, and transit planners also understand people from the suburbs that ride it by choice don’t want long, slow, tedious detours through Uptown or north Minneapolis.

      Now that our choices are a slow, tedious detour and massive disruption to the north side or not having it at all, we restart the discussions.

  12. Sheldon Gitis

    Is anyone following the money? I lot of people made a lot of money applying for that federal grant that didn’t happen. Who got the $129 million?

    I don’t think the MO for this project was any different than how they did the previous 3 LRT lines. They rolled up huge amounts of money applying for the federal grant for the other projects too – before the ROW was cleared and before any federal funds were received. The only difference with this project was that rather than a neighborhood of small SFHs and some park land in the Hiawatha Corridor, or some small businesses and some surrounding low-income neighborhoods in the Central Corridor, or some parks and trails volunteers in the Kenilworth Corridor, they rolled up their $129 million grant application against BNSF in the BNSF corridor. So now, the legal action that should have taken place to halt the first 3 idiotic, ass-backward, miss-routed LRT lines, has finally happened, because BNSF has the resources to make it happen. The reason the $129 million and counting grant application was rescinded is that the crooks that stole the $129 million realize that the public is not going to tolerate spending another $129 million or more fighting with BNSF over the taking of the ROW. People living in small, inexpensive SFHs near Minnehaha Park, or operating small businesses on University Avenue, or recreating on a trail, don’t have the resources to stop $129 million steamrollers – BNSF does.

    Here’s one for all you Carol Becker fans. Did you know Ms. Becker claims, perhaps accurately, that she “literally wrote the study our light rail is based on.” It wouldn’t surprise me if she did. Just when I thought the idiotic concrete projects couldn’t be any dumber and crummier, it turns out Carol “It is already cheaper to rent a car for someone who uses transit full time than to provide transit” Becker may have been one of the bottom-feeding “Disadvantaged Business Enterprises” sponging off the Met Council’s grant writing grand larceny.

  13. Debra Barnhardt

    I bought a house in Robbinsdale in 2009. It was one of the worst decisions I ever made. The Bottineau line was to run a half block from my home. All of a sudden I had to care about light rail, so I studied up on the finances, politics and hidden agendas.
    You could call light rail a boondoggle, but it does achieve something quite effectively. That something is the removal of existing smaller and older homes to be replaced with high density residential units, preferably occupied by nice white people. Some people have even admitted this to me, off the record. It’s Rondo all over again, but with apartments for yuppies rather than a half empty freeway.

    Though living in Robbinsdale was a nightmare it did teach me something quite useful. I realized for the first time just how pervasive, if well disguised, racism is in the Twin Cities. You can debate the routes and financing but don’t kid yourself about the real intentions behind light rail.

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