The Streetcar Delusion: Minneapolis Receives Funding to Bolster Wasteful Rail Transit

by Marc Scribner on December 23, 2010 · 7 comments

in Mobility, Politics as Usual

Delusional Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood continues to flush taxpayer dollars down the toilet on increasingly idiotic rail programs. The latest example of LaHood’s anti-mobility pathology is the Department of Transportation funding two studies designed, as they always are, to bolster support for rail transit in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area.

The first study will look at a proposed streetcar corridor that would run along downtown Minneapolis’ Nicollet Mall, a dying commercial corridor that a string of mayors has attempted and failed to revitalize. Of course, this pattern hasn’t deterred current-Mayor R.T. Rybak, who probably wants a transit station named after him. The city council, being perpetually dominated by far-left goofballs of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor and Green parties, is more than happy to fund Rybak’s fantasies.

The second study is to examine transit options in a corridor running from Dakota County to St. Paul. This study will at least consider bus rapid transit in addition to wasteful streetcars. Hopefully, the huge operating subsidies required of streetcars will be prohibitively wasteful for Dakota County leaders to stomach, or at least make them fearful of awakening a rationally ignorant public.

There is hope that very little will come of these proposed transit lines. It was announced earlier this month that the north metro’s Northstar commuter rail line has fallen short of its ridership projections by 20 percent. Then there’s the 12.3-mile Hiawatha light rail line (to nowhere) that largely caters to and subsidizes the travel of wealthy businessmen who want to go from the airport to downtown, which was built at a cost of about $58 million per mile and costs $20 million per year to operate.

Then again, it seems as if a sizable minority of metro residents is perfectly content to pay for rail transit as long as it’s serving the interests of the billionaire owners of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings professional sports franchises. They are augmented by a brain-dead editorial board at the embarrassing Minneapolis Star Tribune that supports every rail project by default. In fact, the editors at the intellectually and financially foundering paper continue to support building a high-speed rail corridor that was supposed to connect the Twin Cities with Chicago, even though the federal government pulled funding from the Wisconsin segment of the proposed corridor and after the incoming governor had pledged to kill the project.

Minneapolis is not the only city to consider bringing back an archaic 19th century transportation option such as streetcars. Washington, D.C., is currently building a trolley line to serve yuppie bar-hoppers. Atlanta recently received a federal TIGER II grant for its downtown streetcar line. Portland has operated its infamous, expensive, silent-but-deadly streetcar line for years. And we’ve all seen Rice-A-Roni advertisements.

The fundamental problem with all of these projects, besides being fiscally wasteful, is that they fail to improve mobility. Why is that? Because they fail to address the most serious problem faced by our transportation sector: congestion. For example, backers of the Hiawatha line proudly tout the “success” of creating about 10,000 new daily transit riders. Of course, daily auto trips in the Twin Cities area increase by about 10,000 every two weeks. See the problem?

Moreover, transit authorities can’t even take care of their current rail infrastructure. Obama’s head of the Federal Transit Administration recently admitted that there is a $78 billion rail transit maintenance backlog. But as leading transportation scholar Randal O’Toole often notes, politicians prefer ”[cutting] ribbons over [sweeping] brooms.”

Evan December 23, 2010 at 1:10 pm

This could be a more worthwhile piece if more time was spent fleshing out some of the arguments, instead of throwing in so many superfluous adjectives to demonize Rybak, mnDOT, et al. Is civility so difficult?

Perhaps this is why I like reading economists' takes on policy, as they tend to use terms like "less than optimal" instead of "flush[ing] taxpayer dollars down the toilet".

Michael D. Setty December 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm

The author can't even get the location of the first Washington, D.C. streetcar line correct, which is in the Anacostia neighborhood–hardly a location overrun with "yuppie bar hoppers." See…. If the author can't get this basic fact straight, he certainly can't be trusted on anything else in this article and his writings in general.

Marc Scribner December 23, 2010 at 6:08 pm


You're completely wrong. The first line of the system to open is scheduled to be H Street-Benning Road NE. That's not Anacostia SE. This part of H Street is also known as Atlas District, which is a popular nightlife/commercial strip. The big issue recently has been overhead wires ruining views, etc. Thanks for again demonstrating that you have no idea what you're talking about.

M Weirick December 24, 2010 at 12:48 pm

Actually, both projects are now under construction. The Anacostia project started construction in 2004, but construction was halted for several years due to a property/right-of-way dispute. Due to the limited length of the Anacostia project, and the less complicated utility relocation schedule, it will probably be finished (and is scheduled to be finished) and open before the H Street project. The streetcars for the Anacostia route have been delivered and are awaiting the completion of construction.

Marc Scribner December 25, 2010 at 2:43 pm

M Weirick,

Here's the latest planning doc from October:

The 2 mile H St/Benning Rd line is scheduled to open sometime in March 2012 (pp. 17-8). The .75 mile Anacostia Initial Line Segment could potentially open at the same time (as it was scheduled to), although it remains unpopular and DDOT is estimating daily ridership to be dismal (50/daily the opening year and 150/daily by 2030).

And the overhead wires issue is heating up. Congress prohibited them over 100 years ago, yet the city's lawyers determined that Congress granting Home Rule gave the city power to install overhead wires. The council then passed emergency legislation that legalized them. I'm skeptical, and so is the obnoxious, politically powerful, pro-preservation Committee of 100. I don't consider it that unlikely for Congress, at Co100's prodding, to smack down the council and mayor and reestablish the ban on overhead wires.

Allen December 26, 2010 at 9:39 pm

"Then there’s the 12.3-mile Hiawatha light rail line (to nowhere) that largely caters to and subsidizes the travel of wealthy businessmen who want to go from the airport to downtown,"


Marc Scribner December 27, 2010 at 2:18 pm

The benefits of increased labor market accessibility due to the Hiawatha light-rail line were skewed toward high-wage jobs. See pp. 12-15:

This paper, which details ridership demographics, is pretty interesting:

While the authors spend a lot of time reminding readers that the operating subsidy per passenger is greater for express suburban buses, and that riders are wealthier, when compared to LRT riders, LRT riders are still significantly wealthier than local bus riders, and many live in high-value properties, and they don't discuss capital costs, which are much higher per LRT passenger than local/express bus passenger. LRT stats are also likely skewed by U of M students who are lumped in with low-income people, but are hardly the working poor.

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