August 21st, 2009
Are we on the Wrong Track with Rail?
Elected officials along the Highway 55 Corridor were invited to the 55
Corridor meeting last Friday. Sadly, President Obama, on a collision course
with Minnesota Congressman Oberstar (head of the transportation committee),
is urging Congress to DELAY the critical Highway Funding Authorization bill
for 18 months. So there wasn't much to update on Highway 55. But we did get
into a spirited conversation on rail.
Light rail, like the Hiawatha line, requires building dedicated tracks.
While the start up cost is really high, the trains can run often. Commuter
Rail, like the soon to be starting Northstar from Big Lake to Minneapolis,
uses existing track. Can have lower start up costs if the tracks are in
excellent condition but the number and times of the train are limited
because they are sharing the tracks with freight trains.
Senator Terry Bonoff from Plymouth is promoting commuter rail from
Minneapolis to Wilmer. She said the tracks are in excellent shape and there
are only 9 trains a day. A Wright County Commissioner countered that he
lives near those tracks and that sometimes the trains run 4 times an hour! I
asked Senator Bonoff if the rail takes away money from Highways. She said
no. State Representative Sarah Anderson, also from Plymouth, countered and
said rail DOES shift money from highways.
I then asked, for whoever could answer, why we are looking to spend so much
money on the southwest rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie when
Southwest Transit runs such an excellent and well used bus system. How could
we possibly get a return on investment in the many millions that rail line
would cost? And buses are more flexible than rail. Hennepin County
Commissioner Jeff Johnson, also from Plymouth, said he gets told that rail
is about "Economic Development". I wasn't aware that the St. Louis
Park/Minnetonka/Eden Prairie corridor needed subsidy for Economic
As to the Hiawatha Line, Commissioner Johnson said that lines has been so
"successful" that the subsidy for the train paid by Hennepin County of $12
million a year will likely go up to $15 million a year for 2010. And Senator
Gen Olson from Minnetrista added that before the train went in Hiawatha
Avenue was a good alternative to the freeway. But now the trains control the
stoplights. Gen Olson was talking to a driver from the Jefferson Bus Lines
and he said he has had to wait as long as 14 ½ minutes to make a left turn
into their garage!
Deb from Michele Bachman's office commented that there has been a commuter
bus running from the Northstar Station in Elk River to downtown Minneapolis
that will end when the train starts. Now she is fielding calls from people
who take the early bus because the train won't be able to run at that time.
These folks who are relying on that bus to get to work on time will be left
hanging without transportation.
And remember that Constitutional Amendment that was passed which allocated
the sales tax on car purchases to go 100% toward transportation? Problem is,
it specified auto PURCHASES when half the car deals are actually
LEASES-which were NOT included in the amendment. So the funding is running
way below expectations.
And all that Stimulus money for highway funding. Just a shell game. MNDOT's
District Three in St. Cloud, for example, received $15 million of Stimulus
Funding. But had their state budget cut by $15 million.
How can you help? Urge your US Congressperson and Senators to work with
Congressman Oberstar to keep the highway funding moving forward.