Posted: 05/03/13 16:13
by Dave Mindeman
In Minnpost, there was a point, counter point of sorts on transit which I thought pretty interesting.
On the Pro side was Conrad deFiebre, a fellow at MN2020 who has delved into all of transit's myriad of facets.
On the Con side was Norann Dillon, a former Republican candidate for the Minnesota state senate, who likes to think of herself as a public policy wonk.
First of all, I agree pretty much with Conrad's take on transit. And I am fully on board with transit taxes to move the bar on getting a more modern system. We have sputtered and splattered our way along with piecemeal approaches to funding transit. Governor Dayton's early proposal to add funding with a seven county transit tax seems long overdue. Unfortunately, it is not getting support and more piecemeal approaches are in the offing.
But let's look at Norann Dillon's take on this. Of course she has completely bought into the idea that transit is a "waste":
Yes! We all agree they lose money! So why do we want this?
A simple statement and yes, transit does lose money. As compared to the huge "profits" we get from our highway system, I suppose?
Dillon points out problems with other systems....
In many arguments in favor of larger transit ?investments,? the ?falling behind our peers? premise is brought out, and deFiebre uses it too. Portland?s TriMet budget problems are so severe, they are raising fares, cutting service and dealing with labor strife. San Jose?s light rail system has the dubious distinction of being ?the least efficient in the country and suffers from low ridership and high operating costs.? In Dallas, transit ridership fell despite billions of spending on light rail.
The TriMet system has been doing "free" ridership in its downtown for some time and eliminated use of buses in that area to help with pollution reduction. A federal funding cut has forced them to start charging for that service....and of course anything above "free" is a pretty major increase.
As for San Jose, that system was the victim of poor planning. The line runs outside of populated areas and centers in Silicon Valley, which, as many people know, has changed to a home based work environment removing commuting needs. That particular system has some serious future problems - problems which we could duplicate with this haphazard approach we seem to be embracing.
In Dallas, the transit system has to move across a sprawling urban zone that requires long rail lines. And the city still continues to subsidize commuting by car - massive parking lots with cheap rates cover the downtown area. And businesses promote the ease of downtown driving. Clearly a mixed message for light rail.
But Dillon leaves out the rail success stories.
Tom Clark, of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, says that when the conversations first began about mass transit, "it sounded a little bit too close to socialism for some of us." What changed the business community's mind, he says, were simple economics. "We had a worker housing problem. The roads were getting congested enough that workers from the north side could no longer commute by car to the south side. They needed an alternative."
And Denver's light rail system got noticed by business:
"Right here next to us is going to be the new [headquarters] of DaVita," says Chris Frampton, one of the partners in East West Partners, a real estate development company, pointing at an area void of anything but dirt. "They're moving here from El Segundo, Calif. And they picked this site, 100 percent, because it's next to light rail."
Washington, DC would be impossible without an advanced rail system. Ask any resident about that.
And San Diego has been a big transit success story. A place where the weather is ideal has fallen in love with transit...
The San Diego trolley carries 31 million passengers a year. Jablonski said a trolley can carry six times as many people as a bus at the same cost of labor.
The most impressive thing about the San Diego trolley is what transit folks call its "farebox recovery rate." Nearly 59 percent of the trolley's operating costs are covered by the fares of paying customers. The San Diego trolley has long been recognized for its low level of operating subsidy. The MTS says that among the country's many light rail systems, only Boston's does better at paying for itself.
And speaking of Boston....
Boston's MBTA Green Line light rail is the oldest and busiest in the country. At the end of 2009, an average of 235,000 people were commuting on the system's 25.4 miles of track every weekday. The initial system opened in 1897, and though the cars are now all on tracks, they still use many traditional trolley practices, like clanging their bells, interacting with street traffic, and onboard fare collection.
But moving on.....Ms. Dillon gets to the sales tax pocketbook:
The sales tax is already a large burden on lower-income Minnesotans. Transit advocates want to quadruple the current transit tax to a full penny. It?s disingenuous for liberals to advocate so strongly to increase sales taxes, especially for a ?solution? that will only benefit about 4 percent of the population.
Yes, it is with some trepidation that I would advocate for a transit tax, but let's be realistic....lower income people will be the ones that use it. If we can realize a full transit system in the metro, there is the real possibility that many lower income residents will be able to forego cars altogether and save themselves much more in that expense than any transit sales tax will cost them.
I would also argue that the reason only "4 percent of the population" benefits is because we have dragged our feet so badly on building a complete system. We are slowly building and slowly planning the new additions....and yet every time we complete a system, the ridership exceeds projections.
I realize that Ms. Dillon would gleefully point out that the NorthStar Line has been the exception in those expectations. Ridership there has been poor. But I would counter that the line was meant to go to St. Cloud but was stopped short of that because of GOP insistence on "cost savings".
Ms. Dillon also brings in the new conservative argument....
Light rail has enormous costs that will be a burden to future generations. If we?re going to pursue transit options in the Twin Cities, then let?s choose bus rapid transit, which can be built for about half as much. The Urban Land Institute says ?bus rapid transit can offer the look and feel of light-rail service at substantially lower cost.?
I don't have any objections to BRT as part of an overall plan. We are going to have a chance to see this first hand with the Cedar Ave BRT in Lakeville/Apple Valley. There is an ongoing argument as to whether this really is a "cheaper" alternative; but in the larger scheme of things it is worth looking at. It is still a bus and it still uses existing roads. So we shall see.
OK - one more thing that a "conservative" should appreciate...
The Center for Neighborhood Technology, examined residential property values between 2006 and 2011 in five regions: Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Phoenix and San Francisco. Researchers compared the performance of home values in each region as a whole to the values of homes with access to transit. Across the five regions, homes with access to transit outperformed others in their region by an average of 41.6 percent. Homes near heavy rail, light rail and bus rapid transit corridors held their value best........The Twin Cities region was ranked second, behind Boston, in the disparity between homes with access to transit and the region overall. Twin Cities homes with access to transit outperformed the region as a whole by 47.8 percent.
Obviously "Value" of transit systems can be expressed in other ways.
The conservative opposition to transit continues. And obviously, the investment is difficult...especially when politicians drag their feed about committing to it. But asphalt is NOT our future. We have to change - space demands it; our climate demands it; and our quality of life demands it.