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Southwest Light Rail Lacks The Reasonable - And Leadership

Category: Transportation
Posted: 03/27/14 14:25

by Dave Mindeman

We have a situation that emphasizes the point about mass transit obstruction in Minnesota has a bipartisan duo-head. Current issue? The Southwest Light Rail project.

I have been watching the process of this project with growing frustration. I haven't talked about it before because it has become so complicated that I have no idea who is right - who is wrong - or even what suggestion makes sense.

It is an urban-suburban war and it is taking casualties.

Here is the worry:

Transit planners say delays in the Southwest Corridor light-rail project will likely push back its opening to 2019 or 2020 -- a year or more beyond its scheduled start -- and help push the price tag from $1.5 billion to as high as $1.8 billion.

This is an important piece of the puzzle for a metro-wide light rail loop. And it shows absolutely no signs of getting to a resolution. It has overlapped two Minneapolis Mayors and a plethora of suggested solutions and yet, they still sit at a standstill.

The construction costs continue to mount. The time frame continues to march indefinitely into the future. Somebody has to step in here and really lead - not just talk, lead.

The money has been appropriated - at least for what the project used to cost. It is just politics and NIMBY now.

The costs mount and the development waits. Who is going to step up?
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Future of MN Transportation Still Looking Pretty Grim

Category: Transportation
Posted: 12/18/13 00:08

by Dave Mindeman

I went to a public town hall meeting on transportation this evening. It was held in Burnsville, the 5th Town Hall the MNDOT and the Met Council have had this year and the only one south of the river.

It is interesting to note that about half the audience was not just regular citizens, but rather legislators, mayors, city council members and other policy makers. Apparently they also wanted a chance to ask questions of the two major policy implementers in the state - MnDOT Commissioner Charlie Zelle andn Met Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh.

The presentation painted a picture that we are all very familiar with. A Minnesota transportation system with heavy budget shortfalls and not a lot of good choices to fix it.

The problems were outlined in stark form:

50% of state highway pavements are more than 50 years old.
35% of state bridges are more than 50 years old.
Minnesota is ranked 38th nationally for pavement condition.
The Twin Cities metro area will add 900,000 people by 2040.
Truck freight will increase 30% by 2030.

Here is another illustration to the challenge ahead -- Half of the entire 2008 gas tax increase has been dedicated to paying off debt.

You remember when the Republicans pounded the Democrats about the largest tax increase in "history" at the time? The override six controversy? Well, that increase couldn't pay squat for what we needed, they had to leverage that money into bonding to move on projects long overdue.

Our roads and bridges maintenance has a $12 billion funding gap in the next 10 years. Part of a $50 billion gap overall in transportation.

The MN GOP has hounded the state about transportation costs. Everything is too expensive. But we live in the 9th harshest climate in the US (Charlie Zelle is trying to figure out who the other 8 are....) and that takes a heavy toll on maintenance costs. We put off repairs and redos and that shortens the life of the existing roads.....making expensive full replacement our only option.

We sputter and stall about full multi-modal transit. Light rail has 2 sections complete and a 3rd about to open next year. But we have so many other communities that need to be included. We can't get the full benefit until we have it all in place.

Governor Dayton had to cut back on his metro sales tax dedicated to transit - we currently have a 1/4 cent tax. But San Jose has a 3/4 cent tax, Boston - a full penney. San Francisco has 1.05 cents, and Seattle has committed to a 1.8 cent tax for its transit system.

It was interesting to note that former Republican Senator Claire Robling was in attendance and asked a question near the end, criticizing the "large" subsidy that involves the North Star Line. The same argument she espoused during her legislative tenure. Attitudes never change.

Yes, the North Star is subsidized. But so are roads. So are bridges. So are buses. We subsidize some transportation to make it a complete transportation system. We subsidize some parts - some heavily- so that everything is usable and viable for all of us.

The Twins and Vikings benefit from the rail lines. So does the Mall of America. And soon the University will get similar benefit. And the development will come. One of the complaints (a legitimate one) is that rents for housing along the Central Corridor have skyrocketed, making it difficult for low income people, who need transit to survive, to afford housing along the line. There are initiatives about building more low income housing along the line - but it needs to be stepped up.

Really, we simply have to make some bigger investments. I grew up with roads and can't think of life without a car - but my 16 year old son is in no hurry to learn to drive (something I find shocking)....he asks me when more transit will be available. He wants less crowded and outmoded highways and more convenient transit options.

As Council President Haigh pointed out, millenials don't look at getting to a destination as their goal - they want social connectivity all the way through. On-line is their social connections and roads and bridges aren't necessary.

We have to solve some big transportation problems. Asphalt is NOT our future. Gas taxes are not providing enough revenue (in fact it is declining). And the light rail system is getting built too slowly to be of any value.

And one note about BRT. Although this is obviously going to be a big part of the final multi-modal transportation system, I am not convinced that it should be. Buses still use roads (and are hard on them) - and though there are accomodations made to move the buses faster, they still are subject to traffic congestion; they still are stalled by construction; and they will perpetuate the asphalt dependence. I have not seen a clear advantage - not yet.

We have big issues to address. Commissioner Zelle is personable and seems highly competent. But he is fighting heavy headwinds.

Let's hope he can figure out a way to weather the storm.
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On Southwest LRT - C'mon, Somebody Just Decide!

Category: Transportation
Posted: 10/28/13 01:01

by Dave Mindeman

The Southwest Light Rail line has had a very checkered history. And it would seem that we are still no closer to getting this thing off the ground than we were several years ago.

Minnesota has been talking about rail systems for decades. And when the Republicans aren't trashing the costs and usage, the rest of our "leaders" are arguing among themselves about right of ways, track usage, or upgrades.

Even Mayor R.T. Rybak can't crack a consensus on Southwest and soon it will be up to a complete new administration to figure this out - and I am not optimistic about that being an improvement, not by a long shot.

The Met Council takes 1 step forward and 2 steps back. Where is the leadership on this? Somebody is going to have to make a final decision and whichever choice they make somebody or some entity is going to be very unhappy....and frankly, they are just going to have to accept it.

Nobody said it would be easy. It just needs to move off of inertia.

Minnesota has been wasting some valuable time and Federal resources in all of these implementation arguments. I know everyone wants to keep the costs down, but in some ways, bigger costs now may be the most economical way, because if we don't fully commit to a system that has long term usability, then we will have given ourselves a bigger long term bill.

I don't have the knowledge to really understand what is the best way to go, but the turf wars have got to end and everyone needs to work together on getting this rail line on the docket.

The Met Council and the cities involved are just unwilling to make the politically expedient decision because they want someone else to take the risk.

Well, the big risk here is to keep kicking the can.....and soon we will lose Federal matching funds or a long delay which will ruin any chance of getting that complete metro wide rail system.

C'mon people - you're elected to get something done. Do it.
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