Light Rail in Minneapolis:
A Bridge to Nowhere

Presentation by Wendell Cox
to the
Sensible Land Use Coalition Forum
Doubletree Park Place Hotel
St. Louis Park, Minnesota
26 May 1998

Minneapolis-St. Paul Public Transport Information


It is a pleasure to speak to you today. From the questions posed to (previous speaker Hennepin County) Commissioner McLaughlin, it seems a forgone conclusion in the audience that light rail will reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. My job is to give you the other side of the light rail argument. I do not argue from a position of preference or from a position that light rail is inherently inappropriate. My case is simply this. Light rail simply has not and will not reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Despite the misleading perceptions so often peddled by promoters, there is simply no connection between the problem of traffic congestion and light rail. Moreover, whatever rather modest benefits it may bring to te transit system can be obtained for considerably less through other strategies.

Ronald Reagan said that he went to Washington and found a great number of solutions looking for problems. That is the situation with light rail in the Twin Cities. It is a solution looking for a problem. Arguments are made in the abstract. People are led to believe that it will reduce traffic congestion, that it will provide a speedy alternative to the automobile and that it will transform the areas through which it runs. The reality is quite different, based upon the experience elsewhere.

I will spend a good deal of time talking about the problems with light rail. I will spend less time on better solutions, because the this community has "put the cart before the horse," and selected light rail without an adequate specification of the problem that would be solved by the preferred solution.

Much of what I say will surprise you. I invite you to challenge me on any fact you believe wrong. I can tell you that everything I say I believe to be true, and I will be happy to correct anything that is wrong. Obviously we will disagree on judgements and analysis.

Harry Truman developed a reputation for "giving them Hell." When asked about this, Truman responded that he just told the truth and they though it was Hell. That is what my presentation today is about.

I will start out with a question, then discuss the experience with rail, its application to the Twin Cities and conclude with a brief resume of more effective and efficient solutions.


I am going to describe conditions in an urban area, and see if anyone in the audience can guess what urban area I am talking about.

  • The central city has lost more than one quarter of its population since 1950.

  • The population of the suburbs has exploded.

  • For some time, virtually all new job growth has been in the suburbs.

  • Traffic conditions are intolerable.

  • About the only place you can go on the transit system is the central city. Virtually no effective suburb to suburb service is available.

  • Transit trips take a lot of time --- the average transit work trip takes approximately double the time of the average commute by single occupant automobile.

  • It has some of the worst air pollution.

  • It has the best freeway system of any urban area for a least a 1,000 mile radius.

  • Local transportation officials are wrestling with solutions to the problem of growing traffic.
What city am I talking about?
At this point there were a number of answers from the audience --- all US cities --- and the most prominent was Los Angeles.

The answer is not Los Angeles. Indeed the city isn't even in the United States. The city is Paris, a community in which transit is much more significant than in any US city.

A former Paris transit official recently suggested that the only effective way to handle the growing traffic demand in the Paris urban area is more automobile capacity. And, it is to be added. The long term regional plan includes a significant amount of new freeway construction.

Now if Paris, with one of the western world's finest metro and suburban rail systems faces problems, surely there is little hope for US cities or for Minneapolis St. Paul to solve their traffic problems with rail.

The central city of Paris --- smaller than either Minneapolis or St. Paul in area, has a population density of 50,000 per square mile. Minneapolis and St. Paul are in the 5,000 to 7,000 range.

Paris' suburbs have population density of 17,000 per square mile --- that's at least double the most densely populated urbanized area in the United States --- city and suburbs included.


Let me offer a few facts pertinent to the discussion of light rail.

  • Light rail not more energy efficient than the automobile. US Department of Energy data indicates that light rail, and for that matter heavy rail (subways and elevateds) consumes more energy per passenger mile than the average automobile.

  • Light rail is not safer than automobiles. In fact, light rail's fatality rate per 100 million passenger miles is double that of the bus and double that of the automobile in urban applications.

  • Light rail is not faster. Light rail operating speeds are barely faster than bus speeds. The average single automobile commute in the United States is twice as fast as the average light rail commute.

  • Air pollution is going away. Our progress in reducing air pollution is astounding and will continue. Traffic will continue to grow, but air pollution will continue to diminish.
Light rail has not reduced traffic congestion. During the 1980s, three US cities built light rail. In Buffalo, the work trip market share dropped 29 percent. It dropped the same in Sacramento. And the champion was Portland, where the work trip market share dropped 33 percent. Traffic counts in light rail corridors in St. Louis and Portland show that traffic volumes have continued to grow at historic rates.

This raises an important issue. How shall we judge the success or failure of light rail. I would argue that the test is not the number of people who ride the trains --- most of them are former bus riders, former car pool riders or people who did not previously make the trip. The test is how many automobiles light rail takes off the street. And the answer is "precious few." Think about it. All of the world's major cities have traffic congestion. Indeed traffic congestion tends to be worse in cities like London, Paris and Rome, which are served by comprehensive rail systems.

Each year, the Texas Transportation Institute published congestion indexes for America's major urbanized areas. Among the 12 cities that have built rail, the number of cars removed from the road in 11 of those cities would not change the TTI congestion index. Only in Washington, DC can an impact be discerned --- from 1.44 to 1.43. Put another way, the traffic removed by rail systems in the US is so small that it can be measured in days of traffic growth avoided. The top score is again Washington, DC, where it is estimated that the $12 billion subway system has removed less that three months worth of traffic growth from roadways. In other words, in exchange for $12 billion in tax funding, traffic conditions in May 1998 are what they would have been in February 1998 without rail.

  • Washington's $12 billion, 90 mile subway system is, without doubt, the ultimate in modern US urban rail construction. No city is likely to duplicate this system which reaches far into the suburbs on every side of the city. Yet work trip market share is lower today that before the rail system opened. And barely 20 years after the first segment opened, the region faces a significant revitalization bill.

  • Los Angeles is a good example of transit policy gone wrong. When I left the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission in 1985, we were carrying nearly 500 million riders per year, all of it on buses. Now --- with two light rail lines, a subway and six commuter rail lines opened, the transit system carries approximately 380 million annually. Transit bureaucrats there appear to be trying to outdo John Lindsay and Abe Beam, who drove New York City to the financial brink in the 1970s. They have mortgaged away the very future of transit in Los Angeles. Debt service will rise to $400 million annually by 2004 --- that's more than Los Angeles can expect to collect in fares --- and double the operating cost of the light rail and subway lines. The situation has become so bad that the Metropolitan Transit Authority has temporarily suspended work on three rail lines --- lines on which it has already spent more than $300 million. And a review of the agency's recovery plan --- required by the US Congress --- indicates that there will be no money to start construction again until at least 2004. I suspect more realistic timing would be late in the next life. Los Angeles' preoccupation with rail has been so great that bus service has suffered --- fares have risen and services have been cut. In response, a bus riders union has formed and been successful in forcing MTA to begin re-emphasizing bus service again. If the measure of success is building rail, then Los Angeles is a success. If, on the other hand, the measure of success is moving people, it is a failure.

  • Take Atlanta, whose $3 billion heavy rail system did virtually to prevent a 36 percent work trip market share loss during the 1980s when most of it was opened.

And then there is the matter of projections. You can expect the costs of rail construction to be 50 percent to 100 percent higher than the planners estimates. And the federal government will not pay for this overrun --- you will, in higher taxes. Costs are exorbitant. Virtually all new rail systems have been so costly that it would have been less expensive to less new riders new automobiles every three years. In Milwaukee, the cost per diverted automobile over a 40 year career has been projected to be $7 million.

Any number of claims are made to suggest that light rail will spur development. Studies from Portland and St. Louis are trotted out. But let me ask you this --- if light rail spurs development, why did the Portland city council pass an ordinance to forgive 10 years of property taxes for any new development within one-quarter mile of a light rail station? Why are governments subsidizing development of apartment buildings along the new westside line --- and why are landlords providing all sorts of lucrative incentives to attract renters? In St. Louis, virtually all development along the light rail line has been tax financed. If the TWA Dome and Kiel Center in St. Louis are products of light rail, how does one explain two new sports stadiums in downtown Detroit --- or Erickson Stadium in Charlotte, where there is no light rail?

(Hennepin County) Commissioner Peter McLaughlin referred to himself earlier today as an "infrastructure determinist." That's a defensible position, under the right circumstances. But not all infrastructure projects are successes. Montreal's Mirabel Airport and St. Louis' Mid-America Airport are good examples. Then there is the Detroit People Mover, the Miami Metromover and Jacksonville's Skytrain. You cannot expect development to follow light rail and you cannot expect light rail to reduce traffic congestion. For infrastructure to drive development it has to be productive. A bridge to nowhere will not spur development. And in terms of traffic congestion and air pollution, light rail is a bridge to nowhere.

Why is it that urban rail has so little impact? It has to do with he fact that urban rail is poorly matched to the development and demographic patters of the late 20th century.

  • Modern life styles require door to door transportation. About the only place this can be provided by transit is to downtown.

  • Downtown is the only location well served by transit because it is the only place there is a sufficient density of destinations to be served by transit. You in the Twin Cities have the only transit system in the country with two radial systems --- comprehensive service levels are provided both to downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul. To effectively serve the 87 percent of jobs that are not in these areas, you would need to establish radial systems that delivered people within one-quarter mile of the highly dispersed work locations in the rest of the area. Each of these systems would need to be 200 to 400 buses. You simply can't afford that.

  • Even if you could provide the radial transit system --- bus, light rail or even heavy rail --- commuting speeds would still not be competitive with the automobile. As a result, few would ride.

A report produced for the Netherlands Ministry of Transport found that public transit was not an alternative for 80 percent of the person trips in this highly urbanized European nation, despite the comparatively high level of service.

And just a note on commuter rail, because it has recently been added to the debate in Minneapolis-St. Paul. It is less costly than light rail and does just that much less. Commuter rail suffers from the same deficiencies as light rail, only worse. It can only serve downtown and it has fewer stations so is less accessible. It leaves commuters further from their downtown destinations, which requires transfers to shuttle buses. One issue upon which transit planners are unanimous is that forcing passenger to transfer increases the likelihood that the passenger will go by car instead.


This brings us to the Twin Cities --- the second least densely populated urbanized area among those with more than one million population. Consider this..

  • Transit provides more than 20 percent of the work trips to the combined downtown areas of Minneapolis and St. Paul. But these central business districts account for less than 13 percent of employment in the area.

  • In the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul themselves, transit provides approximately 10 per cent of work trips outside the central business districts. But this is only 22 percent of metropolitan employment. More people work at home or walk to work than work in the non-CBD portions of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

  • Most of the jobs --- 64 percent in 1990 and probably more now --- are in the suburbs Transit's market share here is infinitesimal --- one percent. In fact, twice as many people walk to jobs in the suburbs as ride transit.

My point is that, except with respect to the central business districts, transit contributes very little to in travel volume in the Twin Cities. Overall, transit provides approximately two percent of trips. If transit were to double or triple in volume, no one would know the difference.

Commissioner McLaughlin noted that there has been considerable concern about a $400 million light rail line, but little concern at all about a $267 million bill to maintain the area's freeways. I don;'t find this surprising at all. The area's roadways carry more than 95 percent of daily trips, while the Hiawatha light rail line would, at most, carry 0.2 percent.

Transit ridership has dropped dramatically in the Twin Cities. In 1979, 105 million rides were carried. This has fallen to the low 60 millions. Minneapolis-St. Paul has lost as much ridership as is carried by all of the buses in St. Louis. And there's good reason. Fares have risen substantially. If you apply the industry standard fare elasticity of -0.35 over the past 20 years, the resulting number fairly accurately reflects the actual reduced ridership.

My point is that there is nothing in Minneapolis-St. Paul that is different enough from other cities in the United States to suggest that rail will have any perceivable impact on traffic and air pollution. Indeed, in Washington and Atlanta, metro systems (subways and elevated) have failed to materially impact traffic. What is proposed in Minneapolis-St. Paul is much more modest --- light rail or surface rail, which will be subjected to cross traffic, rather than being grade separated. It would not be unfair to suggest that light rail, with its speeds barely better than buses represents the form rather than the substance of urban rail. You can expect light rail to have an impact on traffic in Minneapolis-St. Paul after water starts running uphill.

But there is more. You can expect light rail to cost much more than planned. The current number is approximately $400 for the Hiawatha Corridor. You had better plan on at least $500 million and perhaps $800 million based upon experience elsewhere. This will have to come from either the state or local taxpayers.


There are solutions.

With respect to transit, a substantial role can be played with respect to downtown oriented commuting. And more transit riders will be carried if bus service is expanded and fares are lowered. If you are serious about transit, then you will provide it as inexpensively as possible --- through competitive mechanisms, like competitive contracting. Currently the transit systems in London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, etc., etc. are converting to this cost saving strategy. Some of this has occurred here --- but there is still much in transit service that should be converted to competitive contracting, with the savings applied to new services and lower fares. Then there are busways. Busways can do anything that light rail can do in this country. Curitiba, Brazil's most effective busway carries more riders daily than all the transit services in Minneapolis-St. Paul or even Seattle. According to Harvard's John Kain, busways cost, on average, one-fifth to build and operate per passenger mile as rail systems. And, priority lanes can be established on arterial streets.

But it must be recognized that there is little that can be done with a mode of transport that carries two percent of trips to have much impact. The plain fact of it is that transit improvements have little, if anything to do with relieving traffic congestion. You could, like Washington and Atlanta, build a comprehensive regional rail system --- and you will still have massive traffic congestion. There is simply no necessary connection between urban rail and traffic congestion.

The real answer requires strategies to better handle the automobile traffic which is today and will be in the future the overwhelming mode of transport not only here but also in Europe. And such strategics exist:

  • Roadway expansions can be implemented. It is not true that we cannot build our way out of congestion. Phoenix and Houston have greatly improved their traffic flows by expanding freeway networks. It must be recognized that our freeway system was largely designed to handle the traffic loads anticipated by 1975. It is now nearly a quarter of a century later and little is being done to respond to the continually increasing demand.

  • Roadway bottlenecks need to be removed and improved on existing roadways.

  • Intelligent transportation systems can be used to improve information to drivers and direct flows of traffic around particularly congested segments.

  • An expensive but effective means of providing new capacity is the "metroroute" --- automobile only expressway tunnels under cities. The first of these is under construction in Paris. It will provide two decks of freeway --- a total of six lanes --- in a 35 foot in diameter tunnel.

  • Finally, it needs to be remembered that people are not sheep. During the 1980s we built little additional capacity in urban freeways around the nation. Yet the average single occupant commuting speed increased, while average travel time to work increased by only 42 seconds. People will find ways to avoid traffic congestion.


So what it comes down to is this.... Why build rail?

  • Surely not to reduce traffic congestion, because it doesn't do that.

  • Not to reduce air pollution, because it cant do that without reducing traffic congestion

  • Not to channel development, because it doesn't do that.

There seem to be two possible rationales.

  • The first is to provide an incinerator for federal funding that otherwise would be spend in other areas.

  • The second is to build rail simply to build rail --- sort of a 20th century bureaucratic idolatry.
At best, there is no justification for the use of tax funding to build light rail. At the worst, the damage should be limited by the minimum legal amount necessary to qualify for the federal funding that has been earmarked. And recognize what you are getting --- not an alternative to the automobile --- not an efficient or effective addition to your transit system --- but federal funding that would otherwise go elsewhere. It is a sad commentary on the state of public policy in the United States.

In the final analysis, you cannot expect the proposed light rail program or any other rail system to reduce traffic congestion in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Vision is not driving the debate, it is rather fantasy, if not hallucination.

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