The Star Tribune Editorial Board made another dramatic appeal on behalf of light-rail transit (“Transit projects reach perilous pass,” July 29), calling for legislators to get on board the Metropolitan Council’s Southwest light-rail (SWLRT) and long-term vision for the Twin Cities.

Despite years of relentless marketing in favor of light rail, legislators did not fund SWLRT. Many of the people they represent, whether they live or work in the city or in the suburbs, are not convinced that these multibillion-dollar light-rail projects are a wise investment. And so-called “free” federal transit dollars are not closing the deal.

The Republicans did not “scuttle” the bonding bill, as the editors asserted. A small group of Democrats in the Senate tried to add a local funding option for light rail with literally no time to spare, hoping that the House would panic and cave. Instead, a bonding bill that otherwise had overwhelming support in both chambers failed. Surely that late-night maneuver would have been regretted in the morning even by Hennepin County’s Peter McLaughlin, the architect of light-rail planning.

Why are we still fighting about light rail if it is such a good idea? Because the Met Council’s long-range regional plan called “Thrive MSP 2040” has nothing to do with relieving congestion or improving mobility. This is consistent with the Dayton administration policy announced by the Minnesota Department of Transportation in 2010 that shifts dollars “away from reducing congestion and toward providing alternatives to congested travel.” That means no road expansion but billions for light rail and bike paths.

That is why SWLRT derailed the 2016 session and is delaying transportation and other capital projects around the state. But as the editors noted, there are good transit options caught in the fight over SWLRT.

The proposed Orange Line bus rapid transit line (BRT) along Interstate 35W provides a useful contrast to SWLRT. Unlike the $1.86 billion SWLRT project, the $150 million Orange Line is actually designed to alleviate existing congestion and increase mobility.

The cost to build and run BRT is much lower than LRT (see accompanying chart).

The Orange Line was championed in the Minnesota House by Minneapolis DFLer Frank Hornstein and Lakeville Republican Mary Liz Holberg, who worked hard to get support from other legislators, which made this a better project.

The Orange Line will upgrade an existing road, improve a popular express bus route, add local stops and shelters for suburban and urban commuters, and use special exit ramps so buses won’t snarl traffic. Light rail, by contrast, has eliminated popular bus routes to force train ridership, increased commute times and slowed traffic.

If the Orange Line is not a success, or commuting patterns shift, the capital investment will still benefit the corridor, including the Lake Street Interchange; plus, the buses can be used elsewhere. If a fixed-rail route fails, what then?

Clearly, something besides good regional planning is driving transit policy.

The Metropolitan Council, made up entirely of Gov. Mark Dayton’s appointees, has benevolently declared: “The council has identified equity as one of five key regional outcomes from Thrive MSP 2040, alongside stewardship, prosperity, livability and sustainability. … [T]he Metropolitan Council commits to using equity as a lens to evaluate its operations, planning and investments. The council also commits to exploring its authority to use its resources and roles to mitigate the place-based dimension of racial, ethnic and income-based disparities.”

Quick translation: Thrive MSP 2040 is a top-down plan that uses social problems (for example, minority unemployment, unaffordable housing and the achievement gap) to disperse low-income residents into subsidized housing along the light-rail corridor. Light rail was not designed to serve low-income residents where they live. It was designed to move them along the routes to advance the governor’s broader agenda. By treating low-income people like pawns on a chess board, urban planners have once again ignored practical solutions that improve people’s lives.

While developing Thrive MSP 2040, the council mapped the region according to race and income. The council did not use that data to design light rail to serve those communities. The council is using that data to force the revision of local policies on zoning, transit and housing to meet race-conscious and income-based targets for all metro cities.

Not coincidentally, Thrive MSP 2040 will deliver riders for trains and reliably Democratic voters, thereby flipping the suburbs to the DFL long before 2040, breaking up neighborhoods, churches and schools along the way.

If the governor wanted transit “equity,” why not aggressively improve bus service and shelters so people can get to work and school? If the governor wanted housing “equity,” why not tackle all of the state regulations driving up rent and construction costs so people can afford to rent or buy their own homes?

The editors said “transit is a critical component of metro vitality.” Transit is indeed critical, but only if it relieves congestion and increases mobility. The editors accused light-rail opponents of a “failure of vision.” On the contrary, their vision is quite clear.

 

Kim Crockett is vice president, senior policy fellow and general counsel for the Center of the American Experiment.