St. Cloud-area legislators have proposed yet another bill, HF 1179, to study and partly plan for extending Northstar commuter rail service to that city. But the bill’s drawn-out review and analysis process, combined with the engagement of the usual entourage of planners, consultants, lobbyists and contractors, will virtually ensure that the extension will cost too much, promise too much and take far too long to complete.
Corridor taxpayers have seen this movie before. The original 2009 project cost $317 million, was $50 million over budget and took more than four years after initial funding to design and build, even though most of the track was in place. Annual ridership is consistently 10 to 20 percent below initial projections, with farebox receipts, at 15 percent of operating costs, among the lowest such ratios in the nation.
The bill at hand promises more of the same. It specifies 18 months of study followed by 12 months of, yes, more study before construction and testing. With history as a guide and political pressure to extend most, if not all, of the 12 current weekday trains to St. Cloud, figure a 2023 startup and a price tag exceeding $150 million. As before, most of this will be spent upfront on easements and track capacity based on unproven ridership over a host freight railroad that has other understandable and realistic priorities. Look familiar?
And make no mistake about the priorities of the freight railroad. Its line through St. Cloud is one of two such high-volume, high-performance freight rail corridors connecting the nation’s midsection and the Pacific Northwest. As such, it is a strategic national asset with few real alternatives for the movement of goods. Adding up to 12 fast commuter trains per day to a network set up for 50 slower freight trains comes at a price. That price was $107 million in 2008 for 40 miles east of Big Lake. You can do the math for the 30 miles west to St. Cloud.
A faster, more reasoned and far more cost-effective way to assess the potential of the St. Cloud extension would be to implement immediately a two-train-per-weekday trial service arrangement. Here, weekday morning trips from existing stations to Minneapolis would go from five to four in exchange for St. Cloud receiving a morning inbound and outbound trip. Same idea for afternoons. Total system train miles per-day stay about the same, so no additional train sets or costly track occupancy easements would be needed.
Because these costs and resource requirements are few and well-defined, planning and design should move quickly so that service would start in 2020. Most important, by late 2021, the public will have had a year of real-world ridership experience to determine if more trains can be justified. If trains are full, costs under control and public policy remains so inclined, there will still be time for construction and testing of the higher-frequency plan to meet a 2023 startup.
But if a higher-frequency service extension cannot be justified, either the trial service can be made permanent at St. Cloud or the original Big Lake service pattern reinstated. Either way, the public would likely save over $100 million that could then be spent on alternative corridor mobility measures like more Interstate 94 freeway lane miles, conversion of signalized Hwy. 10 intersections to interchanges, and/or a fleet of modern buses to serve the transit needs of the corridor.
It has happened this way elsewhere. A shared track commuter/freight rail arrangement planned for the 30-mile Denver-Boulder corridor in Colorado was rejected in 2015 in favor of bus rapid transit service over a parallel freeway using dedicated HOV/bus lanes. The freight rail easements were just too costly and the high-tech bus operation too competitive and efficient to pass up. BRT ridership has since exceeded expectations.
It is unclear, of course, what will happen here — St. Cloud is not Boulder — but close to 1 million annual riders will likely be needed to/from St. Cloud to cover just the anticipated track easement costs at an acceptable level. That could be why the federal government would not fund the extension in 2008 and won’t do so now. And it is precisely why the trial service extension is so necessary and why a thorough grasp of the non-rail passenger transportation alternatives is so timely. There is too much riding on the outcome for it to be otherwise.
Jerome M. Johnson, of St. Paul, is a retired transportation economist and railway executive.