Once derided as a "train to nowhere," the Hiawatha light-rail line is more popular than predicted. It carries enough riders over 12 miles that it is cheaper to run than metro buses.

The cost of operating the Hiawatha between Bloom-ington and downtown Minneapolis is about half that of Metro Transit buses in the Twin Cities, according to comparisons by the federal government. The Hiawatha also is less expensive to operate than most other light-rail lines in the nation.

The Hiawatha is less costly per passenger mile because its short route reaches places very much on the map for Twin Cities residents and visitors.

"You've got work in downtown, you've got the airport and then you have the mall," said Linda Cherrington, manager of transit research for the Texas Transportation Institute, a department of Texas A&M University with a national scope.

The operating expenses don't include the upfront costs of laying rail and buying light-rail cars -- or the costs of buying buses and their share of road construction and maintenance costs.

But the relative expense of operating the systems provides useful comparisons as lawmakers consider expanding light rail to the southwest suburbs.

The Hiawatha Line costs about 51 cents per passenger mile to operate, while Metro Transit buses cost about 88 cents, according to the National Transit Database (NTD), a division of the Federal Transit Administration.

The results don't surprise Curt Johnson, an adviser to former Republican Gov. Arne Carlson and a policy wonk who opposed light-rail transit before changing his mind.

"It's true just about anywhere I know that if you can get a rail system like this up and running and have it in a place where it will be used, you do enjoy much lower operating costs," Johnson said.

But when ground was broken on the Hiawatha Line in January 2001, its route was assailed by critics. Former Senate Republican Leader Dick Day, R-Owatonna, questioned spending millions to build a "train to nowhere" instead of improving roads.

"Why should the public, who spend hours in traffic every week, throw their support behind a train that they won't ride -- and that won't ease the gridlock they face?" asked Day.

When it opened, the Hiawatha Line was expected to have an average weekday ridership of 24,300 by 2020. But it surpassed that ridership in 2006 and reached 31,400 last year. Stations at Nicollet Mall, at Terminal 1 (the airport's main terminal) and Lake Street are the most popular.

A factor in Hiawatha's daily cost advantage over buses is dense traffic: It provided 13 percent of all Metro Transit rides last year while covering only 4 percent of service miles.

But those numbers also fuel a long-standing criticism: Light rail lacks the ability of buses to reach most transit riders.

"You have a little more flexibility and user-friendliness with a bus than you do with a train," said Rep. Mike Beard, R-Shakopee, chairman of the House Transportation Policy and Finance Committee. "For people who can't drive or shouldn't drive, the bus is the next best thing."

Hiawatha and Metro Transit bus fares are publicly subsidized, but less so than most bus and light-rail systems around the nation. Hiawatha fares pay for a bigger share of costs than do Metro Transit bus fares.

Costly start

The Hiawatha cost $715 million to build, with the federal government paying for nearly 60 percent. The state spent $120 million and the Metropolitan Airports Commission and Hennepin County contributed $171 million.

There is no reliable way to compare the per-passenger costs of building a light-rail line and a bus system, according to the Federal Transit Administration. Unlike the rails, the roads are shared by a variety of vehicles. A Hiawatha car costs eight times the price of the most common metro bus, but the train car also lasts twice as long and can carry far more people.

Labor, energy and maintenance make up the bulk of the operating costs. Hiawatha's costs are lower than buses in part because one person can operate a three-car train carrying more people than a single bus.

The operating cost per passenger mile of the Hiawatha line is the seventh-lowest among 27 light-rail lines in the United States, the NTD reported. Salt Lake City, Houston and Baltimore operate light-rail systems with costs comparable to the Hiawatha. Buffalo, Newark and Pittsburgh light rails are among those costing more than twice as much as the Hiawatha.

The NTD figures are "the best single source of data ...consistent data, that the industry has," Cherrington said.

What people say now

Johnson says he began supporting light rail after concluding that it would be an overall plus to the community. He later became chair of the Metropolitan Council, which oversaw construction of the Hiawatha Line.

The lower operating cost of the Hiawatha Line surprises even an ardent supporter.

"The cost to initially do it was very large and people kept saying it was going to be a waste of money and people are not going to use it," recalled Kathy Mackdanz, who co-chaired a planning panel for the Hiawatha corridor and who lives near the 38th Street station.

"There are people on it all the time," Mackdanz said. "People ... take it every day out to the airport for work."

The figures haven't converted former Sen. Day.

"I should have called it 'the entertainment train,'" Day noted. "All these people are riding this down to ballgames. Big deal."

Brian Lamb, general manager of Metro Transit's bus and light-rail system, countered that passengers took 10.5 million trips on the Hiawatha Line last year. Most of them were on days without sporting events.

"They're going somewhere," he said.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504