Guest Column: Light Rail versus Bus Rapid Transit


Norann Dillon
Norann Dillon

Last fall, TwinWest Chamber of Commerce urged voters to support the Southwest Light Rail line. I didn’t know enough about it, so I looked into it.

I’ve concluded that light rail is a poor choice, and question how it’s advanced this far. Our region and its taxpayers will be better served by a dedicated bus way in the corridor.

The capital costs for rail are huge and usually underestimated. Consider that Hiawatha’s costs increased from $470 million to $715 million. Southwest LRT currently has a $1.25 billion price tag.

Hennepin County, through property taxe revenue, is expected to contribute 10 percent of that cost. The portion of your property taxes dedicated to rail projects has already tripled since 2009.

Are you willing to pay higher property taxes for a train you may never ride?

Light rail is not worth the cost. In 1999, MnDOT conducted a cost-benefit analysis for the Hiawatha line. It considered the value of intangible benefits such as travel time savings, reduced crash risks and even air quality.

The result was a ratio of 0.42, meaning for every public dollar spent, the entire community receives only 42 cents worth of benefits. It’s common sense that a store would go out of business if it sold $1 widgets for 42 cents.

But light rail won’t be allowed to “go out of business.” We currently pay a quarter-cent sales tax in the metro for transit.

That tax will be fully committed by 2021, requiring an increase in sales taxes for transit, as Gov. Mark Dayton just proposed. Higher sales taxes are a hit on those with lower incomes, the very people transit is supposed to help most.

Transit options are an important part of transportation planning, but they must make sense. In August 2000, MnDOT recommended “the entire length of the Southwest Corridor be given the highest priority for exclusive bus way implementation.”

Bus Rapid Transit can use the same corridor as rail. It’s scale-able to accommodate growth. It can carry multiple routes on one line, such as express and local.

It can be opened in phases. Finally, BRT is cheaper to build and operate, therefore, is more cost-efficient than light rail.

Based on MnDOT’s bus way study, a Southwest BRT would cost about $170 million to build, not the $1.25 billion of light rail.

In January 2007, BRT was found to be the most cost-effective option for the corridor. Curiously, the current route was the least cost-effective. In fact, it was so cost-ineffective, it fell below the threshold required by the Federal Transit Administration.

Everyone should be asking his or her elected officials why we ended up with the least cost effective option.

Given rail’s sky-high capital costs, tax impact on fixed and lower income households, and inflexibility of service, I urge taxpayers and elected officials to reconsider bus rapid transit for the Southwest Corridor. I want to see true courage and leadership to make the right decision when trusted to spend other people’s money.