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.

  • Matt Abe

    The proposed Southwest LRT solution is too inefficient for even the Federal government! All of the public relations and rosy promises will not change the cold hard numbers. Let’s consider an all-of-the above transportation strategy and pick the best solution regardless of the Met Council’s current train fetish.

  • http://AndtheBottineaulightrailproject?Andwhataboutjustplainoldbusservice? James Larson

    If you have some time, I’d sure hope you can take a look at the cost-effectiveness of the Bottineau light rail project. That one is about $1 billion for 15 miles in just the capital cost (doesn’t include operating costs).

    Also, has anyone considered improving just plain old bus service? Its been slowly deteriorating over the decades that I’ve lived in the center of Golden Valley as far as frequency and routes — and that is mostly due to a general decline in ridership over the years (although there’s been a recent upturn). But suddenly we have an urgent need for multi-billion dollars of mass transit investment?

  • Daniel Duffy

    In the Sun papers commentary on January 30, Norann Dillon argued for bus rapid transit rather than light rail in the Southwest Corridor. Much of the information she presented was out of date and inaccurate.

    1. Ms. Dillon claims that BRT was found to be the most cost-effective option for the corridor. But in fact after extensive review of travel options by the SW Corridor Policy Advisory Committee of which I was a member of, BRT was found to be one of the least cost effective.

    Our Policy Advisory Committee started in 2002 and consisted of local community leaders, including business representatives, and we were tasked to study all of the transit options for the Southwest Corridor. The Alternatives Analysis phase of our study narrowed the review to four choices: 1) expanding lanes on existing roadways 2) enhanced bus service on existing roads, 3) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) on its own right of way, and 4) Light Rail Transit (LRT). The process found that BRT was not only one of the least cost effective transit modes, but that it did not pass the Federal Transit Administration’s Cost Effectiveness Index (CEI) standards as a viable transit option. Light Rail Transit was found to be most cost-effective option for the SW Corridor region, and subsequently received one of the highest FTA ratings of any project in the nation. A thorough, non-partisan analysis of the options showed LRT to be the best and most cost-effective way to move more people in this corridor.

    2. Light rail opponents often cite a 1999 MnDOT cost-benefit analysis conducted five years before Hiawatha LRT opened. In 1999, gas cost $1.50/gallon. Today, gas of course costs significantly more than $1.50/gallon. Hiawatha ridership far exceeds what the study projected. There’s no reason to use a disproven report when we know what actually happened.

    3. Ms. Dillon claims that in 2000, MnDOT recommended BRT for the Southwest Corridor. The only thing MnDOT concluded was that if BRT was the only method used for upgraded transit in the Twin Cities, then this would be a better corridor than others. Page 3 of that MnDOT report states: “This study does not assess the relative merits of exclusive busway technology application compared to other transit modes for each corridor travel shed (e.g., commuter rail, light rail transit, bus shoulders).”

    Leaving behind BRT, Ms. Dillon asks whether you want your taxes to pay for a train you won’t ride. Keep in mind that you already pay for roads in Koochiching County and Houston County. The benefits are enjoyed not just by the people directly using a road, bus or train, but all of us. If someone is using LRT, they’re not delaying you in your car. The Itasca Project, a group of local business leaders, studied who would most benefit from regional transit investments, and found that it is road users (cars and trucks), who would enjoy faster, more reliable traffic thanks to transit.

    Certainly, bus rapid transit makes sense for some of the corridors in the metro area. It’s an important part of our transportation mix and is now being implemented on Cedar Avenue from Hennepin County into Dakota County. But it’s not the best option for the Southwest Corridor. The studies and analysis demonstrate that in fact LRT is the best option for this corridor.