Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Love Train

You can hear the howling from St. Paul all the way out here in the suburbs. Gov. Pawlenty used his line-item veto to axe $70 million of funding for the Central Corridor light rail project. And the solons are livid.

"Our solution was on the table," mewled Sen. Steve Murphy. Apparently, the solution was playing chicken with a governor who had just had his butt handed to him a few weeks back on the transportation bill. If Murphy thought T-Paw was going to play nice, he doesn't understand much about human nature and even less about T-Paw.

The ever-subtle Betty McCollum is aghast. "Yesterday Governor Tim Pawlenty killed the Central Corridor light rail project with his veto pen," she thundered. Betty has been so invisible lately I'd almost forgotten what her voice sounded like. It's almost reassuring that when it comes to high dudgeon, she still has perfect pitch.

Is the Central Corridor really dead? Well, Betty, that's highly unlikely. For once, however, I wish you were right. If ever a project needed killing, it is this bloated monstrosity, with an announced price tag of $909 million and a likely actual cost of well north of a billion. For that kind of money, you could pretty much buy a late model Toyota Corolla for every regular rider on the 16 bus, which runs essentially on the same route as the train is supposed to go. I know, the solons would prefer that we be environmentally conscious, but if we buy every 16 rider a Prius, it would require an operating subsidy. You know, kinda like the Hiawatha line has.

Now the solons could try to override T-Paw's veto, but this time enough legislators have been effectively bought off so it will be tough to muster a similar effort.

It's almost impossible to have a rational argument about trains in this town, because the supporters aren't interested in having such an argument. You can point out over and over that the Hiawatha line hasn't done a thing to relieve traffic congestion. You can remind people that the 16 line does everything the Central Corridor does, but a lot cheaper. You can point out that even in the places where light rail is highly celebrated, like Portland, it doesn't make money and doesn't improve traffic. I know this because I've been to Portland and was strongly considering relocating there because of a job transfer a few years back. The beloved MAX trains run, everyone gets all oogly about it, and the traffic is mind-numbingly bad anyway. Try driving the Sunset Highway between Portland and Hillsboro during rush hour sometime; you may as well walk.

None of that matters, because support for the trains is emotional, not rational. None of the rail lines currently under consideration will do a thing to solve traffic. They are all based on an outdated model, where everyone commutes into the central city. We don't have a central city here. We have two large, distinct urban centers. We also have the 494 strip, massive development in places like Maple Grove and Woodbury and even some backfill in places like Fridley and Mounds View (thanks to Medtronic). Major employers are scattered over a vast geographic area. If you work at Medtronic in Fridley, or Starkey Labs in Eden Prairie, or Best Buy in Richfield, or Cargill in Minnetonka, or 3M in Maplewood, or United Health in Edina, or even one of Target's many non-headquarters locations, light rail will not help you. If you're going to work in any of those places, chances are excellent that you will be commuting via automobile. I live in New Brighton, which by Twin Cities standards is centrally located. I know people who live in New Brighton who work for each of the employers I've mentioned. They all get to their jobs by car.

We are not New York or Philadelphia, cities that grew up along the rail lines. We are not London or Paris. It's never made any sense to pretend otherwise. Pawlenty has said that he wants to take another look at the costs of the Central Corridor project. Good idea, Governor.

Cross-posted at True North


Mike said...

It's kind of expensive to keep up with the Joneses, isn't it? As much as I use public transit, I do recognize that it is not a money maker.

But, when it comes down to it, I really think the clamoring for trains in certain circles is all about keeping up with the Joneses (in this case, Portland).

Mark Heuring said...

Boz Scaggs said it well - got to have a Jones for this, a Jones for that/But this runnin' with the Joneses, boy, just ain't where it's at.


Uncle Ben said...

Keeping up with the Joneses sounds so earthy and not nearly pretentious enough. Maybe "Keeping up with the Vanderbilts"?

Thanks for the post, btw. It's a good summary of the issue.

Right Hook said...

The legislature already has a tax and spending jones. The Gov's action was mererly an initial intervention into what is a huge problem that will require more such actions.

Voters will have the opportunity this fall to pick up where the Governor left off.

Night Writer said...

Me and Mrs. Jones, we've got a thing, going on..."

Sorry, between the "Love Train" headline and the Jones references I got distracted.

What I wanted to say is something that occurred to me yesterday morning: If mass transit is a big part of the "answer" to MMGW, why is Europe - the pinnacle of mass transportation - well over it's own target emmissions objectives it signed onto with Kyoto?

Mark Heuring said...

No problem, NW - Billy Paul references are always welcome at this blog.

As for Europe vis-a-vis Kyoto, my guess is that they are a lot more blithe about hypocrisy there than we tiresome moralistic Americans are. Hypocrisy the tribute that vice pays to virtue is how the phrase goes, if I remember correctly. Our friends across the Atlantic will do what they please and not worry in the least about appearances.

Oh, and treaties that aren't actually enforced are the equivalent of Charmin.

Anonymous said...

One more Jones reference: Riding that Train, High on Cocaine, Casey Jones you'd better watch your speed. A billion dollars for one train route. One can't help but wonder how much pork is paid out to consultants, designers, contractors and overpaid under-worked three to a shovel union workers for that ticket price. I wonder if the train lovers would compromise and allow true competitive bidding instead of prevailing pork ridden bidding that goes on now. I'd be willing to bet that the thing could be built for half the price! The sad thing is that wouldn't be cost effective either.