MN: Think Tank Calls for Pause on Light Rail

July 10--A conservative think tank is calling for placing a moratorium on future light-rail transit projects in the Twin Cities, spending more on roads and bridges and diverting more transit funding to passenger buses to spark economic growth in Minnesota.

In a "Minnesota Policy Blueprint" proposal to be released Thursday by the Center of the American Experiment, the authors assert that Minnesota needs to spend more money to upgrade its transportation systems and contend that it can be done without tax increases if state policymakers place a higher priority on moving goods and people.

"Minnesota can and must support and build a world-class transportation system that provides a foundation for economic prosperity and personal fulfillment for all Minnesotans," wrote attorney and former Republican state Sen. Fritz Knaak and Amy Roberts, an attorney and former legislative and state agency administrator.

The conservative think tank's proposals are unlikely to be received enthusiastically by Democratic-Farmer-Labor Gov. Mark Dayton and the DFL majorities in the Legislature. But more receptive Republicans could regain control of the Capitol in the future, starting this fall with the governor's and House elections.

The proposals' Thursday release comes a day after several key transportation votes that advanced planning on a $1.65 billion light-rail line from Minneapolis to Eden Prairie and a nearly $250 million streetcar line in St. Paul; and the building of a $25 million rapid bus line in St. Paul.

The state's roads are projected to grow more congested and offer poorer-quality rides, the authors of the proposal said, while at the same time its transit systems "focus limited resources on trains for narrow, fixed corridors -- the most expensive and least flexible way to connect people to jobs. Looking to the future, congestion, bumpy roads and empty trains can be avoided with the right policies and right priorities."

Light rail is very expensive and lacks proven results, they said. A moratorium on new light-rail transit projects would provide time to assess its impact.

In the meantime, Knaak and Roberts recommended spending more on "flexible and less costly options, such as bus rapid transit." They noted that the new Green Line between Minneapolis and St. Paul cost about $87 million per mile to build while the proposed bus rapid transit line along Interstate 35W south of Minneapolis is projected to cost $13 million per mile. Annual operating costs for light-rail transit are about 30 percent higher than for bus rapid transit.

As for roads and bridges, with the state predicting that over the next 20 years it will come up $5 billion short of what's needed to maintain the current system and $12 billion short of making economically competitive improvements, the authors argue new transportation funding is needed.

As a first step, they call for dedicating a quarter cent (0.25 percent) of the state's current 6.875 percent sales tax to road and bridge repair and expansion.

"This is not a recommendation to increase taxes," they emphasize. That may require spending cuts elsewhere, but they didn't suggest where.

They also called for setting aside a larger portion of the state's public works bonding bills for local roads and bridges.

Bonding bills shouldn't be larger, they said, but transportation should be a higher priority than other projects.

In addition, they propose allowing the quarter-cent metro sales tax now dedicated to bus and rail transit improvements to be used to fund road projects, which could ease traffic congestion.

Finally, they called for setting a goal of reducing metro traffic congestion by 20 percent in 10 years and requiring the Minnesota Department of Transportation to create a plan to meet that goal.

The transportation proposal is the first in a series of policy papers the center plans to publish this summer and fall to promote job growth in Minnesota.


Copyright 2014 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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