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Tough Times for Minnesota Transit Bashers

June 06, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
These are tough times for transit bashers. Public transportation's share of the American mobility pie keeps increasing while driving wanes. Conservative Minnesota leaders such as Gov. Tim Pawlenty and St. Cloud Mayor Dave Kleis (a driving instructor by trade) are promoting rail transit expansions.

Have these right-of-center stalwarts been brainwashed by bus and rail Stalinists? Hardly. While folks in Minnesota and the rest of the nation are voting with their feet and fares for the transit option, the numbers show that it's a bargain for the traveling public as a whole, drivers and riders alike.

For example, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports a better than five-to-one return on the $12.5 billion in U.S. public transit subsidies in 2002 -- $19.4 billion in congestion cost savings, $8 billion in roadway cost savings, $12.1 billion in parking savings, $22.6 billion in consumer cost savings and $5.6 billion in reduced vehicle crash damages. That's a total of $67.7 billion.

Also from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's official blog this week: "Each 1 percent of regional travel shifted from automobile to public transit increases regional income about $2.9 million, resulting in 226 additional regional jobs. Other economic benefits include increased productivity, employment, business activity, investment and redevelopment.

"Cities with well-established rail systems have less traffic congestion, lower traffic death rates, lower consumer expenditures on transportation, significantly higher per capita transit ridership, lower average per capita vehicle miles driven and higher fare box cost recovery than otherwise comparable cities with less or no rail transit service.

"Social benefits of transit include improved public health, greater flexibility in trip planning and accessibility for non-drivers. Rail travel consumes about a fifth of the energy per passenger-mile as automobile travel."

Some diehard Minnesota conservatives still maintain that transit's share of the travel market is so small compared with driving that it deserves no public support at all. This argument ignores the history of publicly subsidized streets helping to drive unsubsidized, for-profit streetcar systems out of business, as well as the clear relationship in our own time between the public provision of transit services and people's use of them.

In Western Europe, where transit and intercity rail systems are highly developed and gasoline taxes are as much as 10 times those in the United States, per capita gas consumption is 90 gallons per year. In the United States, it's 470 gallons a year. Not only do we have fewer transit alternatives, but government encourages driving by charging an estimated $1 less per gallon in gas taxes than motor vehicles' full external cost burdens on the environment, congestion, national security and public safety, according to many economic studies.

And then there's the nonsense argument that streets and highways provide a public good, mainly for emergency vehicle access, and therefore merit the billions of dollars Minnesotans pay in property taxes to build and maintain them. But emergency vehicles make up just a tiny percentage of overall traffic. If we designed the roads only for them, would we need six-lane arterials?

Besides, I'm puzzled how some deep thinkers can bestow the mantle of a "public good" on driving in the privacy of one's car while contending that bus and train riders, often cheek-by-jowl with dozens of strangers, enjoy merely a "private benefit."

Lately, at least, Pawlenty and Kleis haven't bought any of this rot. Both have voiced support for extending the Northstar commuter rail line on existing tracks to St. Cloud. That was the original plan, before obstruction in the Minnesota House led by Pawlenty a decade ago imposed delays that produced half the project at twice the cost to taxpayers.

So when Northstar service begins later this year, the trains will run only 40 miles from Minneapolis to Big Lake. St. Cloud area residents, at the end of one of the nation's fastest-growing urbanizing corridors, will need a 40-mile bus ride to reach the train. Meanwhile, 72 percent of them polled in 2007 supported local and state funding for the extension, 83 percent backed the project in principle and 50 percent said they would ride the train.

But extending the Northstar probably hinges on federal funding, and there's the rub. While Pawlenty, Kleis and most other Minnesota officials have signed on, Michele Bachmann, the area's representative in Congress, hasn't gotten aboard. Without her support, it's hard to see how the project receives any help from Washington.

Clearly, it's time for all Minnesota leaders to chuck the tenuous anti-transit ideology and tap into the proven economic, environmental and social benefits of a modern, efficient transit system.

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