I want to compare two recent transportation projects in Minnesota.
Each year the Minnesota Department of Transportation spends hundreds of millions of dollars on transportation projects, most of that on expanding and maintaining the state’s highway system. Just two weeks ago MnDOT completed the most expensive road project in state history – the Crosstown Commons project.
Finishing Crosstown Commons means MnDOT has reconstructed the Interstate 35W and Highway 62 interchange. This signals relief for hundreds of thousands of commuters who travel through this interchange on a daily basis.
The second project is the Northstar Commuter Rail line, which began running just a bit more than a year ago.
I had several reasons to pick these two transportation projects to compare: They had similar costs, similar construction times, both had public opposition and both were built at roughly the same time.
But the key reasons to examine these two projects is what their real impact is on mobility for Minnesota commuters.
First, let’s take a closer look at the Crosstown Commons project.
Construction began in May 2007 after over 30 years of nightmarish rush-hour traffic jams at 35W and 62. The intersection of these two major highways, which required motorists to cross over multiple lanes, was one of the worst-designed sections of highway in the country.
For years the project was held up by political bickering from all sides. The cost in 2006 was estimated to be $250 million; however, the final price tag came in at $288 million.
At its widest point, this project is 14 lanes across, has 26 bridges, ample shoulders, a new commuter lane and a new transit station for bus rapid transit. Officials have said it should shave 15 to 20 minutes off the time it takes to move in and out of downtown Minneapolis for the more than 200,000 vehicles that traverse this exchange each day.
In the last few weeks, after construction was done, the project has drawn rave reviews from the users and the general public. Here we have a massive reconstruction project that was finished on time and on budget, even as traffic kept flowing during the entire construction period.
Now, let’s contrast the Crosstown project with the planning and construction of the Northstar commuter rail line.
Twelve years ago the idea was hatched about a commuter rail line between Minneapolis and St. Cloud running on existing tracks owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad. The original proposed cost for the 80-mile line to St. Cloud was $165 million.
But two things would happen before the commuter rail line opened in November 2009: First, the length of the line would be reduced by half so that it ended in Big Lake, just 40 miles northwest of Minneapolis. Second, the total cost of the project would double to more than $320 million.
You read that right – the final cost per mile was more than four times the original estimate.
Yet the most startling figure about the Northstar line is not the cost to build it, but the cost to operate the train.
Officials estimated the operating costs would be almost $17 million in the first year, with taxpayers paying for more than $13.5 million of the cost.
Last week the Northstar line “celebrated” its first year of operation with ridership estimated to be 715,000 passengers for the year – almost 20 percent fewer than the original estimates. This drives up the average taxpayer subsidy per passenger to a whopping $19 per ride!
In the final analysis these two transportation projects cost the taxpayers a similar amount of money – $288 million for the Crosstown and $320 million for Northstar – but that’s where the similarities end.
The Crosstown project provides reduced travel times for more than 200,000 commuters a day, while the Northstar line serves fewer than 1,500 commuters per day. The annual maintenance cost for the new Crosstown section of the highway is minimal, while the annual operating cost of Northstar is almost $17 million.
The Crosstown costs taxpayers pennies per passenger mile, while the Northstar right now carries taxpayer-subsidized per-passenger trip costs of about $19.
In comparing these two projects, the conclusion is a simple one: The Crosstown reconstruction project is a huge success and the Northstar commuter rail line is a big failure.
If policymakers take a close look at these numbers, they can reach no other conclusion but to stop the construction of any additional commuter rail lines in Minnesota.
Phil Krinkie, a former eight-term Republican state rep from Lino Lakes who chaired the House Tax Committee for a while, is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty recently appointed Krinkie to the board of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system. You can contact him at: [email protected].