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Regional LRT rider subsidies lower than buses

Janice Bitters//August 1, 2016

Regional LRT rider subsidies lower than buses

Janice Bitters//August 1, 2016

When it comes to operating subsidies, light rail lines in the Twin Cities region have the lowest cost per passenger of all transit modes, according to newly released numbers from Metropolitan Council.

The report, however, doesn’t account for the costs of building light rail.

In a list of 13 peer regions with similar transit options and populations, the Twin Cities area ranks roughly in the middle of the pack for average subsidy per passenger across all mode types, according to 2014 data, the most recent year available. The average subsidy was $3.61 per ride.

The most recent regional data separating suburban and urban bus lines is from 2013. Three years ago, suburban buses needed an average subsidy of $4.81 per ride and urban buses needed $2.72.

But light rail subsidies per passenger fall well below the regional and national peer average.

At the end of 2014, when the Green Line LRT between the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul had been operating for six months, the light rail subsidy per passenger was $2.05 per rider, compared with $2.49 in peer cities.

The Twin Cities light rail subsidy numbers in 2014 were higher than they’d been historically because of the Green Line’s opening, Cole Hiniker, planning analyst for the Metropolitan Council, told the Met Council Transportation Committee earlier this month.

The Green Line has “taken a little bit of time to mature, but we’re certainly seeing those returns on investments in 2015, and now 2016,” he said.

Light rail subsidies are expected to drop as the Green Line’s ridership numbers continue to surpass early expectations, spreading operating costs out over more passengers. In 2015, the line supported more than 12 million rides, according to Metro Transit data.

The planning agency estimates that average Twin Cities light rail operating subsidies per passenger will drop to $1.67 when the 2015 numbers are compiled, bringing it back in line with earlier years.

But that number doesn’t account for the capital costs to build the two lines. The Blue Line between downtown Minneapolis and the Mall of America in Bloomington, which opened in 2004, cost $715 million, and the Green Line came with a nearly $1 billion price tag 10 years later.

Those capital costs would raise the passenger subsidy amounts significantly if taken into account, said David Levinson, professor of civil environmental and geo-engineering at the University of Minnesota. He argues capital costs should count.

“A private firm would not just say, ‘Oh, this is excluding capital costs,’” said Levinson, who also works in the University’s Center for Transportation Studies. “It’s not fair to report one number without the other.”

State leaders have echoed Levinson’s concerns over the past year as Met Council planners work to secure the final $135 million in local funds for the planned Southwest LRT line between Eden Prairie and Minneapolis. Though the regional planning body is looking to the state for that money, some legislators have said the $1.8 billion price tag is too high.

The recently released numbers also reveal that subsidies for the Blue Line LRT are rising while Green Line subsidies are pulling the light rail average down because of its high ridership.

The growing Blue Line subsidies are due in part to inflation and the fact that Metro Transit hasn’t increased fares in about eight years, Hiniker said.

But Metro Transit is looking into the cost of fares to generate more operating funds, said Brian Lamb, Metro Transit’s general manager. The agency hasn’t made any decisions about an increase and may not make any changes this year.

Metro Transit’s fare box recovery ratio, or the amount of operations covered by fares, was 23.7 percent in 2015. This year, the agency is on track to surpass 25 percent fare box recovery. But eight years ago, the recovery ratio was as high as 34 percent, Lamb told the committee earlier this month.

“That whole question of fares and how that figures into the overall cost is part of the council’s work plan,” he said.

Subsidies for other transit modes in 2013 range from $3.30 per rider on express buses to $23.88 for Metro Mobility, a service that helps the agency meet its Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

North Star, the region’s only commuter rail service, had a subsidy of more than $14 per ride that year. The Red Line, which at the time was the region’s only bus rapid transit route, showed a per passenger subsidy of nearly $11. The Red Line runs between Apple Valley and the Mall of America in Bloomington.

But rapid bus lines shouldn’t be discounted because of the Red Line’s high subsidy, Levinson says.

New arterial BRT lines that are cheaper to build than light rail and follow already well-used routes will bring that subsidy average down, Levinson said. The new $27 million A Line from Rosedale Center in Roseville to the 46th Street Station in Minneapolis and the planned C Line between downtown Minneapolis and Brooklyn Center will help lower those numbers in the coming years, he said.

“It’s a shame that [arterial BRT] hasn’t been given a higher priority,” Levinson said. “It’s relatively inexpensive compared to the light rail and on a cost per rider basis.”

Subsidy by Service Type, 2013 (per passenger)

Regional Average $3.41
Light rail (Blue Line only) $1.80
Urban local buses $2.72
Express buses $3.30
Vanpool $3.55
Suburban Local buses $4.81
Bus Rapid Transit (Red Line only) $10.83
Commuter Rail (North Star only) $14.15
Dial-a-ride $18.52
ADA services $23.88

Source: Met Council

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