Great Train Robbery: Minnesota Rail Line Rolls Over Taxpayers

Published December 15, 2009

Now that all of the hoopla, celebration, and hype over the opening of Minnesota’s Northstar Commuter Rail line have subsided, it’s time to examine the facts.

Yes, the facts about the total cost to construct the line to date and the project’s real operating subsidies. That’s right, the information that in all the backslapping and publicity the media didn’t bother to report.

After all, let’s remember who paid 100 percent of the construction costs of this wonderful choo-choo train: The taxpayers. There was no private-public partnership, no charitable contributions, just the good old taxpayer on the hook for the whole thing.

It all started a dozen years ago when poor Anoka County was being left out of the transit-transportation funding equation. So when looking around for funding options, they came up with the bright idea of a commuter rail line that could receive 50 percent matching funds from the federal government—you know, that free money that comes from Washington, DC.

At the outset it sounded like a fairly modest project, one that would cost only $165 million and run from Minneapolis 80 miles northwest to St. Cloud.

Costs Climbed
The train would run on existing tracks and use readily available cars and engines so the costs would be modest compared with the Hiawatha light rail line, which cost over $65 million per mile to construct. But as time passed and more engineering work was done, the cost started to escalate. By 1999, the 80 miles to St. Cloud was projected to cost $223 million.

Then the big shock in 2002: The Federal Transit Administration said the project didn’t meet their Cost-Effectiveness Standards. That’s when the project got cut in half, running only 40 miles from Minneapolis to Big Lake.

And Kept Climbing
Logic would tell you half the distance, half the cost. WRONG! Project costs continued to soar until, upon completion, the total reached a whopping $317 million.

That’s right, the original estimate was that the line could be put into operation for $2 million a mile, but the final cost actually came in close to $8 million per mile, more than four times the original cost figures.

And unlike in the private sector, when public projects run over budget no one seems to care if taxpayer dollars get wasted.

In the private sector, someone would lose his or her job over such a monumental blunder. Yet in the public arena, the chief proponent is not fired, nor even criticized, but rather congratulated on his success at bilking the taxpayers out of hundreds of millions for this Tooterville Trolley.

And unlike many other government boondoggles that cost the taxpayers millions, the theft of public funds isn’t over. On the contrary, in this case the drain on the taxpayers’ wallet is just starting.

Like the skyrocketing construction costs, Northstar’s operating costs have been climbing as well. As late as 2006 the estimated operating costs were slated to be $9.4 million per year. Upon inauguration of the line, the operating costs for the first year are slated to be $16.8 million, almost double that of the earlier estimate.

Huge Subsidies
But if this doesn’t upset the average taxpayer, consider that passenger fees will cover less than 20 percent or $3.2 million of the operating costs.

To put it into perspective, the $7 one-way fare from Big Lake to Minneapolis would be $35 if passenger fees covered the full operating costs. Of course, at that price tag, no one would ride the Northstar. The way things are, taxpayers are covering 80 percent of the cost for someone living in Big Lake to ride the Northstar back and forth to work in downtown Minneapolis.

This operating subsidy of 80 percent for the Northstar line compares to a 65 percent taxpayer subsidy for the metro bus service.

Before the Metropolitan Council proceeds with its plan to spend another $2 billion of taxpayers’ dollars to build more rail lines and hundreds of millions in operating subsidies, it should examine their true costs. The Metropolitan Council must be honest about the real construction and operating costs of these rail lines.

It’s time to stop robbing the taxpayer to pay for more trains.

Phil Krinkie is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. This column first appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report. Used with permission.