What Is the Purpose of Light Rail?

Is it about moving people or developing communities? The answer can affect how residents feel about the proposed projects.

It’s not exactly hard to tell how someone feels about the Southwest Light Rail Transit project.

“I would rather use those dollars for improving the highway system we already have in place,” Shakopee Rep. Michael Beard told the Minnesota Daily in January.

“It’s not about getting from A to B. It’s about what happens at A and what happens at B and how do you transform the area,” Will Fleissig—the president and managing director of TransAct, a San Francisco-based urban development firm—told a group of Southwest corridor officials Wednesday.

While those two statements are about the same project, they reflect very different expectations about what the project is supposed to be about.

Light rail remains a contentious issue—with advocates and critics making their cases on whether projects like the Southwest and Bottineau transitways should or shouldn’t happen. Yet the two sides don’t just have different opinions about the value of transit; they have different opinions about transit’s purpose.


Moving people

Transit opponents have so far focused most of their criticism on the cost of transporting people—and they’re not off base from this perspective.

A June Metropolitan Council and Counties Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) report assumed that a generic light rail project would have:

  • The highest capital cost per mile—$91 million or nearly three times the $34 million for exclusive bus rapid transit (BRT) routes, the next most-costly option.
  • The highest operating cost per mile—$2.15 million or more than twice the $1 million for bus rapid transit.

So light rail opponents are correct when they argue that taxpayers could spend less money by choosing alternatives such as BRT or roads.

What’s less clear is what those taxpayers would be getting out of spending less. Analysis in the Southwest Light Rail project’s draft environmental impact statement does make a ridership case for light rail.

The document estimates that light rail would provide 2,976 transit spaces per hour at peak times compared to 640 for BRT in the same corridor—a nearly five-fold difference. Under the same models, daily ridership would be more than twice as big with LRT, while LRT would add as much as 7,500 new riders compared to BRT’s maximum of 2,300.


Developing Communities

Ridership and capacity hasn’t necessarily been at the center of the public conversation, though—at least not directly. Supporters certainly point out that businesses need a way for workers to get to their jobs. But they typically make the argument in the context of making the Twin Cities region competitive with other metro areas and attracting a Millennial generation that increasingly prefers a car-free lifestyle.

“A thriving region is the product we’re making,” read one slide in the CTIB and Met Council report. “Transit is an essential component. If we leave it out, or put in too little, we’ll get a different, less competitive product.”

Transportation, under this perspective, becomes less about moving people around and more about the follow-on effects good transportation might bring. It’s a means to the end, not the end itself.

The same can be said for the planning arguments raised in support of light rail. “Transit-oriented development,” the buzzword surrounding all these initiatives, is about both reinforcing transit stations and using momentum from those stations to transform the areas around them. In Hopkins, for example, officials hope to entice light rail riders into the downtown from the Eighth Avenue station across Excelsior Boulevard.

A report by the Itasca Project—a group of more than 50 people that is made up mainly of private sector CEOs, with a small number of public and nonprofit leaders—estimated that concentrating growth near the stations would result in about $3 billion more in direct benefits over evenly disbursed growth.

These different perspectives raise important policy questions: Should transit follow development? Should it anticipate development? Or should it drive development?

Those questions don’t have easy answers. At Wednesday’s meeting, one speaker showed a slide with the different Southwest LRT stakeholders and their various, sometimes-competing goals—ranging from providing the lowest-cost transportation to ensuring low-income families have a place to live.

Resolving debates on projects as complicated—and costly—as light rail is never easy. But it’s even more difficult when the parties involved can’t agree on what exactly the project is supposed to do.

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Ben December 07, 2012 at 01:56 PM
Go LRT!!
Brandi Childress - VTA Spokeslady December 07, 2012 at 09:52 PM
Great article and important policy questions that need addressing! We face this very quandary in Santa Clara County, Calif (better known as the Silicon Valley) as the transit provider AND congestion management agency for the county. The Valley Transportation Authority's light rail system serves as the backbone of our overall transit service. Land use and development around the 25-year old infrastructure has changed over time but it was built with the anticipation of development. Improved and expanded transit services are becoming more of a driver of development and attraction for new growth in jobs and population - a critical factor in the “thriving region” equation.
Graham Hallman December 12, 2012 at 04:46 PM
The author loses me with typical "either - or" journalism. Cultural-political debates in this country are too often framed in linear & absolute terms, and the Internet has given rise to commentary or non-fact based research, devoid of long-term facts. Case and point, from the article: "These different perspectives raise important policy questions: Should transit follow development? Should it anticipate development? Or should it drive development?" How about transit should do all of the above. If Minnesota provincialism doesn't wake up, the Twin Cities may not be the destination city it claims to be in the future. Look at Denver, please? They've jumped us on public transit, Dallas-Ft.Worth as well. This debate gets so old, and the author fails to highlight the expense of building highways for commuters who tragically & predominantly drive ONE TO A CAR throughout the metro. Are you kidding me here? There are photos that compare the spatial difference between 20+ drivers on a highway vs a light rail car with the same amount of people. The difference is utterly obvious. Land use policy! Sustainability! Long-term growth! Please . . . . . . .


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