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Published on Thursday, March 23, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
So You Think Transit Is Expensive,
And Roads Aren't?
by Deb Alper

In this era of record surpluses and rebates, right-to-drive legislators would have you believe that we are overspending on transit (i.e., the new Hiawatha light-rail line) and underspending on roads.

Not true! Roads are hugely expensive, a fact often ignored by road proponents. Here are a few examples:

  •   Interstate Hwy. 394 between Minneapolis and Wayzata: $500 million (adjusted for year 2000 dollars) for about 10 miles of highway considered congested at peak travel times within months of completion.

  •   New Hwy. 212 in the southwest metro, including "bottleneck" relief and I-494 "improvements" to handle the additional traffic entering at Hwy. 5: $1.311 billion. (Note that corridors for light rail and commuter rail already exist parallel to the proposed highway and are therefore obvious -- and less expensive -- alternatives to a highway.

  •   A Michigan example, reconstruction of 11 miles of I-94 in Detroit, including four miles of interchanges: $1.3 billion. Highways are a short-term investment requiring major reconstruction about every 25 years. (As much as 20 percent, or about $260 million, would be spent just to manage traffic during construction.)

  •   Frequent budget overruns: The reconstruction of Hwy. 100 is coming in 50 percent over budget; the new Wakota Bridge for I-494 over the Mississippi has jumped from $120 million to $148 million, an increase of 23 percent; the new version of the Stillwater Bridge has increased 51 percent over budget.

    Compare LRT in the Hiawatha corridor: 11 miles for roughly $50 million per mile in long-term investment (includes planning, construction, stations and the trains.) Infrastructure lasts 60 to 75 years vs. a highway's 25. Extensions of existing LRT lines around the country have been coming in as low as $14 million per mile. LRT is extremely cost-effective: when traffic volumes go up, you add a car to your train or increase service; there is no need to add multimillion-dollar highway lanes, displacing taxpaying businesses and homes. Calculations reveal that one LRT train (five cars passing every two minutes) could handle all the rush-hour traffic now arriving in downtown Minneapolis by freeway.

    Compare commuter rail: Built on existing rail beds, commuter rail costs about $700,000 per mile, considerably less than the $30 million to $70 million needed to construct a mile of freeway. Commuter rail is also a long-term investment: In the Philadelphia area the Paoli Local operates on track installed in the 1920s.

    Benefits add up

    Transit of course has many benefits that are harder to quantify, but that still have a definite impact on our economy and pocketbooks.

    Atlanta is seeing businesses turn away because of poor air quality, congestion and sprawl brought on by a vast highway system. In car-only areas, individual workers must own cars, an expense of $5,000 to $6,000 per year. And then there are the additional health care costs related to poor air quality and lack of exercise in an auto-oriented lifestyle.

    All in all, spending on transit is a fiscally responsible, long-term investment in our communities. Many lawmakers around the country are "getting it." Dare we hope that someday soon ours will also?

    Deb Alper, St. Paul. Sprawl committee chair, Sierra Club, North Star Chapter.

    Copyright 2000 Star Tribune


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