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Column: The tale of two transportation projects

ST. PAUL -- Each year the Minnesota Department of Transportation spends hundreds of millions of dollars to expand and maintain the state's highway system. Just two weeks ago MnDOT completed the single most expensive road project in state history, when work was completed on the Crosstown Commons project.

The Crosstown project was the reconstruction of the Interstate 35W and Highway 62 interchange. Completion of the project signals relief for hundreds of thousands of commuters who travel through this interchange on a daily basis. The other transportation project is the Northstar Commuter Rail line which began operation one year ago.

There are several reasons to compare these two transportation projects; 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. 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. The project is 14 lanes across at its widest point, has 26 bridges, ample shoulders, a new commuter lane and a new transit station for bus rapid transit. It is anticipated to shave 15 to 20 minutes off the time it takes commuters to move in and out of downtown Minneapolis for more than 200,000 vehicles per day through this exchange.

In recent weeks following the completion of the construction, the project has drawn rave reviews from the users and the general public. A massive reconstruction project finished on time and on budget, while traffic kept flowing during this 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). 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 with the terminus in Big Lake, just 40 miles Northwest of Minneapolis. Secondly, the total cost of the project would double to more than $320 million. That's 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. In the first year operating costs were estimated to be almost $17 million 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 this is where the similarities end.

The Crosstown project provides reduced travel times for over 200,000 commuters a day, the Northstar line serves less than 1,500 commuters per day. The annual maintenance cost for the new Crosstown section of the highway is minimal, the annual operating cost of Northstar is almost $17 million. The annual taxpayer cost for the Crosstown is pennies per passenger mile while the subsidy per passenger trip on Northstar is $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 policy makers take a 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 state representative from Lino Lakes, is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.