Flawed high-speed rail plan not key in Duluth transit centerDuluth’s legislative delegation has made a $6 million request for the proposed downtown multimodal transit center a high priority in the current session.
Duluth’s legislative delegation has made a $6 million request for the proposed downtown multimodal transit center a high priority in the current session.
Since the Northern Lights Express (NLX) high-speed train was to be one user of that center, I worried this could be more money down the transportation toilet — which is the proper description for all the millions of federal, state, county and city dollars spent so far on that train to nowhere.
Thus I was glad that Dennis Jensen, general manager of the Duluth Transit Authority, which is pushing the transit center, said the passenger train isn’t a key element of it.
The transit hub would help coordinate pedestrian-, bus-, auto- and other transportation in a single site; I don’t know if the $26 million cost is the best use of tax dollars (partly because it is still a work in progress with elements not complete as of this writing), but the project was put together by planners, public officials and others who generally know what they’re doing, and they seemed to go about it in a logical way.
The transit center is certainly a better use of bonding dollars than the delegation’s $7 million request for an American Indian Learning Resource Center at UMD.
But both those projects look great compared to the Northern Lights Express, a project that just doesn’t make sense. I don’t expect true believers in the project — such as St. Louis County Commissioner Steve Raukar and Depot Czar Ken Buehler – to change, but I hope other backers will before more money is wasted.
Republicans in the current Congress are in no mood to appropriate billions for high-speed rail, and without the federal bucks NLX can’t happen. Even a return to Democrat control is unlikely to change that.
As I’ve said several times in disparaging this waste of public dollars, I’m a fan of rail travel — having used it often, mostly during the years I lived in and near New York City but as recently as 2010.
High-speed rail does well in population-dense areas of Europe and Asia. The only current high-speed rail system in the United States, Amtrak’s Acela train between Boston and Washington, D.C., also makes sense, though it is not really high-speed rail since its trains, capable of traveling at 150 miles an hour, average only about half that because of track limitations.
No more evidence of NLX flaws is needed, but I found some in a book I just finished reading, “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman. He’s a psychology professor but shared a Nobel Prize in economics in 2002 for studies on why people make the financial decisions they do.
Kahneman says transportation projects have consistently overestimated ridership on planned rail lines and underestimated construction costs.
He cites a 2005 study by the American Planning Association that examined rail projects across America from 1969 to 1998. During those 30 years, 90 percent of such projects overestimated by 106 percent how many passengers would use a system. And actual costs averaged 45 percent above projected ones.
Kahneman notes that, even though rail planners were aware of these flaws, estimates didn’t improve over that period.
A look back at the Northern Lights Express train (it didn’t have that name in its early days) shows the same trend. A January 2008 article in the Star Tribune of Minneapolis says rail backers’ cost estimates, of $350 million a short time earlier, had been increased to $360 million to $400 million. By late 2009, backers were estimating $615 million and state officials nearly $1 billion.
Who knows what the train would really cost? I looked for a current cost estimate on the NLX website and found none, despite following all likely links. I’d be ashamed, too.
I’ve talked to several people involved in transportation in recent years (though not part of the NLX project) and many disparage the project but won’t say so publicly because they must continue to work with public officials who still back NLX.
I hope those public officials will stop listening to the project’s true believers and instead listen to the numbers that say this train won’t make sense for a long time.
Budgeteer opinion columnist Virgil Swing has been writing about Duluth for many years. Contact him at email@example.com.