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Stop Light Rail? Not a Smart—or Winning—Idea

April 18, 2011 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

A spectacularly unsuccessful conservative candidate in St. Paul’s special election for the state Senate last week campaigned on “Top Priorities” that included “Stop Light Rail Transit on University Avenue.”

At this advanced stage of construction of high-quality transit linking the Minneapolis and St. Paul downtowns, I know of no one else seriously proposing such a radical, backward step. The voters of District 66 weren’t buying it, either, as Republican Greg Copeland garnered just 19.6 percent of the ballots.

Perhaps he failed to notice that Minnesotans also have been voting with their feet for transit, especially the Twin Cities’ only existing light rail line, the Hiawatha. It logged 10.5 million trips last year, a 6 percent increase over 2009 and its highest annual total yet. Metro Transit overall drew 78 million rides, up 2.3 percent for the year. Ridership so far this year has already reached 19.5 million rides, which is up 2 percent from 2010's first quarter.

Maybe Copeland also missed the year-long spike in gasoline prices that has pushed increasing numbers of Minnesotans out of their cars and onto transit, bicycles and shoe leather. He wanted to freeze property taxes, but insisted on standing in the way of transit, which has been shown to save an average Twin Cities commuter more than $10,000 a year over driving. That’s more than most folks’ total local, state and federal tax bills.

Copeland apparently wasn’t interested, either, in the $5.5 billion in private capital projected to be invested along the Central Corridor over 20 years, much if it in District 66. Developers told that study’s authors that this will begin with new rental housing after the trains start running in 2014. The expected investment dwarfs the $957 million public cost of building the transit line.

Nor was Copeland paying much attention to 2010 Census figures that showed Twin Cities metropolitan area growth in the past decade limited mostly to the sprawling edge while inner cities and suburbs lost population and wealth. This worrisome trend leads to a hollowed-out “doughnut” region a la Rust Belt cities like Detroit. That would be bad for Minneapolis-St. Paul as a whole, but especially for central-city commercial strips such as University Avenue in District 66.

Our city and state leaders can ignore all these fact-based economic signals at their peril, and ours. Or they can support proactive strategies such as light rail that have been proven to revitalize declining urban neighborhoods across America and build stronger central cities in places such as Denver, Portland and Seattle.

Mr.19.6 Percent chose a faith-based reliance on rubber-tired travel alone, and significantly underperformed previous GOP showings at the polls in District 66. His fellow autocentrists in the Legislature, who would cut state general fund support for transit by 77 percent (House bill) or 23 percent (Senate), should take warning from that.

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  • Everett Flynn says:

    April 18, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    The way I see it, politicians like Greg Copeland are beyond being convinced by such things as evidence and facts.  They aren’t really even moved by the views of their constituents.  Progressives have to realize that there is no common ground with these new, self-righteous conservatives.  They seem to be on a crusade and they all worship at the holy alter of tax cuts.  Nothing is more important to them than holding the line on taxes.  That is their sole priority and no matter how compelling a case progressives make for investment in public institutions and infrastructure, these tax-cuts zealots will never be persuaded, will never see an instance worthy of an exception to their smaller, less-expensive government, no matter how compelling the upside for investment.  They are blind, ideological lemmings, ready and willing to walk right off the cliffs of perpetual tax cuts. 

    We must realize that we have to push the conversation in the media, with our friends and neighbors, for prioritizing our public investments and change the empty rationale that seems to be persuading so many voters.  Tax cuts are NOT a panacea.  We must be more shrewd and forward thinking with our policy proposals.  Some investments, though costly, ARE worth making and are MORE IMPORTANT than cutting taxes!  We must turn the tide of tax-cut mania.  Perhaps the resounding defeat of Mr. Copeland demonstrates that this can be done.