Minneapolis transit disaster

(Shari Gross/Star Tribune via AP)

I cut my teeth in the lobbying world fighting the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Council’s light rail plans back in the 1990s.

At the time I was working for and then running a conservative nonprofit called the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. Metro Transit had been lusting for a light rail line and getting nowhere until Jesse Ventura was elected governor. He loved the idea because as a wrestler he rode the light rail in Atlanta to go bar hopping.


You could get drunk at a bunch of bars and take the train. Sounded good to him.

The Metropolitan Council had another reason: they wanted people out of cars even when they weren’t drunk. They were going after “choice riders”–people who could take cars but might take a train instead. It’s a stupid idea, but they had a plan: quit building roads and put the money into trains. If you make driving painful enough, maybe people will choose an alternative.

Trains have a mystique, they argued, even if they are far less practical than buses. Trains are hideously expensive to build (as much as 100x per mile compared to roads), but are easy to manage. No route changes, fewer drivers, and the money comes primarily from the feds. What’s not to like?

Well, this:

The trains have never been used much, but 20 years after being built the light rail is a cesspool. Literally: homeless people regularly pee and take dumps on the trains.


But it isn’t only the excrement. It’s crime and drug use. Overdoses are a near-daily occurrence, and almost everybody on the trains is a homeless person doing drugs. In Minnesota’s winter, where else are you going to keep warm?

The Star Tribune, my hometown newspaper was the biggest booster in the state for light rail after Governor Ventura. Of course, they were–they sold a bunch of land for development right along the line, including a station.

Now even they admit that things have gone awry.

None of this needed to happen. Everybody involved knew that the promises of light rail would never be matched by reality. But there was sweet federal money to grab, subsidies for development (much of which never appeared), and a shiny new train complete with a ribbon cutting.

What there are not is “choice riders.” Because like most transit, it is unpleasant to ride.

Here in the Twin Cities, some suburbs have their own transit services for commuters, and they did something smart: actually make buses nicer, with charging stations, wifi, comfortable seating, and rational schedules for commuters. They identified a market and serve it, rather than try to force it down everybody’s throats.


What a radical idea. They stayed out of the social engineering BS and their citizens liked it.

Surprisingly, I haven’t read about any drug overdoses on their buses either.

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