I 've just completed a typical commuter trip, getting an equivalent of 48 miles per $3 gallon of gasoline and producing almost no pollution in the process. Was I in an electric car? A fuel cell vehicle? A hybrid? No, I was riding on the Hiawatha Light Rail system, a commuter train in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Before World War II, it was common to take the train from the suburbs to work and back, while streetcar lines and subways carried people across town. However, the post-war growth of the airline industry for inter-city travel, the boom in automobile ownership and the cheaper economics of city buses reduced rail travel. The Interstate Highway system all but killed long-distance passenger rail services. Looking for a way to reduce congestion (and commuting costs for lower income groups), light rail projects started up in major metropolitan areas in the 1990s, as federal money became available to build the systems. Light rail differs from traditional railroads in that the cars are smaller, usually motorized, and the system typically follows a closed loop dedicated solely to light rail use. It has become popular with a wide range of disparate groups including politicians and tree huggers.
The route follows Hiawatha Avenue, going from the Mall of America, to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and then through 11 neighborhoods to the northernmost station in the warehouse district-in the heart of Minneapolis. Construction began in 2001 and 17 stations were built on the 12-mile route. The cost was $715 million and the system was opened in 2004.
The HLR's rail cars are 94 feet long and can carry 66 seated and 120 standing passengers. Cars usually run in pairs. Up to eight trains operate on the line at any one time. Electric cables suspended 16 feet above the track provide the power. Maximum speed is 55 mph, but in-service top speed is limited to about 40. Tickets are purchased at stations and cost $1.50 (50 cents for seniors and students) and $2 during rush hours for a two-and-half-hour period. There is no ticket taker, but random checks are made. Those caught without a ticket are charged with a misdemeanor and fined $180.
I caught a train at 9:10 on a Tuesday morning at the Mall of America. For the first few stops, I was the only person in my car. The trains are quiet and have large windows. The tracks have welded joints, so the ride is exceptionally smooth. I arrived in downtown Minneapolis at 9:51 and immediately hopped a train back in the other direction. My fellow riders included two people who used the free racks to bring their bicycles. The ride back took about the same amount of time. Trains arrive every 8 to 10 minutes and run from 4 am until 2 am, so the schedule doesn't give any excuses for not using this facility.
The average commute is 12 miles. In a car that gets 20 mpg, the round trip will use 1.2 gallons of gasoline, (or cost $3.60, if gasoline is three bucks a gallon). Current estimates for car ownership (including wear and tear, maintenance and insurance) put the cost per mile at 48 cents. So a 24-mile commute costs $11.52, plus $3.60 for gas-or a total of slightly more than $15 a day.
Compare that to the HLR. During rush hour, it's $2 a ride, or $4.00 for the day. There's no parking, wear and maintenance to worry about.
The HLR carries approximately 19,300 passengers a day. It works well-if you live along the HLR and need to get somewhere also served by the system. Though the HLR does coordinate with the city bus schedule.
And there are hidden costs the taxpayer must bear. The HLR costs $19.85 million a year to operate. Despite usage rates being 65 percent higher than expected, the system only brings in $7.2 million from fares. The balance is made up by tax revenue. Proponents of the system point to higher property values in the neighborhoods through which the line travels, lower traffic congestion and reduced pollution. But electricity has to be generated somewhere and vehicle traffic must wait at light rail crossing gates, making some areas more congested. In any case, light rail fever has caught on enough so that a line between Minneapolis and St. Paul is planned for 2013.
If I had to commute to downtown, would I ride a light rail line? The financial incentives are significant and not having to fight traffic would be a real plus. But only if I happened to live near a station. As it happens, I don't, so using light rail wouldn't be an option.
That's the real limitation-one that won't be solved without a network of light rail systems. But with operating costs so high, what city could afford such an extensive system?