DOT touts Minn. light rail expansion as transport funding deadline looms

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The Department of Transportation (DOT) is touting the recent federally supported expansion of Minneapolis’s light rail system as Obama administration officials are pushing for a new transportation funding bill. 

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said the agency would be able to contribute to more projects like the Minneapolis Metro Transit Green Line light railway that opened over the weekend if Congress would approve a new transportation bill. 

“This is the kind of strategic investment in public transit that brings enduring jobs and improves quality of life for generations to come,” Rogoff wrote about the Minneapolis light rail expansion in a blog post on the Department of Transportation's (DOT) website.

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“But to keep making those kinds of investments — in Minnesota and across the country — the Federal government must provide long-term, predictable funding that’s sufficient to meet the needs of a quickly growing nation,” Rogoff continued. “That’s why [Transportation] Secretary [Anthony] Foxx sent Congress the GROW AMERICA Act.” 

The current federal transportation funding bill is scheduled to expire on Sept. 30. The DOT's Highway Trust Fund has been projected to run out of money as early as August without quick congressional action, however. 

Lawmakers are struggling to find a way to close a shortfall in transportation funding that is estimated to be as high as $16 billion per year.

The traditional source for transportation funding is revenue that is collected by the federal gas tax, which is currently 18.4 cents per gallon. The tax only brings is about $34 billion per year, however, and the current level of transportation spending that infrastructure advocates want is about $50 billion annually. 

The Obama administration has been pushing lawmakers to approve a four-year, $302 billion transportation bill that has been dubbed the Grow America Act before the projected bankruptcy in infrastructure funding occurs. 

The federal contribution to the Minneapolis’ Metro Transit Green Line was paid for with money from the Federal Transit Administration's "New Starts" construction program. The light railway, which is the city’s second, opened for passenger service on Saturday.

The Minneapolis Metro Transit Green Line is an 11-mile route that runs between downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn. 

Rogoff said this week that the Obama administration was “proud” to have provided about half the Minneapolis Green Line’s $957 million construction costs.  

“The Obama Administration is proud to have provided nearly $480 million that has created thousands of good jobs for construction workers in Minnesota building this long-awaited link,” he wrote. “And not only does the new line connect people to opportunities — like jobs and education — it will also save them time spent in traffic and money spent at the gas pump.” 

Rogoff added that the opening of the Minneapolis Green Line marked the completion of “the single largest public works project in the history of Minnesota.” 

He also said that the opening of the new light railway was a testament to the cooperation between federal and local officials on large transportation projects. 

“A project like the METRO Green Line doesn't happen without cooperation and coordination, and this one was made possible by an extraordinary partnership among state, county, city, and federal governments as well as local organizations and community members,” Rogoff wrote. 

Critics have questioned whether the light railway will generate enough ridership to justify its construction costs. Minneapolis officials said the Green Line carried approximately 75,000 passengers in its first two days of operation, although rides were offered for free to encourage Minneapolis and St. Paul residents to try out the new railway. 

The Obama administration has encouraged the construction of light railways and streetcars because they are typically less expensive to construct than "heavy rail" subway systems like the Washington Metrorail system.  

President Obama called the Green Line trains “spiffy” during a trip to Minneapolis in February to push Congress to approve his proposed transportation funding bill. 

“More Americans should have access to the kind of efficient, affordable transit you’re going to have with the Green Line,” Obama said in his February speech. “There’s no faster way or better way for Congress to create jobs right now and to grow our economy right now, and have a positive impact on our economy for decades than if we start more projects and finish more projects like this one.”

However, conservative groups such as the Cato Institute have criticized light railways as being “wasteful and inefficient." 

“Rail advocates don’t like to admit it, but buses can carry more people, more comfortably, and to more places, for far less money, than light rail,” Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole said in an op-ed on the Daily Caller website.

“Three-car light-rail trains that run in streets can hold up to 450 people, more than any bus,” O’Toole continued. “But most light-rail lines can only run about 20 trains per hour, whereas a single bus stop can serve 42 buses per hour. By staggering bus stops, a single street can serve more than 160 buses per hour.”