NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 8, 2010

The construction of Minnesota's Northstar Commuter Rail started a dozen years ago.  At the outset it sounded like a fairly modest project, one that would cost only $165 million and run from Minneapolis 80 miles northwest to St. Cloud.  However, it turned out not to be so modest, says Phil Krinkie, president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota. 

The train would run on existing tracks and use readily available cars and engines so the costs would be modest.  But as time passed and more engineering work was done, the cost started to escalate, says Krinkie: 

  • By 1999, the 80 miles to St. Cloud were projected to cost $223 million.
  • In 2002 the project got cut in half, running only 40 miles from Minneapolis to Big Lake.
  • Even though distance got cut into half, project costs continued to soar until, upon completion, the total reached a whopping $317 million. 

The original estimate was that the line could be put into operation for $2 million a mile, but the final cost actually came in close to $8 million per mile, more than four times the original cost.  Still the costs to taxpayers continue to rise, says Krinkie: 

  • Upon inauguration of the line, the operating costs for the first year are slated to be $16.8 million, almost double that of the earlier estimate.
  • Passenger fees will cover less than 20 percent or $3.2 million of the operating costs.
  • The $7 one-way fare from Big Lake to Minneapolis would be $35 if passenger fees covered the full operating costs; of course, at that price tag, no one would ride the Northstar.  

The way things are, taxpayers are covering 80 percent of the cost for someone living in Big Lake to ride the Northstar back and forth to work in downtown Minneapolis.  In the private sector, someone would lose his or her job over such a monumental blunder.  Yet in the public arena, the chief proponent is not fired, nor even criticized, but rather congratulated on his success at bilking the taxpayers out of hundreds of millions for this Tooterville Trolley, says Krinkie. 

Source: Phil Krinkie, "Great Train Robbery: Minnesota Rail Line Rolls Over Taxpayers," Heartland Institute, January 15th, 2010.


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