The Northstar of Broken Dreams

edited April 8 to distinguish revenue and subsidy

Among the reasons put forth by Northstar advocates for its un-success to date is the un-construction of several potential stations. Ramsey Town Center is a well-documented boondoggle. The lack of a Coon Rapids-Foley Boulevard station, at the intersection of Northstar and Hwy 610 is more plausible as a source for the un-success, as that site has at least some potential as an interceptor for park-and-ride trips to downtown Minneapolis.

Another issue Michael Setty raised is the lack of mid-day service. This is a serious problem for anyone with any schedule uncertainty (i.e. almost everyone). Again this goes back to the “commuting to the center” mindset that serve as blinders on planners. The difficulty in part is that BNSF rather than local governments own the lines, and are dealing from a position of weakness in trying to shimmy the Commuter RR service on someone else’s freight lines. I suggested before, it would be cheaper for the US to buy all the freight railroads, take what Right-of-Way it wants, and then sell the rest back than to negotiate piecemeal (even though I think this would be a bad idea).

I personally believe however in this case further investment is throwing good money after bad. While all of those things would no doubt increase ridership, Northstar is at best premature. Since it is a service rather than infrastructure (mostly), running it at a continuing loss is a major problem, and drains resources for many other things. The annual Northstar operating subsidy expense ($16.8 million) is more than the cuts to Transit proposed by the Minnesota Senate ($32 million over 2 years). According to the Metropolitan Council, revenue is $2.8 million, so the direct operating subsidy (excluding capital, and indirect subsidies like park and ride lots) is $14 million.

That is, if the Northstar were eliminated, almost no other services would have to suffer. Just a thought.

Ramsey Town Center

Foley Boulevard Station

It Just Makes You Feel Poor

Edited April 11, 2011, now with more litter


I took my family on the Hiawatha LRT for some cheap entertainment, my son really likes trains and, as far as I know, it is the cheapest train-ride in the Twin Cities except for the free airport people-mover, which is quite brief (And for under-sixes, at free, it is less expensive than any ride at Mall of America or Rosedale, or the train ride at the Transportation Museum). We drove to the nearest station (Franklin Avenue), and parked adjacent to the station (for free).


The litter-strewn, ticket-machine-jammed Franklin Avenue LRT station, as my wife said, “just makes you feel poor”. Located in a no-man’s land beside Cedar and Hiawatha, it is not a place one feels safe walking to, especially at night. I realize it is the end of winter, and the accumulated detritus of six months past is just par for the course, but is no one responsible for cleaning up the hill adjacent to the station, or the boulevard along the street? This is the same kind of big investment in capital but “not one penny for maintenance” philosophy that led the buses to decline, and the streetcars before them. At least there was a police car parked next to the station, hopefully deterring violence that is dragging some systems down.

The perception of transit as a failure is succinctly summarized in the the attributed (though not confirmed) Thatcher quote: “Any man who finds himself on a bus over the age of 26 can consider himself a failure in life.”

A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King
A Political Economy of Access: Infrastructure, Networks, Cities, and Institutions by David M. Levinson and David A. King

I had not actually ridden the train past the airport myself, since the airport (or downtown) is my usual end-destination if I am taking the LRT. Since the Number 8 Bus does not run on weekends, the LRT is normally functionally in-accessible for trips like the Mall of America. So I was treated to the LRT of Broken Dreams that is Bloomington. A station every 200 yards, and no business, just grass and asphalt and one park-and-ride ramp. The line has had nearly 7 years to attract development (more if you count construction, when it was obvious a line would be built) and no one has said “this is the place for me”. The activities along the line past the airport seem to all pre-date it. There is of course a nice plan, shown on the right, with lots of tree circles. Given all the hoopla and awards the plan had won, I had thought the developments (or at least some of them) there had actually been built. For now they are just imaginings.

The Bloomington stations, which serve fictional future suburbanites, do look much nicer than Franklin Avenue which serves real city-dwellers. Those are the priorities of our society.

Transatlantic Tunnel


I recently saw the film Transatlantic Tunnel (from 1935) (apparently also called The Tunnel) on Netflix. It was terrible in the sense that almost every movie from before 1936 was terrible since people didn’t really know how to make decent films (except It Happened One Night), but it is also interesting as a period piece.

All sorts of cool technologies are displayed, including Transatlantic Aviation (in single person aircraft), wireless video communication, as well as various plot devices (Allanite Steel, some new drilling technologies etc.). Apparently, after the war (some more prescience here), there is some alliance of the English Speaking Peoples, and Parliament and Congress are connected via Video technology.

The plot (and I am not giving anything away here) is that an engineer-entrepreneur who recently completed the Channel Tunnel (in the 1950s, only off by 40 years or so, this is science fiction), wants to build a tunnel from England to America. He must obtain financing.

His career takes all his time and destroys his marriage. There is an “unforeseen volcano” in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, requiring a detour, which costs money. The evil financiers want a greater stake in the tunnel in exchange for money (i.e. all of it). It is not terribly unreasonable in the financial side of things, engineers naive about the ways of finance, yet each side needing the other to build infrastructure.

But for the “Unforeseen Volcano”, it isn’t too unreasonable either as a bit of near future science fiction. Yet, surely if they had those other technologies, they should have been able to detect a Volcano. You know, perhaps they took a submarine to survey the route before digging?

The bigger question is: Why has not something seemingly so obvious (a Transatlantic Tunnel) yet to be built, or even seriously contemplated by serious people? I know, it would have very high fixed costs unless we can somehow reduce tunnelling costs, but this is where R&D might be quite valuable, since there are lots of potential tunnels which are unbuilt due to high initial construction costs. If we could get robots to due the difficult (laborious) bits, drilling might be much, much cheaper.

Street Maintenance Fees and Fairness

The Strib reports: St. Paul street maintenance fees under scrutiny

The city will collect $25 million in right-of-way (ROW) fees in 2011 to pay for such street maintenance as plowing, cleaning, salting, tree trimming and street lighting. Property owners are charged per foot of right-of-way frontage. The charge is assessed by property classifications, which factor in locations and type.
All St. Paul property owners whose land abuts a public right-of-way are assessed a street maintenance fee. Although in place for a century, former Mayor Randy Kelly pushed to increase the fees starting in 2003, partly to keep a campaign promise to hold down the property tax levy. The fees also are a means for the one-third of city property owners who are exempt from property taxes — such as government agencies, schools, churches and charitable organizations — to pay for maintaining the streets they use.
As a commercial property owner on a corner, Schumann pays per foot for both the Grand Avenue and the Oxford Street right-of-way frontage. In contrast, residential homeowners on corners pay just for the shorter of the two street frontages.

The problem is the unfairness of the basis for collecting the fees, and it seems this is a perfect case where a different basis for assessing fees would be useful. For instance, a Transportation Utility Fee, which was proportional to trips generated rather than to street frontage might be fairer. See our paper for an illustration:
Junge, Jason and David Levinson (2010) Economic and equity effects of transportation utility fees. Presented at 89th Transportation Research Board Conference, January 2010, Washington , DC. <emJournal of Transport and Land Use (in press)

Work and Home Location: Possible Role of Social Networks.

Recently published:
Tilahun, Nebiyou and David Levinson (2011) Work and Home Location: Possible Role of Social Networks. Transportation Research part A 45(40) pp. 323-331 [doi]

Abstract: This research
explores to what extent people’s work locations are similar to that
of those who live around them. Using the Longitudinal Economic and
Household Dynamics data set and the US census for the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St.
Paul) metropolitan area, we investigate the home and work locations
of different census block residents. Our aim is to investigate if people
who live close to one another, also work close to one another to a
degree beyond what would be expected at random. We find a significantly
non-random correlation between joint home and joint work locations.
Further, we show what features of particular neighborhoods are associated
with comparatively higher incidences of people sharing work locations.
One reason for such an outcome can be the role neighborhood level social
networks play in locating jobs; or conversely work place social networks
play in choosing the home location or both. Such findings should be
used to refine work trip distribution models that otherwise depend mainly
on impedance between the origin and destination

I should note, this whole issue of Transportation Research is about social networks and travel, and quite interesting.