Will the Twin Cities' light rail megaproject get any cars off the streets? Help the environment? Save any money? Not necessarily, say its supporters--but that's not the point.

Wendell Cox makes his living being the bad guy in debates over light rail transit (LRT). Judging from his performance at the Doubletree Park Place Hotel in St. Louis Park one morning late in May, he is a man who enjoys his work.

Cox swaggered up to the podium that morning sporting a tight, malevolent smile and a head full of troublesome facts. For more than an hour, he had sat impassively as a trio of presenters regaled the audience with good news about a $400 million LRT line to be built on Hiawatha Avenue from the Mall of America to downtown Minneapolis. He didn't take notes, nor seem to mind that the sentiment in the room was steadily being stacked against him.

First up was Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, who urged the developers, lawyers, and engineers at the meeting, sponsored by the the Sensible Land Use Coalition, "not to surrender to sprawl." McLaughlin talked of the Hiawatha light rail line as a catalyst for "a new vision we are creating for transportation in this region, one that is going to replace a flawed vision that was heavily reliant on car pools and meter ramps and more freeways.

"We are not New Jersey--yet," McLaughlin concluded ominously. "But the numbers are pretty clear where we are going on congestion."

And if they weren't, the morning's second speaker was ready

to provide elucidation. Between 1970 and 1975, Metropolitan Council transportation director Nacho Diaz told the group, the Twin Cities grew by 600,000 people and built 200 miles of new freeways. Over the next 25 years the region is expected to expand by another 650,000 folks, with only 20 new miles of highway slated for construction. To counter looming gridlock, Diaz advocated a "multifaceted" approach to mass transit, anchored by an LRT line on Hiawatha.

Another presenter provided some computer-generated slides of what Hiawatha and a series of other proposed rail lines might look like. Then, finally, it was show time for Cox, who helped implement an ill-fated LRT network in Los Angeles before moving to suburban Chicago and becoming a national consultant on urban transit issues.

Cox began with a taunt: "Harry Truman developed a reputation for 'giving them hell.' When asked about this, Truman responded that he just told the truth, and they thought it was hell. That is what my presentation today is about.

"It seems to be a foregone conclusion in the audience that light rail will reduce traffic congestion and air pollution," Cox noted, with just a hint of chiding in his voice. He proceeded to report data showing that of the 12 cities that have built modern rail lines, only Washington, D.C., experienced an infinitesimal improvement in congestion--and that was with a $12 billion, 90-mile subway system. (New York's subway, Washington's Metro, and Chicago's El are all heavy-rail systems, which feature bigger cars and wider tracks than light-rail operations. While both types of trains are powered by electricity, heavy-rail systems usually draw their power from in-ground rails, while light-rail trains get theirs from overhead wires.)

When rail works at all, Cox claimed, it's in cities where large numbers of people live and work near any given stop. The Twin Cities have the second-lowest population density among the country's top 25 metropolitan areas. What's more, Cox argued, U.S. Department of Energy figures show that LRT is more accident-prone and not as fast as the automobile or buses: "Whatever rather modest benefits rail may bring to the transit system can be obtained for considerably less through other strategies," mostly by investing in buses, he insisted. He noted that the opposite had been happening in the Twin Cities, where large fare increases and a lack of funding for the bus system has actually cut transit ridership by nearly 40 percent since 1979.

There are only two possible reasons to build LRT, Cox concluded. One is "to provide an incinerator for federal funding that otherwise would be spent in other areas." The other is "to build rail simply to build rail, as sort of a 20th-century bureaucratic idolatry."

At the close of Cox's broadside there was a disquieting buzz in the room. Finally one of the lawyers present stood up and implored, "Nacho, can you briefly fill in the gaps on the sermon we just heard?"

Diaz went to the podium. "Wendell did a very good job of presenting the other side of the picture," he said. "It's true that this region isn't one where LRT will be a panacea. I wouldn't paint such a dark picture, but a lot of what Wendell said is right."

For nearly 30 years now, light rail proponents have been the local political equivalent of the boy who cried wolf, creating lots of excited talk with no results or ramifications. Newspaper archives are filled with stories about rail lines being planned and approved, with announced completion dates that have long since come and gone. Heated debates have occurred over building a tunnel under downtown Minneapolis, including Ramsey County in the rail system, and choosing the site of an initial rail line; routes along I-35W, I-94, University Avenue, and Hiawatha Avenue each have had their moment as the preferred choice. Hennepin County spent more than $57 million between 1981 and 1991 on studies and land acquisition for LRT; to this day, it has little to show for the effort besides a few bike trails along the empty right-of-way.

Next Page »