Thursday, May 19, 2011

Historical legislative appropriations for the Metropolitan Council

Here's a chart of transit appropriations (all or mostly from the general fund) to the Metropolitan Council since 2002 going back to the 1980s. I've only looked for the main transportation appropriations bills, so there may be other funds coming in from other state sources (though I will try to update it). Of course, this only accounts for a fraction of Twin Cities transit operations funding (less than half). The balance presumably comes from federal and local sources each year, and things like the Motor Vehicle Sales Tax.

I don't think the 2012+ bill has completely passed yet [Edit: almost as soon as I wrote that, there was news that the budget had been sent to the governor]. It's out of conference committee, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything considering how the governor may veto it. The bill only officially covers the years 2012 and 2013, as far as I'm aware, but there were also "base appropriations" for 2014 and 2015 listed in the most recent version of this year's bill.

[Edit: I don't know the full history of funding for metropolitan transit operations. Prior to 1996, this graph shows funding for the old Regional Transit Board rather than the Metropolitan Council. The funding structure seems to have been significantly rearranged at that point. Prior to 1996, roughly half of the allocation was specifically being directed to Metro Mobility for door-to-door paratransit operations. After that point, there would occasionally be a ceiling set for Metro Mobility funding. The appropriation in general rose by 50% from 1995 to 1996.

I'm not quite sure when the MVST started being used.]

Friday, May 13, 2011

Some missing posts

Hopefully this is temporary, but Blogger has been having some trouble for the past day. At this moment, I believe there are two posts missing from this blog. The earlier post was in regard to my experience getting a replacement Go-To card from Metro Transit. The second was related to the potential for rail transit to a possible Vikings stadium in Arden Hills. So, if you've come here looking for articles on either of those topics, just sit tight. Hopefully they will reappear soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A train to Arden Hills? How about several

View Arden Hills simplest options in a larger map

Ramsey County and the Vikings have taken another step toward building a new stadium on the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant site. I'm not in favor of building there, since I think the Metrodome site would be superior—and I'd really rather that the Vikes simply remodel the Dome. An Arden Hills stadium would probably cost around $1 billion—probably not including $100 to $200 million for upgraded road infrastructure to handle the pulse of traffic to and from each game. [Edit: The Star Tribune says $175 million for roads to the stadium itself, rising up to $240 million for a stadium plus nearby development.] That's not an insubstantial amount of money, so I thought I'd see what might be possible by using the Twin Cities rail network to offer transit service to the games.

The site does have a single-track line leading into it, owned by the Minnesota Commercial Railway. The line is pretty quiet, only seeing about two trains per day, and the track only supports speeds up to 10 mph at the moment. The main line leads south, parallel to I-35W and MN-280, for about 8 miles until reaching St. Anthony junction.

There are also a few branches off of that main line. The northernmost branch is also owned by the Minnesota Commercial, and runs westward to Fridley. Over there, it gets within about 1 mile of the BNSF line where the Empire Builder and Metro Transit's Northstar commuter trains run each day. I imagine that the line used to connect, but the most obvious connection point seems to have gotten built up. However, there appears to be open land just a block to the south, so a connection could be built there.

Farther south, the line intersects an east-west Canadian Pacific Railway line, which connects to BNSF's Northtown Yard in the west, and in the east runs over to Shoreview/Vadnais Heights, where the CP turns south and heads toward downtown St. Paul, although there is also a Canadian National line running farther east into Wisconsin. This line sees about 10 trains per day. It could host Northstar trains coming in either from the north or south, though it might require some tricky movements through CP's Shoreham intermodal yard.

The Minnesota Commercial continues southward until the vicinity of Energy Park Drive, where it reaches BNSF's two main lines between Minneapolis and Saint Paul. That's very close to Amtrak's current Midway station, and is where the Empire Builder runs each day. It's also very close to the University of Minnesota Transitway, and near where the Central Corridor will soon be running. Instead of turning to the east at the southern end, a train could instead turn west and terminate near TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which could make the line dual-use for both Gopher fans on Saturdays and Vikings fans on Sundays. However, doing that maneuver would require looping around the Union Yard, which could be a complex and expensive operation.

I even pondered the idea of doing a "tram-train" operation, like San Diego's Sprinter, where a light-rail-sized diesel multiple-unit (DMU) train could run along the Central Corridor and diverge when it hit the UMN Transitway, then do a flyover to get past the heavy rail operations at Union Yard, and then run on heavy rail tracks. Unfortunately, I think doing this would require blocking off heavy rail access whenever it was in operation, which would preclude the option of running commuter-style trains from any other directions, so it might not be a great idea. This would also require new rolling stock, which would raise the cost (particularly if it was a one-off). Most of the Northstar fleet sits idle on the weekends, so I'd much rather see that get reused.

I ran some numbers based on figures from the Minnesota State Rail Plan, and I think it would be possible to fix up all of those routes I mentioned for about $100 million. Here's the summary from my spreadsheet:

Sans capacity rightsCapacity rights onlyTotal
Arden Hills to St. Anthony junction (MNNR)$16,402,866$4,000,000$20,402,866
Fridley to Rush Lake (MNNR)$12,011,138$4,000,000$16,011,138
New Brighton to St. Paul (CP)$27,348,096$17,000,000$44,348,096
Northtown to New Brighton (CP)$11,449,238$8,500,000$19,949,238

There are a few big questions: What would capacity rights cost? (I used a really, really rough estimation). Would more grade crossings need to be upgraded with better signals? (I only included the cost of one where new track would be laid). What would be the impact of building additional stations? (I didn't really try covering that cost at all). How about improvements to BNSF's main lines where the Northstar and Empire Builder run? (I ignored it for now).

I did build in a 30% general contingency to the total costs (10% engineering plus 20% other), so hopefully that would cover the costs of most of those. Of course, I'm comparing this stuff to a range of road costs that could go up to $200 million or more, so there might be room for additional dollars. I figure I went a bit overboard with the capacity numbers, so the costs I built in should allow relatively high frequencies, such as 5 round-trips per day or more, which could carry a lot of people to a game (in comparison, the Northstar can usually only do one or two round-trips for games at the Metrodome).

While the most sensible solution would probably just be to run buses, I think my calculations show a great deal of promise for upgrading the Twin Cities rail network to improve connectivity to the Arden Hills Vikings stadium site. For the $100 to $200 million projected for highway expansion, a handful of short commuter rail lines could be constructed. These could benefit both downtowns and the Midway area during the week, as well as other stadiums in the downtowns and at the University of Minnesota on game days.

A problem with the Go-To card

I've got an issue with Metro Transit's Go-To Card. I've had my card for about 4 years now, and it has degraded to the point where it is unreadable about half the time. I got it shortly after the system officially became available to the general public back in the spring of 2007. Those blue footballs installed at the front of buses had sat there taunting me for years already, so I was happy to finally get it. (The Go-To card was supposed to be introduced along with the Hiawatha Line in 2004, but there were a lot of bugs in the system that needed ironing out. It took years to get it right.)

My card is apparently showing its age. When I got it, I didn't even need to take it out of my wallet for the readers to scan it. Slowly, the card has become harder and harder for the machines to read, so I started taking the card out of my wallet and holding it up right next to the reader. Last year, the conductors on the Northstar train had trouble verifying the card with their mobile devices. They'd try a couple of times, but it just wouldn't work, so I became reluctant to ride the train after that. Recently, I've had more and more trouble with bus readers, and it has gotten to the point that I get a "Card Error" almost every day.

Metro Transit has a number of retailers around town who sell new Go-To cards and allow you to fill them up, but they are apparently not set up to handle replacement cards. I don't know why that is. Metro Transit does charge a $5 fee for replacements, but it would seem to me that a retailer could handle that just fine. Similarly, Metro Transit's own phone system and website both let me fill up my Go-To card, but I can't order a replacement through either method.

I have visited a retailer (Cub Foods up in Roseville), and I have called Metro Transit's help line, and it has been my experience that I can't get a replacement either way. This seems to contradict Metro Transit's Go-To Card User's Guide, which says:
Non-functioning cards
If your Go-To Card or Pass fails to work on a bus, use another form of payment. To receive a replacement card, contact Customer Relations at 612-373-3333 or visit a Metro Transit store.
That implied that I could get a card through their phone system, but the representative I talked to directed me to one of the downtown stores instead, which are only open during the day, Monday through Friday. Unfortunately, my workplace is not in either of the downtowns, so I would have to take time off of work to get there.

(By the way, I had originally gotten my card at the former Metro Transit store at the Mall of America, which was open on Saturdays, but it doesn't exist anymore.)

I'll probably try calling again tomorrow and see if I can get another representative who may see things differently. I can take vacation time to visit a store, but things are busy at work and I'd rather not do that at the moment. I should probably just feign ignorance and go get a "new" card through one of the retailers instead. I'd lose my remaining balance, but that's not a big deal for me because it's below $10 right now. However, I could see how someone might have a damaged, lost, or stolen card with a large sum on it—the maximum stored value is $400—so it could be a bigger hit for them.

Of course, this is a fairly minor foible in an otherwise good system. I don't really like to complain about Metro Transit since they're always in the crosshairs of deficit hawks, but it seems that all of the necessary pieces are in place. My feeling is that the only requirement is another checkbox on a form somewhere, some new paperwork to get into the right hands, or perhaps just some education of the retailers and representatives. Besides, as these cards age, there will inevitably be more and more people who will need replacements. This is going to become a bigger issue in the years to come.

I really appreciate the convenience of the card, since I never have to worry about carrying change—I can devote all of those quarters to laundry instead. It also makes it easy for me to upgrade my transfer from a local bus or light rail line to the payment level required for an express bus or the Northstar commuter service—I basically don't have to worry about it at all. And on top of all of that, they give me an extra 10% for every dollar I add, which is roughly the same savings you get from buying multi-ride or monthly transit passes.

I'd just like to have a card that works again.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Northern Lights Express project continues to move forward

The Northern Lights Express project has been granted $5 million in federal funding to be put into preliminary engineering for the 150-mile route between Minneapolis and Duluth. This will only fund an initial phase of engineering work, but it comes at an opportune time—according to presentation information from last July, the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) phase should have wrapped up now, and they should be moving on to the final EIS for completion around September or October. That's exactly when the NLX Board Chairman said preliminary engineering could begin, according to MPR. He did seem to push back the potential completion date a bit, though. I've previously seen people mentioning 2013 or 2014 as the point when service could begin, but he said 2014 or 2015 in that article.

Cost estimates for the line have wandered all over the map in recent years. Some projections running north of $900 million gave pause, so there were some investigations into alternative configurations along the route. It seems that the leading option these days ("Option 2") would run single-tracked for most of the route, but allow trains to run up to 79 mph between Minneapolis and Coon Rapids, then up to 90 mph north of there as far as Cambridge. Between Cambridge and Hinckley would be 110 mph, double tracked, but speeds would decline to 90 mph again farther north. That design was given a price range of $550 to $750 million—still fairly steep, but probably a lot cheaper than continuing to widen Interstate 35 (though the route much more closely follows Minnesota State Highway 65, MN-107, and MN-23).

There was also news last month that Mn/DOT had again applied for funding to pay for a third main line between the Northtown Yard in Minneapolis and Coon Creek Junction in Coon Rapids, this time under TIGER III. They had originally applied for funds under the original TIGER program, but that got overbooked several times over and the project didn't receive any money. This area is a choke point, since it carries the combined traffic of BNSF's Northern Transcon from Seattle/Portland as well as traffic from Duluth. A third main line should allow about two dozen more trains through per day, which could be split among trains to Duluth as well as additional Northstar service, and potentially more Amtrak service to Fargo. It would get filled up pretty quickly, though—I think the Northern Lights Express is planned to have eight round-trips per day, so it could take up more than 2/3rds of the new slots all by itself.

The third main line project had previously requested $99 million from the feds (out of a total of more than $113 million), which seems like a lot for little more than a mile of new track. However, it would pay for widening the MN-610 bridge over the line to accommodate the new track, plus a new overpass for Foley Boulevard itself. A bigger MN-610 bridge could also allow portions of the proposed Foley Boulevard station to fit underneath. Some money would likely go to BNSF for easement rights as well. I don't know exactly when TIGER-III grants will be announced, but it should happen sometime this coming winter (and the program might get renamed between now and then). The grant request will probably have to be smaller, though—this round is only going to allow matching levels up to 80% rather than the 90% previously allowed.

UMN CCLRT bus rerouting
Anyway, it'd be great if this stuff could line up to begin operation in 2014, just like the Central Corridor.

Speaking of which—Washington Avenue is set to close permanently on the U of MN campus's East Bank between Pleasant and Walnut at midnight early on Monday, May 16th. The existing buses on the street will need to be temporarily rerouted, which had somehow escaped me—My normal bus, the 3, will actually be returning to normal operation at that time, but the Campus Connector and various Metro Transit routes will shift north to University Avenue and 4th Street. Buses will start being rerouted a few days early, on Saturday, May 14th. The buses will eventually return to Washington, but cars will be banned.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Capital cost projections for Twin Cities to Chicago corridors

I made an earlier post listing the projected ridership, operating cost, and operating surplus for each of the various routes between the Twin Cities and Chicago that have been studied over the years. Here is a companion table, attempting to list the projected capital costs, total cost, total benefit, and other benefit cost measures over a 25- or 30-year window.

Some important notes about the column data:
  • Net present value (NPV) is generally the most important number to look at. It is basically (or may simply be) the total benefit minus the total cost over the studied time window. In theory, the calculations that lead to that value should compensate for the fact that the money could have alternatively been put into other investments which would have a decent rate of return. Most of these studies seem to use a "discount rate" of 5%, which I interpret to mean that the NPV numbers listed would be above and beyond what you would get from an investment that returns 5% each year.

  • The first Tri-State study also said that NPV is present value (PV) plus first-year capital costs (NPV = C0 + PV) (presumably the cost is a negative value there).

  • A few studies listed "Capital Constrained Consumer Surplus" and defined it as NPV/C0. Where it wasn't available, I used NPV divided by the sum of capital cost and one year of operating cost (not shown here), which seemed to be what the other studies were doing.

  • In a few cases where total benefit wasn't listed on its own, I used gross consumer surplus plus revenue present value for that column. Where NPV was not explicitly listed, I used total benefit minus total cost.
Other notes:
  • Something is goofy about the Tri-State II study, since it listed total costs that were less than the capital costs. Presumably they were listing the total costs minus system revenues. I gave up on trying to fiddle with the numbers to get them to make sense by adding that in, so the study's values are just listed verbatim here.

  • The Eau Claire alternatives from the Wisconsin State Rail Plan from 2002 are in addition to the MWRRI river route. They promote greater ridership, but in that analysis, the additional route coverage drags down overall performance somewhat.

  • The Rochester Rail Link study appears to look at the costs of running a line from the Twin Cities to La Crosse via Rochester, which seems to add about 50% to costs, but roughly doubles the population that has access to the southern end of the line.

  • In general, these studies include ridership, costs, and benefits for an additional route from Chicago/Milwaukee up to Green Bay, which would run somewhere between 120 and 140 miles, and would likely serve the Fox Cities along Lake Winnebago.

  • The SNCF study only looked at the entire Midwest as a system, so I couldn't get any useful info out of it for this table.

  • The Minnesota State Rail Plan only included costs for Minnesota, and didn't list any benefit values explicitly. There was supposed to be a companion benefit cost study, but they wanted to use a standardized methodology, which hasn't been provided by the Federal Railroad Administration (apparently).
Anyway, here's the table. You want total benefit divided by total cost to be (significantly) greater than 1, but NPV/C0 only needs to be (significantly) greater than zero.

StudyProjection yearRouteSpeedRidershipCostBenefit
Tri-State I (1991)2024 (25-year)
via Rochester
125 mph8.1$940
185 mph10.6
300 mph (maglev)12.2
via Green Bay185 mph10.1
300 mph (maglev)11.7
Tri-State II (2000)2020 (30-year)
MWRRI River110 mph2.9$940

via Rochester (DM&E)110 mph2.8
150 mph4.2
via Rochester (new alignment)150 mph4.9
via Rochester (elevated)185 mph5.9
Wisconsin State Rail Plan (2002)2020MWRRI River110 mph3.4
w/ Eau Claire (alt. 1)79 mph3.7
110 mph3.7
w/ Eau Claire (alt. 2)79 mph3.4
110 mph3.4
via Eau Claire (alt. 3)
79 mph3.5
110 mph3.7
w/Janesville79 mph3.6
Rochester Rail Link (2003)2020 (30-year)
MSP to Rochester (and La Crosse?)
150+ mph1.7
185+ mph1.9
250+ mph (maglev)2.9
MWRRI (2004)2025MWRRI River110 mph$1,860
SNCF Midwest (2009)2023+via Eau Claire220 mph
SEMNRail/ Tri-State III (2009)2020MWRRI River110 mph4.3
via Rochester110 mph4.7
220 mph
Minnesota State Rail Plan (2010)20??MWRRI River (base case)110 mph1.7

MWRRI River (best case)2.5

via Rochester (base case)1.9

via Rochester (best case)2.9

MWHSR/ Siemens (2011)
2025MWRRI River110 mph4.4

2030via Rochester150 mph12.5

220 mph15.9

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Empire Builder diverted due to Devils Lake flooding

Devils Lake hydrograph

The Grand Forks Herald reports that Amtrak's Empire Builder has been diverted due to the rising waters of Devils Lake. The lake doesn't have a natural outlet, and has been rising for decades. The most recent period of rising waters has occurred since 1993, bringing the water level up by 30 feet and inundating huge swaths of land. The rise has been slowed in recent years due to overflow into nearby Stump Lake, but it has continued to go up.

Amtrak had previously said they would reroute the train once the lake reached 1,543 feet above sea level, which appears to have first occurred on the evening of April 22nd. The train finally started to be rerouted this past Saturday night (April 30th), suspending service to Grand Forks, Devils Lake, and Rugby. The three cities (primarily Grand Forks) contribute about $2.9 million in ticket revenue to the Builder annually.

The rerouting will put the train on a diagonal route along the KO Subdivision between Fargo and Minot, which I understand is actually less populated than the normal routing (though again, it may be primarily due to Grand Forks). Amtrak says that they'll run buses along the old route for about a month, but it's anyone's guess beyond that point. There has been pre-existing bus service along the U.S. Highway 2 corridor from Grand Forks to Minot, but it has only operated 4 times a week on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

This may only be a seasonal problem this year, as the water level tends to spike in the spring and then decline and level off. However, the rail line has only been minimially maintained for the last few years. BNSF stopped running freight trains along the route in 2009, and I've heard that it has become a bumpy ride for Amtrak passengers. The flooding will certainly not help the state of the tracks.

It's estimated that it will cost $100 million to repair and upgrade two bridges and a 17-mile stretch of track in the vicinity of Churchs Ferry. The bridges will cost about $55 million over the course of about two years, while the remaining $45 million for track could be stretched out over a period of 5–10 years. The rails only need to be raised by 5 feet or so—once Devils Lake reaches 1,478 or 1,479 feet, it will overflow into the Sheyenne River, a tributary of the Red River of the North which flows into Canada.

Some pumping systems have been installed over the years to try and mitigate the rising waters, and they might prevent the water from ever overflowing naturally. However, given the history of the lake's rise, I suspect the level will keep rising until overflow occurs.