Last week, Minnesota House representative Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington) issued a news release touting a compromise between him and supporters of the Zip Rail line being planned between the Twin Cities and Rochester. Oh good! Compromise! Our representatives must have done their job and avoided petty politics! That's what we always want our representatives to do, isn't it?
Unfortunately, this is no compromise—merely a softening of the harsh and arbitrary position Garofalo set out in a bill he authored in January. The initial bill would ban funding and planning of the Zip Rail line entirely. Now he says he'll drop the language that bans route planning by the state, Metropolitan Council, and regional rail authorities, but would still prevent those entities from funding any construction.
Right now, our transportation system is like a house where all of the money has been spent on windows and walls, but nothing has been put into adding a roof. We don't sit in our houses asking for money to magically print out from the ceiling to pay back its installation cost, but the benefits of having it in place add up: Better health for the people who live there, lower maintenance costs, and the ability to heat and cool the space without spending a fortune, among many other things.
When highways are built, we don't necessarily expect them to pay back their costs in full. Many of them do, but others don't. For instance, Minnesota 212 in the southwest suburbs isn't covering its costs with revenue from the gas tax, motor vehicle sales tax, or license fees. There are some improvements planned for U.S. Highway 14 in southern Minnesota that almost certainly won't be directly paid off by the automobiles traveling over it.
Benefits from things like improved safety and higher travel speed often covers the financial gap. These are less tangible since they don't translate to a direct revenue stream, but it still means that projects like these can be worthwhile anyway. This is one of the most important roles of government—running projects that help society at large but are too expensive or complex for individuals or small groups to do themselves. The right projects will reduce overall social costs or boost the economy enough to cover the difference.
The frustrating thing is that rail projects are always put under the microscope and scrutinized to a far higher degree than highway expansion, even when the rail lines are expected to show good benefits. State-sponsored studies have looked at passenger rail to and through Rochester for nearly 25 years and have consistently shown it providing a net benefit to the state and region. For good reasons, it has bubbled up to the top tier of routes to be built under MnDOT's state rail plan.
Zip Rail planners have often mentioned that the line is attracting interest from companies willing to help pay its construction costs. I've always assumed that this would be in the form of a public-private partnership (PPP), where a company or consortium would pay for some of the startup cost and would operate the line in exchange for taking back a chunk of the route's annual revenue, but the "compromise" from last week suggests that someone is be willing to pay the entire cost to build the route.
An organization called North American High Speed Rail Group has come forward as a potential backer of the route. That's great, if true, but shouldn't be a reason to restrict the availability of public funds at this point. We don't really know if they have the resources to pull it off at this time, especially since construction and operational costs haven't been determined yet.
Garofalo's bill should just die in committee with no further action taken. Leaving the issue alone will let the Environmental Impact Study phase play out, and the line's backers will have to come back to request funding anyway, if they need it. The bill does nothing to "protect taxpayers", and would be likely to do more harm than good.