Within the United States, there is a heavy consumer preference for automobile transportation. This weighted preference for automobile transportation has lead to extensive investment by federal, state, and local governments on roads and highways within the United States.
On a consumer preference side, use of personal vehicles and roads account for 96 percent of ground transport passenger miles in the US (Fisher, 554). As a consequence of this trend in the US, an increasing number of US highways and roads experience very significant traffic congestion. Unfortunately, increasing problems with congestion come with steep financial losses. One study, based on congestion trends for 439 selected areas from 1982 to 2007, reports that the costs of traffic congestion for the US is $87.2 billion (in constant 2007 dollars) in wasted time and fuel annually (Triantis).
With the costs and negative externalities of automobile transportation increasing within the US, metro areas should increasingly look for innovative options to relieve congestion. One of these options is light rail mass transit.
Fortunately, it has been found that light rail systems can alleviate significant amounts of congestion. In a 2008 study of congestion within the Twin Cities, it was discovered that I-94 traffic volumes grew steadily between 2000 and 2004, when the Hiawatha Line was under construction. In 2005, however, traffic volumes along this corridor decreased 2.1 percent. In 2006, these traffic volumes decreased another 4.3 percent, with particularly large reductions in congestion during peak periods. These decreases in congestion along I-94 occurred while overall regional vehicle traffic grew. This indicates that light rail services can significantly reduce automobile traffic volumes on parallel highways (Litman). Ultimately, this decrease in congestion will lead to decreased expenditures on road construction and maintenance.
Funding for LRT
Beyond support from the federal government for LRT projects in Minnesota, the Transportation Division within the Metropolitan Council has established financial agreements with counties, railroad authorities with property tax revenues, and the State to finance the capital and operational costs associated with the Hiawatha Line and Central Corridor Line.
While transit projects, such as the Hiawatha and Central Corridor light rail lines, do have high capital costs ($715.3 million and $956.9 million, respectively), their potential to significantly reduce highway congestion, and costs associated with highway congestion, cannot be ignored. This is especially so for the Twin Cities, as it has the second highest rate of congestion growth in the US (TTI). With the support of federal funding, the Metropolitan Council, Metro Transit, and Mn/DOT should continue to look for ways to form agreements with counties, regional railroad authorities, and the State to expand light rail beyond the Hiawatha and Central Corridor Lines.