By PHIL KRINKIE — Guest Columnist
Few historical heists captivate our imagination like stories of the legendary outlaws of the American West who robbed trains. From Jesse James to the Wild Bunch and the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, many thieves claim to have performed “the great train robbery.”
But according to history books, the largest train robbery in U.S. history occurred in 1924, when a group of bandits known as The Newton Gang robbed a mail train in Roundout, Ill. The amount stolen was an estimated $3 million in cash, bonds and jewelry. To this day, not all of the money has been recovered, leading to the legend that it might be buried somewhere along the rail line.
But the Newton Gang’s $3 million haul pales in comparison to “the great train robbery of Minnesota” that began in 2009 and continues to drain taxpayers wallets to this day.
It is not your classic gunslinger desperado story, but one of deception and miscalculation by our elected officials.
With flashy charts and outlandish performance claims, the good taxpayers of Minnesota have been conned into paying for a train that cost four times the original estimates to build, costs twice as much to operate and has only 60 percent of the estimated riders.
You guessed it — this train robbery is the Northstar Commuter Line.
This ill conceived, poorly-planned waste of taxpayer dollars called the “Northstar Commuter Rail Line” runs from downtown Minneapolis 40 miles north to the metropolis of Big Lake, Minn., population 10,060.
This transit line was originally conceptualized and sold as a ‘cure-all’ means to relieve traffic congestion on Highway 10 in Anoka County.
The challenge now is what to do with a commuter train few people want to ride and is projected to have an operating cost of $20 million within five years.
Like any bad investment, one solution always offered up is to double down and spend more money to turn the project around. This strategy has added another $13 million station. The rational behind the plan to add a Ramsey station (a station omitted in the original plan) is to increase ridership. Of course, this is the same argument made for adding a station at Foley Boulevard in Coon Rapids during the planning stage of the line.
Another recent proposal to stop the lopsided operating loses is reduce passenger fares in an attempt to attract more riders. In other words, make it cheaper and more people will ride the train.
The problem with this theory is that the train already loses $14 million per year. Yes, the commuter rail line that cost more than $300 million to build requires a $14 million taxpayer subsidy to operate. That calculates to a subsidy of more than $20 per ride, just so somebody doesn’t have to pay to park in downtown Minneapolis.
But wait, there is another idea to increase ridership on the train that robs taxpayers on every run. Extend the commuter rail line another 40 miles north to St. Cloud. This was the original plan until the Federal Transit Commission nixed the idea back in 2004. Why build a whole train when half will do?
Now proponents of the boondoggle complain that this has been the cause of failure all along. So the answer to the lack of riders is spending hundreds of millions more to expand the line to St. Cloud. If half a dumb idea proves to be failure, let’s build the other half to prove it was really a dumb idea.
The best idea would be shutting down the Northstar rail line and selling the locomotives and passenger cars. The problem is that if the line is shutdown, the taxpayers need to return half of the construction costs to the federal government. This leaves the Metropolitan Council (the operating agency) few options to stop the waste of taxpayer funds.
Perhaps the Met Council should explore other marketing concepts. Examples would be a dinner train. Since the one operated out of Stillwater has shutdown, this could be a great opportunity. Another thought would be using the train for children’s birthday parties. Kids love trains and since the commuter rail service only operates mornings and late afternoons, the passenger cars could be available during idle time to host parties. Since Met Council members seem to share the same child-like infatuation with locomotives, maybe they would offer to entertain the children with jokes and balloons.
The sad reality is the Northstar Commuter Line was a hoax from the start and the great Minnesota train robbery continues to loot taxpayers to pay for the operation costs year after year.
Phil Krinkie is president of the Minnesota Taxpayers League and a former state legislator. Contact him at 651-789-0092 or visit www.taxpayersleague.org.