One Can Never Have Enough Trains

Written by Jeff Johnson on September 20, 2011. Posted in General

County Saves Money; Board Spends It

Last week, the Hennepin County Board (sitting as the Hennepin County Regional Railroad Authority) voted 5 – 1 to authorize $34 million from “contingency funds” to buy 16 additional rail cars for the Central Corridor light rail line (CCLRT) between Minneapolis and St. Paul.  I voted “no” (Gail Dorfman was absent).

The CCLRT is estimated to cost just under $1 billion to build.  Part of that budget includes $144 million for contingencies – cost overruns, change orders, unforeseen construction problems that frequently arise in huge capital projects.

Because of a favorable bidding environment, bids for parts of the CCLRT project to date have come in $34 million under project estimates.

Good news, right?  Finally, a government project that actually comes in under budget and costs the taxpayers just a little bit less than originally planned (even if that project itself is a boondoggle that couldn’t survive any rational person’s cost-benefit analysis).

So what do we do?  Return the $34 million to the original funding entities, including Hennepin County, to provide some small relief to the taxpayers?

Nope.  Instead we use the opportunity to buy more light rail cars, which according to the original proposal and ridership estimates, we will not need unless ridership is higher than anticipated.

The “spend every last penny” rule, by the way, is quite consistent with past practice as we used a leftover $500,000 or so on the Hiawatha light rail line to buy public art for the train platforms and we used an extra $5 million on the Northstar line to purchase an extra locomotive.

Regarding the CCLRT decision, I asked whether we have some new analysis or information suggesting higher ridership than originally anticipated.  We do not.

This is a perfect example of what infuriates people about government.  We have a project that looks like it might actually come in under budget and instead of banking the savings, we feel it necessary to find a different way to spend the money on that same project.

To be fair, at least we didn’t spend it on train station art.

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