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Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Red Rock Corridor Faces Delays as 7 Facts Become Undeniable

1/2017: This article data is still current and relative to the latest update:
Red Rock Corridor Plan Falls Apart Now Wants to be Called Route 363

Since 2013 I've been watching the progress of all three transit corridors that are developing in Washington County (WC) as a concerned tax payer. There's the Rush Line in north WC, the Gateway Corridor/ Gold Line in central WC, and the Red Rock Corridor in South WC. My interest in these projects is my concern about their cost vs benefit and their reliance to be primarily funded by taxpayers who will never hear, let alone use, these Bus Rapid Transit routes (BRT).

The Red Rock Corridor (RRC), is a proposed 30 mile BRT route from South Washington County to Union Depot in St. Paul. It is in the advance stages of planning and the focus of this article.

In this article I'll summarize my years of fully sourced research on the RRC in an easy to read, point by point, breakdown with the latest updates. The data is vital to understand as I believe the project is teetering on the edge of completely stalling. Several facts support this thought: 
1.) Red Rock Corridor has not had vital State funding approved by the legislature since 2011. Also in the same source, the Public Works director for Washington County, Don Theisen, said "engineering work on the Red Rock Corridor will be delayed" if funding is not secured. 
(p. 16 of the 2015 Washington County Legislative Agenda) 
2.) The Met Council is also turning it's back on the Red Rock Corridor holding off building the low income project housing right next to the station: Star Tribune
3.) The RRC planner's response is to take $400,000 $550,000 tax dollars and put all of it into an unprecedented redesign push called the "implementation plan" in an attempt to convince tax payers the corridor still needs to be built. The money comes from a County Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) fund that is supported by a sales tax we all pay when we purchase most local goods and services. Come to find out the plan actually costs $550,000 after a raise was approved for the contractor Kimley Horn according to  p.45 of December 2nd RRC meeting.

This $550,000 redesign pushes the route further off highway 61 to gain future ridership yet without mentioning the fact it will take longer to travel to union depot in St. Paul. Again, in an attempt to buy your public approval in the final hour of design planning. The Gateway Corridor is just finishing their Environmental Impact study (12-2015) and the Red Rock Corridor has yet to decide on a route because of this. 

Thus far, credit to it's current advance stage of planning goes to their build moto "Building the corridor with buses instead of light rail trains will save tax payers hundreds of millions" (simply google it for dozens of results). However, this pitch as a "money saving" compromise can't shield it from the ever more undeniable hard facts stacked against the corridor and their $550,000 effort to down play these facts. 
Making the Red Rock Corridor the most concerning of all the transit corridors:

1.) Over a dozen major expenses totaling well over a hundred million dollars have been left out of all the estimated costs for the Red Rock Corridor since the planning has begun. Leaving tax payers with the false impression this is a worthwhile investment.  In the original Alternative Analysis (AA) Study and even more so in the most recent Alternative Analysis Update (AAU). 

Going back to the 2007 AA study it states the BRT option the Commission Chose in December 2013 would cost $75 million (section 8-3 p. 32) in the 2013 AAU the cost prediction drops to just $45 million without explanation (p.14).

From the start, costs are extremely underestimated:
Based off the slightly more thorough 2013 Technical Memorandum #4 Capital Cost Evaluation some of the major costs missing in the $75 million dollar 2007 AA study are:
$14.3 million for the 20 additional buses that will be purchased (p.7)
$11.1 million for a lower Afton road BRT station upgrade (p.9)
$6.5 million for a Cottage Grove transit station (p.9)
$6.2 million for the New Port transit station (cost left out) (p.9)
$6.3 million to build a bus only connection from 61 to the Newport Transit Station (p.37)
Apx $6 million to build a Transit Station in Hastings (cost left out) (p.9)
Apx $4 million (at least) to build a bus maintenance shop (estimate off Apple Valley Red Line's shop cost)
$20 million million in cost adjustment for inflation using their own 3.5% a year figure (p.15)

That's a total of $74.4 million dollars missing from the $75 million dollar 2007 AA study quote for this 30 mile long corridor. Even this $150 million dollar estimate is very conservative. Evidenced by the fact the just 11.5 mile Red Line Corridor in Apple Valley cost $112 million according to MetCouncil

Add to this $150 million dollar estimate the fact there are additional miscellaneous costs missing such as the $35 million dollar project to completely tear out and widen the overpass and all the roads and ramps of the CR19 and hwy61 interchange. The project's sole purpose is to accommodate the buses that'd be riding on the shoulders of the this interchange to get to the Cottage Grove Station. This was discussed the May 2013 RRC commission meeting. see pic 5. (p.9 of May 2013 RRC meeting

Another unmentioned cost is the $2 million+ to pay for all the studies that are being completed now and in the near future. (p. 26 of February 2013 RRC meeting)

2.) The Washington County corridor planners consistently tell the media wildly inaccurate numbers:
2012: Project manager Andy Gitzlaff told the now $6.45 million dollar Newport transit station was only going to cost $2.5 million. Ready to Roll in Red Rock Corridor
2013: Pioneer Press, one of many examples, was told the Red Rock Corridor will cost only $45 million: For Red Rock Corridor, Buses Now Favored.... 
2014: Three more examples in 2014 alone: Gateway Corridor Planner Accused of Misleading the Public Three Times This Year
2015: The Implementation plan. It's calculated cost for the same original 6 stop corridor is a massively low $28.6 million. 

3.) Future ridership predictions are anything but bright for the Red Rock Corridor.
Simply Compare the already built Red Line Corridor in Apple Valley (finished mid 2013) and compare it's facts and figures to the future Red Rock Corridor and the South Washington County (SWC) area. 

Population and Density:
According to the SWC area (Cottage Grove, Newport, and Hastings) has a slightly larger population than Apple Valley by 18%. However Apple Valley is 65% more densely populated because their population fits into nearly a third of the footprint of SWC area (17 vs 48sq miles). I mention this because transit lines are severely underutilized the less dense a population gets. Where a vast majority of morning metro commuters don't find driving to a bus stop convenient. 

Just look at how discouraging the ridership numbers are on Route 364 that serves the same area the RRC will serve at the now open $6.45 million dollar Newport transit station. About two cars noted by the Star Tribune. A route that is so underutilized that it only has 3 round trips to the metro a day. Taking over service from it's previous transit stop just south of I-494 that had "about 20 cars" a day. However, supporters state the transit stop is a "very nice waiting station, which should help ridership somewhat." ( December 2014 Report).

In 2012, a year before the Red Line opened corridor planners predicted the Corridor would have 2,250 riders a day... turns out after the 2013 opening the corridor is still making only just over 800 riders a day.

6-2016 update: The Red Line Corridor performed so poorly, the host, Dakota County is choosing not to Continue spending even more money on the line and they're leaving the County Transit Improvement Board (CTIB) and saving their tax payers millions when dropping out of the CTIB sales tax: Star Tribune Story.

4.) Based off MNDOT traffic volume numbers and comparative analysis expected number of riders on the Red Rock Corridor will be less than half of what is predicted.
The ridership numbers corridor planners are using to justify construction of the RRC are generous predictions on ridership in the year 2030 based off unknown calculation models! (Yes I've asked for the calculation equation to verify the math and was denied being told it was a computer program.)  BRT riders are predicted to be 2,420 daily ridership on the US hwy 61 based BRT Corridor in the AAU (p.13). Highway 61 in Cottage Grove currently has over 30,000 vehicles a day according (p. 11) and in 2030 is projected to have over 45,000 cars a day (p. 22). Both MNDOT sources. 

For a road of that current and future volume their estimate is FAR too generous based on evidence of rider use on the Red Line corridor in Apple Valley that sees an average of only 835 riders a day on it's 90,000 - 128,000 vehicle a day road corridor according to the 2013 MNDOT Status Guideways Report (p. 26). Yes, that's twice the volume of the 2030 RRC volume on US 61 and it's BRT line is only seeing 835 riders a day. 

How does the RRC planners explain how an area three times as densely populated and nearly the same population with a corridor that serves at minimum TWICE the volume of vehicle traffic a day is going to have almost three times the ridership of such a current place in 2030? 

5.) Discouraging current corridor ridership and demographics reveals the most accurate future picture: 
The current RRC area is served by Bus Route 361, 364, and 365 park and ride stations. Yes, the Red Rock Corridor exists in this current form... After reading the data you  here you may understand why they don't talk about it.

According to they don't serve on weekends or business holidays that fall on weekdays (10 such holidays in both 2012+2013 according to Leaving 251 days of service in 2012 and 2013. Only annual ridership data is available (looks better than daily as you'll see) so to calculate the current daily ridership we calculate:
Route 361: 64,000 annual rides divided by 251 service days (2012)= 255 rides a day average
Route 364: 9,204 annual rides divided by 251 service days (2013)= 37 rides a day average
(source is Metro Transit Service Improvement Board via e-mail, see picture below)
Route 365: 165,449 annual rides divided by 251 service days (2013)= 659 rides a day average (544/day in 2010)
(2013 source is Service Improvement Board via e-mail, see picture below)
The Route's combined daily rides total: 951 rides a day = 475 current riders a day (safe to assume for each one "rider" two "rides" are used with one to their destination and one back... another trick used to essential double the perception of corridor use)

We know Apple Valley's Red Line Corridor current service area and corridor use serves as an example of what the future RRC can actually expect in their 2030 predictions. Again, because of the more densely populated and congested area of Apple Valley. With the Redline's 835 riders a day on a 90,000 - 128,000 vehicle a day road is it logical to expect the Red Rock Corridor that currently serves 475 riders a day on a 30,000 vehicle a day corridor really going to have ridership increase by FIVE TIMES to 2,420 when the traffic on the highway is only expected to increase from 30,000 to 45,000 a day?

Furthermore, the population trend is not encouraging in the RRC area. According to since the year 2000, Newport has seen a 7% loss in their population; Cottage Grove has seen their population only grow by 5,000 people; and Hastings has only grown by 4,000 residents in that time. Not exactly a picture of an area booming in the last fifteen years as the RRC would have you believe.

6.) Dismal 6.3% self sustainability for operating costs:
To put this in perspective: The entire Red Line Corridor has a yearly operating cost of $3.4 million according to the MetCouncil. They spent $2.5 million to run the first six months they were open. Only 6.3% of it's running costs were paid for by the riders who use the Red Line (MNDOT 2013 Guideways Status Report p.27). Leaving tax payers who don't ride the Red Line to cover not only 100% of the $112 million dollar capital cost, but 93.7% of it's running costs! This does not look encouraging news from the Red Line Corridor with a three times more dense population, serving a road with twice the future volume of the RRC. It's no stretch to fully expect even worse self sustainability for tax payers funding the RRC. 

Update 2015 MNDOT Guideways Status Report: says the Red Line still is only paying for 6% of their operating costs p.27

7.) Evidence all around:
Also worth noting: the NorthStar Line that comes from 40 miles outside of Minneapolis. Even with the addition of the new Ramsey station in 2012 and lowering their ticket prices (hoping for more riders and money) they saw a 17% decline in ticket sales from 2012 to 2013.The NorthStar line has consistently only been able to cover on average 16% of it's operating cost. The national average is 30% according to MNDOT. This is comparing the 2012 (p.21) and 2013 (p.24) MNDOT annual Guideway Status Reports. I know if any other market besides transit see a 17% decline in sales it'd be front page news.

However, whether you use the solid comparative and analytic data here or the unfounded pro-corridor study estimate of 2,400 riders/day (in 2030) how is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a bus line worth taking just 1-5% of the traffic off the 45,000 vehicle a day road responsible? How does a 1-5% improvement justify spending on such a massive scale? This money could be used for our deteriorating roads, adding a lane to hwy 61, or better yet kept in the hands of the hard working tax payers who are struggling to make ends meet. 

Again, The $112 million dollar Red Line only pays 6.3% of the millions of dollars it takes to offload 835 people off it's at least 90,000 car a day road... that's less than 1% traffic reduction! Or the $350 million dollar Northstar line that also never covered a penny of it's capital cost and can only cover half what a "normal" failed transit line can collect to contribute to it's running costs (normal being just 30%). I say failed because airlines, taxis, Greyhound buses, and other private transporters cover 100% of their capital AND running costs! 

As a tax payer I feel completely betrayed by the corridor staff who refuse to modify their dishonest studies, one sided reporting, and manipulating public outreach. The local county and city officials who remain silent to these clear injustices and refuse to see the facts are equally responsible. I've been telling each one of them about all seven of these major issues with the RRC. We are lying to ourselves and to our children who will have to pay for this if we think we have solid ground to build this unsustainable project on. 

The local media have made it clear they aren't going to cover any of this data. 
Please "share" these articles and facts the media is not going to report.

Also check out: 

At Her Own Crossroads: Will Representative Fenton Lead or Appease

Also, please contact your County Commissioners, explain you are disappointed in the lack of accountability the Red Rock Corridor staff has. They have to power to enforce accurate survey taking, honest assessments, and diligent review before we spend hundreds of millions of dollars on these transit corridors in Washington County.

Contact our County Commissioners:          651-430-6211         651-430-6213              651-430-6215