FFM Bulletin 12/9/10

Northstar's 20% problem

It’s official: Northstar Commuter Rail’s first year of operations has been a complete bust. Metro Transit has confirmed that ridership is 20% lower than they projected. And even that figure is generous, given that it takes into account a number of “special event” trains Northstar operated for Twins games. Long story short, Northstar is a taxpayer’s worst nightmare: a rigid, fixed route transit service with low public demand and sky-high taxpayer subsidies. The Freedom Foundation has shown the extent of those subsidies numerous times this past year.
 
But while Northstar’s ridership problems have been well documented in the media, another of Northstar’s glaring shortcomings has received far less attention. Not only is ridership 20% lower than expected, but Northstar trains are 20% slower than expected. Taxpayers and lawmakers were repeatedly told that Northstar service between the bookend stations of Big Lake and downtown Minneapolis would take "41 minutes, regardless of weather conditions". Now that the trains are actually running, that number has jumped to approximately 50 minutes.
 
Northstar’s defenders will undoubtedly downplay the significance of an extra 8 or 9 minutes tacked on to the 41-mile trip, but given that one of Northstar’s primary selling points was its speed relative to driving Highway 10, this is not a minor quibble.
 
So to summarize, ridership is 20% lower than promised, the trains are 20% slower than promised, and the taxpayer subsidy is millions higher than promised. Northstar may have just completed its first year of service, but don’t expect to see many Minnesotans celebrating the anniversary.

Think government-run broadband networks are a good idea? Think again


Freedom Foundation Investigative Director Tom Steward penned a recent commentary for Minnesota Public Radio on taxpayer-funded broadband networks. A growing number of local governments in this state have jumped on the broadband bandwagon, with plans to build fiber-optic networks and compete with the private sector. In other words, they are putting their own taxpayers at risk in order to provide a largely duplicative service already available to their residents.

Excerpt: “The risks are very real. Just ask the city of Moorhead.The city's GoMoorhead network failed to attract enough subscribers to break even, let alone become self-supporting. To cover its losses, the city issued double-digit electric rate hikes, leaving taxpayers to subsidize the failed GoMoorhead experiment. The city faced expensive equipment upgrades for the system, underscoring the difficulties faced by local governments attempting to compete in a fast-changing, high-tech environment, particularly in an era of budget crunches.”

Read the entire piece at MPR’s site.

New Ulm turbine farm is gone with the wind


Call it the latest episode of As The Turbine Turns, New Ulm edition. You may recall that the City of New Ulm recently threatened to use its eminent domain powers to build and operate a 10.5-megawatt wind power project in neighboring Nicollet County.  The southern Minnesota city’s municipal utility planned to erect five wind turbines, but several farmers who opposed the “green energy” project refused to cede the rights to the prevailing winds over their property.  Consequently, New Ulm officials floated the outlandish and unprecedented possibility of invoking eminent domain power to seize the coveted wind rights over their opponents’ land if necessary, attracting unflattering national media attention in the process.
 
An unfavorable ruling by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission led the city to scrap the controversial project, along with one of its unusual approach to eminent domain authority.  Now the first and last vestige of the wind farm project has been dismantled, as well.
 
Jeff Franta, a local farmer and opponent, says utility crews recently removed a nearly 200 foot weather tower that tracked wind currents and speeds for the project in rural Lafayette township. “It was a property rights issue,” Franta said. “They came in here and decided this is where they wanted to put the project. They wanted to take our land and force this project up against the will of our township.”
 
It turns out the eco-friendly wind project wasn't so taxpayer-friendly after all. In late November, the New Ulm City Council agreed to buy back the revenue bonds used to finance the wind turbines at 102 percent of the original amount. The cost to taxpayers: more than $46,000.

FFM internships available during legislative session


The Freedom Foundation has several internships available during the upcoming 2011 legislative session. We’re looking for students or recent graduates with strong writing and communications skills. Video editing and production experience are a plus. If you’re interested, please e-mail a resume and writing sample to Christina Pajak, or call 612-354-2192.

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