Union Depot: Building More Things We Don't Need

Last week, Ramsey County officials announced that cost estimates for renovating existing restaurant space at Union Depot were off by 100%.  Yes, you read that right.

As recently as August 2016 when county officials announced that Kaskaid Hospitality would be the new restaurant tenant at the historic depot, they budgeted $1 million for kitchen renovations.  Last week, the county rail authority (meaning the Ramsey County commissioners) voted to approve $2 million in kitchen/restaurant improvements.

The only explanation offered was from the county’s “design-build partner, Kalcon, [who] found that bringing the space up to federal, state, and local historic standards would be pricier than expected.”  100% more “pricier”.

It is important to note that as of last count, 39 restaurants have closed thus far in 2017 in Minneapolis & St Paul.  Government was cited as the reason several restaurants threw in the towel this year – whether it was the never-ending construction along Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis or the ever-increasing government regulations imposed by city and state governments.  And yet Ramsey County elected officials have the audacity to spend $2 million in tax dollars to construct a new kitchen for a new restaurant in Union Station.

Renovations were completed last year on the historic depot.  The total cost to taxpayers at that time was $243 million. A quick look at how many passengers currently flow through Union Depot includes:

  • 1,566 weekday light rail passengers
  • 295 bus riders
  • 2 daily Amtrak trains.

But wait – there’s more: On Monday, we learned from the Rochester Post Bulletin that the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s (MNDoT) Passenger Rail Office is going to ask the legislature for another $1 million to continue to study adding a second passenger rail line from St. Paul to Chicago.  A second daily train from Minnesota – Chicago would cost taxpayers an additional $95 million in construction costs “with an additional $6.6 million in annual operating and maintenance costs.”  The estimated ridership?  155,000.  That brings the total subsidy to $653.00 per passenger just to construct the line. Oh, and it will take those 155,000 passengers six hours to get to Chicago.

A quick check on Delta.com showed that if I flew to Chicago from Minneapolis tomorrow morning, I could buy a coach ticket for $260 round trip.  First class would set me back $666.40 – and I would in arrive in style in just one hour.

Other airlines offer even deeper roundtrip discounts to Chicago including American ($78.42) and Spirit ($83.90.)  These 155,000 certainly have many alternative and less expensive ways to get to Chicago already without a second passenger rail line.

If legislators are looking for waste in government, I suggest they start at MNDoT.  That agency’s Passenger Rail Office has five full time employees who are working to build additional rail lines that will serve a very small number of Minnesotans and cost the rest of us a bundle of money – now and well into the future.  Someone over there needs to be reminded that we can’t continue to build things we don’t need (passenger rail) at costs that we can’t afford.  And while we’re at it, to stop government from picking winners and losers.  When you read about wasteful spending like this, it’s hard for all of us not to feel like losers.

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