Breaking down the proposed $143.3 million price tag for Rochester rapid transit plan

Feb. 12—Dear Answer Man,

I have not yet been able to find anyone who can explain why the less than 3-mile Rochester rapid bus line project will cost $141 million (give or take a million here or there). So, I am turning to you, oh wise one, with the hope you can break down the cost for me in terms even us minions can comprehend.

With deep gratitude,

Concerned but uneducated taxpayer

Dear Taxpayer,

The only thing I cannot answer is why you spent so much time looking to others for this answer.

While the price is steep, it's important to realize we're talking about more than a couple buses going in circles.

The

proposed rapid-transit system, known as Link,

has been compared to light rail on tires, with dedicated stops and stations along the 2.8-mile route that was revised in 2022 to connect what are currently two Mayo Clinic commuter lots, one on Second Street Southwest and the other on Third Avenue Southeast. When complete, both areas are also expected to have public parking options and other amenities, which could include housing and retail spaces.

The

original price tag was nearly $115 million and increased to nearly $143.3 million with the new plans, but it won't make your property taxes increase,

since creation of the Link system is being funded with federal transit and state Destination Medical Center funds.

While the cost might have your head spinning, it's worth noting that a light-rail option can cost more than $100 million per mile, according to reports, and a rail-based system would lack the flexibility for future route changes offered by the bus plan.

The greatest expense in Rochester's project — $31 million — is for the creation of 12 transit stations and related elements expected to enhance the user experience. Since the project's initial proposal, it called for providing an experience expected to rise above the standard bus ride, meaning the station structures will be heated and cooled, with adequate lighting and a public address system.

Another $28.7 million is expected to be spent on the purchase of a dozen 60-foot electric buses, which will run along the route, offering a stop at each station every five minutes during peak periods. In October, the Rochester City Council approved the process to start seeking the buses, knowing it takes two to three years to obtain them once a deal is reached.

With more work to be done, it's important to note that all cost estimates have the potential to shift as more concrete plans emerge. Even my vast knowledge can't provide exact numbers for such a project.

My minion in City Hall tells me Deputy City Administrator Cindy Steinhauser has said project estimates will continue to be refined as implementation nears, with a proposed opening date in 2026.

Along with the creation of new transit stations and the purchase of buses, it's estimated design work and other professional services will cost nearly $25.4 million to make sure all elements fall into place.

The project is also expected to require $15.2 million in added infrastructure along the route, which ranges from establishing preferred-transit lanes to utility work needed for the new stations.

The

project will require the city to obtain access to some properties along the route,

either temporarily for construction or permanently for transit stations. The right-of-way acquisition process has started, and preliminary estimates point to a $8.5 million expense.

Another nearly $7 million is expected to be spent on efforts to increase safety for pedestrians and bicyclists along the route, which will likely see added foot traffic when Mayo Clinic expands its facilities with a primary access point along Second Street. The safety improvements will include sidewalk enhancements, as well as a bike-lane expansion between the U.S. Highway 52 bridge and 19th Avenue Southwest.

Two other estimated expenses — $4.7 million for communication and signal systems and $1.2 million for support and maintenance facilities — are actually significantly less than what was proposed in the initial $115 million plan. The changes, which add up to a nearly $7.8 million reduction in estimated expenses, were the result of continued refinement of plans.

If you've been paying attention and have a calculator handy, you've likely noticed the outlined costs fall short of the $143.3 million estimate.

The remaining $21.6 million is intended as a contingency fund, which is recommended by the Federal Transit Administration on large-scale projects. The funds will cover any unexpected cost increases amid inflation and unpredictable supply lines.

Once the system is up and running, state and federal transit funds are expected to cover the bulk of operations, with Mayo Clinic agreeing to pay $3.5 million in local operating expenses the first year, with a planned annual increase through a 20-year agreement with the city.

The result is that anyone downtown, whether a local resident or visitor, will be able to move quickly between locations on the route, potentially moving from the Rochester Public Library to businesses west of Highway 52 at no cost.

With a limited wait time for the ride, the Link will likely be the quickest route between downtown destinations, much like coming to me with your questions is often your most efficient route to an answer.

Send questions to Answer Man at

answerman@postbulletin.com

.