"A Desire Named Streetcar": The Hiawatha Light Rail Line as a Case Study in Better Decision Making

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Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Matthew Lindstrom, Political Science


The Hiawatha light rail transit line was originally projected to cost $250 million. When the first train left the station in 2004, however, the total project cost was $715 million. This paper analyzes the approval process for the Hiawatha project. It examines and critiques a planning technique called "reference class forecasting," which attempts to improve planning forecasts by comparing them to previous completed projects. Applying this technique retroactively, I conclude that forecasting on the Hiawatha project could have been more accurate. More importantly, reference class forecasting, together with Before and After Studies and a change in incentive structure, will lead to more accurate forecasts. Future projects, which will continue to grow in number as light rail becomes more popular, can benefit from these recommendations.