You know things are bad for public transportation projects when even “transit-supporting urbanites” have started questioning their value.
That’s the verdict of a recent story in Politico, which investigates why the plethora of streetcar projects in urban areas across the country just aren’t making it. With setbacks, delays, snags, and cancellations even in more liberal locales like Virginia’s Arlington County, it suggests that with a little more political courage perhaps some of these projects could turn around and become one of President Obama’s great policy triumphs. The issue isn’t nearly that simple, however.
A flurry, then failure
Throughout the piece, breadcrumbs of cost overrun, ridership and political opposition keep appearing, until finally the writer hits upon a root problem:
(The Department of Transportation’s) little-noticed change to its funding criteria scrapped a George W. Bush-era rule that had weighed funding decisions most heavily on whether transportation projects were cost-effective and would reduce commuting time — factors in which streetcars fare relatively poorly. Instead, criteria like economic development and environmental benefits now get equal footing.
Before you could say ‘Blanche DuBois,’ the result was a flurry of streetcar projects on a scale that hadn’t been seen in decades, as cities rushed to lay down tracks to replace the ones they had torn up at the start of the automobile era 60 years earlier.
The subsequent stories of public waste, delays, and boondoggles are ones that Watchdog.org has reported on time and again since our inception. In just the past year, for example, our reporters in Wisconsin, Florida, Minnesota and Virginia have seen local streetcar projects turned into nothing more than a dead-end for taxpayers and their communities.
Covering streetcars and light rail projects
In the aforementioned Arlington County, Watchdog.org’s Virginia bureau has a series of stories detailing the incessantly rising price tag of a controversial streetcar project that was eventually scrapped in the face of elections. The project was initially pegged at $110 million, but had spiked to more than half a billion dollars by the time it was finally canned. One study claimed the streetcar would generate $4.4 billion in revenue, but as Watchdog.org reported, the study came out 11 days before a special election in Arlington, and many were skeptical of its bullish projections.
In fact, Watchdog.org’s streetcar series is credited with directly swaying the county’s decision to reject the project.
“I believe your series of articles on the Pike streetcar will become a classic and be required reading in other cities considering or applying for federal money,” said Joe Warren, a member of the Arlington Transit Committee. “There are several lessons about the Arlington streetcars that can be applied nationally.”
Some of these lessons are evident in Milwaukee, where Watchdog.org’s Matt Kittle and Adam Tobias have reported on a fierce local debate in which a diverse coalition has banded together in opposition to Mayor Tom Barrett’s $124 million streetcar plan. Mayor Barrett has made all the usual arguments that the project would spur economic development and create jobs, while his opponents counter that previous transportation-led funding priorities in the city have been “dismal failures.” These concerned citizens point to the fact that the current price-tag has already ballooned by millions of dollars since its initial estimation due to utility relocation costs that the city would be responsible for if it decides to actually construct the line.
In Florida’s Pinellas County, a proposed 24-mile long light rail train connecting St. Petersburg to Clearwater hangs in the balance. It is projected to cost about $2 billion. To pay for it, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is asking Pinellas County residents to vote themselves the highest sales tax rate in the state, a raise that would cost the county’s 900,000 residents about $100 million each year. To make matters worse, the PSTA’s chief executive is under fire for several scandals, including a misspent federal terrorism grant.
Studies covered by Florida Watchdog are critical of the proposed light rail system, projecting high costs and low passenger capacity. As Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the CATO Institute wrote in a commentary for Watchdog.org: “This would be a disaster for transit riders, taxpayers, and auto drivers in the region.” So far, it seems his prognosis is accurate.
Minnesota’s state capital, St. Paul, has encountered similar difficulties in its attempts at light rail. During the construction of its $1 billion, 11-mile-long light rail line, both businesses and taxpayers took a direct hit. Businesses along the line received almost $4 million in 0-percent “forgivable loans,” courtesy of taxpayers. Yet retailers along the line suffered an average 30 percent loss in sales. And to add insult to injury, “hundreds of St. Paul property owners were assessed some $2.3 million for their share of more than $16 million in upgraded street lighting, curbs and sidewalks,” reported Minnesota Watchdog’s Tom Seward. “No wonder they call it the ‘Green Line.’”
It remains to be seen whether these businesses will recover from the assessment, which leaves them with nicer curbs and streetlights but fewer parking spaces and less traffic. For many of them the future looks bleak.
Waking up to reality
Back in 2010, when he was the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood proclaimed to an optimistic gathering of business leaders and public officials that “today, streetcars are coming back.”
The trend that Watchdog.org stories have been capturing over the past five years tells the opposite story, however. Many cities have ended up millions of dollars poorer with little to show for it, and taxpayers are starting to realize that these shiny new public transit projects often don’t provide their promised economic boon.
It looks like LaHood couldn’t have been more wrong.