Sunday, January 17, 2010

Streetcars Prove Economically Unjustifiable, So Feds Revise Rules

To receive federal funding for a rail project, cities previously had to prove that it was the lowest cost way to reduce pollution or commute times. The Obama administration wants to funnel more money to streetcars, which do neither, and are most often the highest cost alternative, so they've changed the rules to reward "livability" instead. (Who on earth would want to live in a trolley?)

The new policy announced Wednesday, is part of a broader effort by the Obama administration to use transportation and housing programs to keep people from driving and living where they want to, and to invent government make-work jobs related to transit. It might breathe new life into makers of light-rail and other transit equipment who could never survive in the free market.

Among more than 80 cities that could now qualify for funding are Seattle; Cincinnati; Boise, Idaho; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D., Ore.), who led the push for a federal program designed to promote transit projects whether they make sense or not.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the administration would immediately rescind the "budget restrictions" enacted by the Bush administration and focus on evaluating projects based on the environmental, community and economic-development benefits, as well as on congestion relief. The decision will now also be based on whether or not they're "pretty".

It is arbitrary and capricious to use a nebulous standard like "livability" when awarding public money, especially when there is evidence to show it doesn't matter. Today The Urbanophile critiqued the allegedly legendary livability of Portland, OR, and found their statistics weren't appreciably different from those of Indianapolis, IN, which has no rail transit at all, and barely has a bus system.

Public money should only be invested in public projects that create a measureable public benefit.


  1. I doubt seriously that your conclusion is the point that The Urbanophile intended to make, but then again, why should we be surprised by that?

  2. Joe,
    I'm sure he was hoping for a different conclusion, but one of the reasons we like him is that he always chooses truth over political correctness.

    "Portland residents would no doubt tout their many livability advantages. Yet at some point isn’t livability supposed to translate into superior demographic and economic performance? Isn’t it supposed to make a city attractive to the talent pool needed to thrive in the 21st century? And isn’t that talent supposed to power the economy?"

    Sorry to be so hopelessly capitalistic, but when something generates no measurable return, it can't properly be called an investment.

    Here in Cincinnati, rail is being sold as an investment with a 2.7 to 1 payback. Portland is constantly held up as a Mecca to be emulated.

    If Cincinnatians want to pay for that as a lifestyle choice that's one thing, but promises that it's somehow going to be a moneymaker are proving to be empty.

  3. Well that's an interesting comment... I'm living in Portland right now, precisely because I couldn't find a job with my advanced skill set in Cincinnati, where I'm from, or in Indianapolis ... or anywhere else in the Midwest too. I'm also making about 50% more than I made at my last job in Cincinnati, which means the next time I move I might be able to afford a nice apartment on the light rail line, and thus cut down on my personal expenses, such as gas.

    But! I was certainly never consulted for this survey, whatever it is. Nor were my coworkers, who would no doubt agree with me, even the ones who have relocated to here from Indiana.

    PS. We don't have sales tax here either! It's awesome!

  4. If Cincinnatians want to pay for that as a lifestyle choice that's one thing, but promises that it's somehow going to be a moneymaker are proving to be empty.

    Empty...according mainly to COAST.

    As for Urbanophile, I think that his point, which was missed here, was that aging rust-belt enclaves in places that are hemorrhaging native-born population, like Indianapolis could probably benefit a great deal more and increase retention and keep down ground-level pollution by adopting more of the Portland-style policies. Ostensibly, the argument is that Portland hasn't fallen off of a cliff because of the institution of its policies, and they have even proved beneficial for the city.

    Some stats curiously missing from Urbanophile's publication, which would be helpful for getting a broader picture, are Highway Miles, % annual transit ridership, average annual Air Quality index, average hours per work-week.


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