Tuesday, June 19, 2012

From Small Starts grows great avidity

Cato scholar Randal O'Toole isn't one to mince words when it comes to the Great Conspiracy to Restore the Streetcars.  Which is in contradistinction to former Yale Debate Team mate of (now) Senator John F. Kerry, Bradford Snell's conspiracy theory concocted in service of an Ahab-like pursuit of the Great White Whale, General Motors, that has become an albatross around the neck of Wikipedia.

O'Toole, following the money, finds that venal politicians, consultants, real estate developers, engineering firms and streetcar manufacturers can exploit taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars, in the name of smart growth and 'liveability'.  Most conspicuously in Portland, Oregon.

There, the myth has been propagated of billions of dollars in development due to that city's wise construction of a 4 mile long streetcar system--at a cost of over $100 million dollars.  What is usually missing from the story is that the city also gave hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies, infrastructure and tax breaks to the developers to build along that streetcar corridor.  All the building took place where there were subsidies to be enjoyed, none on portions of the corridor where such largesse was absent.

Several other cities have plans to do the same, and they won't even have to overlook the law to do so.  In this case a 2005 (Bush era) Federal Transit Administration grant program, Small Starts, that authorized up to $75 million for projects that were to be evaluated on the basis of the cost savings in travel time of streetcars (and other transport) versus improvements to bus service.

But, thanks to the 2009 Obama stimulus package, that requirement has been obliterated, due to the complaints of streetcar enthusiasts that the program discriminated against their pets; i.e. streetcars that did not save time for commuters.

So now, the evaluation is to be not streetcars versus buses on commuter time saving, but on the much vaguer; livability, environmental justice and 'multimodal connectivity'. Criteria almost sure to result in the highest cost alternatives being chosen, because they will bring the most money in grants.

Something like what happened in Portland, where the least edifying part of the tale would be the crony capitalism that O'Toole details as having happened with the Oregon Iron Works.

Portland originally purchased its streetcars from the Czech Republic at a cost of $1.9 million dollars each.  Thanks to its congressional delegation, and legislation requiring 'Made in America' vehicles, now Portland pays over $7 million each for those cars, because they are 'constructed' by Oregon Iron Works subsidiary United Streetcars.

Multimodal connectivity, indeed.

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