Tag: Light rail

Streetcars and Light Rail

That’s the future of American transport, according to the man Barack Obama has tapped — after almost a year and a half — to be transportation secretary:

America’s transportation system will continue to grind to a halt under President Obama’s pick for transportation secretary, Anthony Foxx. Currently mayor of Charlotte, N.C., Foxx strongly supports streetcars and other obsolete forms of transit.

Seriously, streetcars. A number of cities, with the federal government offering lavish subsidies, are trying to revive a 19th century technology as the solution to transportation. Of course, if no one rides it, such a system actually worsens traffic, increases greenhouse gas emissions and guzzles money. And, in fact, the model of this system — Portland’s Streetcar — is an albatross. It only rides 10,000 people a day, requires federal state and local subsidies and moves slower than people walk. That’s the model. That’s how a streetcar line is doing in a city that is very liberal, very green and just about optimized to take advantage of it. You can imagine what such a boondoggle would be like in fucking Charlotte.

What’s more, Foxx is supporting this boondoggle on top of existing boondoggles.

Transit advocates often point to Charlotte as an example of a successful lightrail line (more accurately described as a “low-capacity-rail line”). With success like this, I’d hate to see failure: the line cost more than twice the original projection; generates just $3 million in annual fares against more than $20 million in annual operations and maintenance costs; and collects of an average of just 77 cents per ride compared with nearly a dollar for other light-rail lines. Now Charlotte wants to extend the line even though a traffic analysis report predicts that the extension will dramatically increase traffic congestion in the corridor (see pp. 54-56).

Foxx, of course, says that the point of mass transit isn’t to make money or move people but to “develop” areas. But … that’s ain’t true either:

Rail advocates claim that Charlotte’s low-capacity-rail line helped revitalize neighborhoods along the line. However, a study by transportation expert David Hartgen concluded that most of the billions of dollars of development that was planned along the line was never built. Of the developments that were built, most would have taken place without the line, Hartgen found, though not necessarily in exactly the same locations.

I’m reminded of the economic justifications for publicly funded sports stadiums. Whenever one is built, a surprisingly small number of businesses and apartments cluster around and we’re told that it’s because of the stadium; that without the stadium, people would (I guess) be living in ditches and selling their organs for food. But almost every objective study has shown that stadia just affect where something is built, often in a minor way (i.e, moving something a block) and often because of additional subsidies for building near them. The stadium boom has almost run its course so light rail is the next urban boondoggle to shovel taxpayer money into the hands of politically powerful interests.

I don’t mean to pick on Foxx, specifically. His view is common and is the received wisdom among Democrats and Keynesians. It would be almost impossible for Obama to find a Transportation Secretary who didn’t believe in this manure. And local and state officials keep making the mistakes of taking temporary federal subsidies to start transportation projects only to leave their successors with a money-guzzling sinkhole once the subsidies are finished. But it is rare to see someone who, looking at a market that has already demonstrated its incompatibility with light rail wants to double down.

From such is Obama building his second term cabinet.

Post Scriptum: RTFLC has obtained an exclusive video of Foxx explaining his vision for public transportation.