Sunday, March 21, 2004

Madison Avenue Folly

The new Madison Avenue trolley began operations this week, and to see the media hoopla you'd think it was a Great Thing. Bah. A taxpayer boondoggle, a wet dream for social planners and a windfall for road builders. The editors over at the Memphis Flyer say it best:
The new trolley link between downtown and what may some day actually be a revived "medical center" is a questionable expense of public funds. It is justified by the generosity of the federal government, which used to pay 80 percent of the cost of mass-transit projects. Or in the case of Memphis, federal funds diverted from the aborted Interstate 40 project through Overton Park were used to help build the first stage of the downtown trolley system....

But the proposed new light-rail line from downtown to the airport is another matter. Supposedly, it would cost $400 million, but any estimate about a public construction project targeted for completion in 2010 is a guess, at best. What we do know is that under new rules the federal government would pay at most $200 million, or half of the cost. State and local governments would pay the rest, plus operating subsidies.

We cannot imagine a state government that often looks askance at Memphis anyway rallying behind a $100 million appropriation. And we cannot imagine city and county governments that recently declined to spend $5 million over several years on the hometown University of Memphis rallying behind a $100 million investment in light rail.

The Commercial Appeal headlined it as "A trolley for residents," but considering that it stops long before it reaches many clusters of apartment complexes further east, it seems false. I live one block off Madison, but as it stands I have to catch the 2 bus to the closest trolley terminal at Cleveland and then transfer. Yeah, right. I'll just stay on my bus, thank you. Though the trolley runs "every ten mintues" I still have to wait a while for the number 2. Why can't regular busses run "every ten minutes?" Wouldn't that be even better than a trolley?

Obviously, this was a case of "use it or lose it." And the losers are the Midtowners. Though the Commercial Appeal glosses it, several businesses went under during construction. Many more suffered financial setbacks that will hurt them for years to come. Not only that, but there's an ugly showdown already happening over the proposed extension. The city would love to continue the trolley down Madison to Overton Square, then shoot south along Cooper to the Cooper-Young hub. Nearly everyone involved along that route opposes it, especially the folks in C-Y who will lose a lot of their charm to make room for the tracks, widened roads, lost parking and sidewalks, and overhead spaghetti the trolley entails. Business leaders haven't been in the least mollified by assurances from the builders that they learned their lesson with the original line.

The proposed Lamar extension has actual advocates, who would like to have traffic brought to their business corridor, but the city would prefer that tourists see the "funky" parts of Midtown, not the rundown parts, and so that route is deprecated.

Make no mistake, it will be mostly tourists who use this contraption. No matter what the Commercial Appeal tries to make you believe in their multi-page worship of the trolley, it is simply too slow for most commuters. City busses travel faster; nearly traffic flow speed most of the time. Trolleys creep along.

It was all a big pot of money dressed up in city pride by folks who want to sell you the Emperor's New Clothes. Social engineers will lament its non-use and dream of new ways to spend taxpayer money to make you use it, so they can be proven right. Imagine if all that money could somehow have been diverted into MATA's coffers? We'd have more frequent busses, more routes and later times, longer routes. We might afford smaller busses for those routes and times that don't require the standard long bus, saving money, fuel, wear and pollution! It would visibly and effective improve the quality of public transportation, which currently sucks.

One MATA example. I used to travel out to the Hickory Ridge Mall area, back in the Nineties before the whole area fell into disrepair and abandon. I could catch a bus along Union and make only one transfer. Not so bad. Total trip time, though? Close to an hour. And God forbid I'm a minute or so late being at the stop, as I'd have to wait 45 minutes for the next one, which might not hook up with the bus I needed to transfer to in order to get home!

For some reason, no doubt influenced by the same "Manhattan on the Mississippi" crowd that is sucking up tax dollars at a furious pace for dubious worth, the central bus terminal is all the way over to the west of the city, near the Pyramid, rather than near the middle. So, rather than a lot of short spokes leading from a centrally-located hub, hatched with cross-connectors near the edges to save some longer trips, we have huge rambling worms tracing all over the place. It often means having to travel from one end of town to the downtown just to connect to a bus taking you back out to the edge again, so you can move geographically north or south! Heck, they could even place a small number of "sub-hubs" in the places with the highest concentration of bus travellers and connect them, like the airlines do. But no, we have the same plodders at the helm stuck to the same old ideas, serving the same old masters.

The whole purpose of the trolley is being sold to us as a "light rail" alternative to car travel. Now, when you think of "light rail" most folks picture the commuters of the Northeast corridor going to work every morning from the bedroom communities, reading their papers and working on their computers, travelling into the Big City. Ours is nothing like that; it's a trolley, no matter what proponents say. Loud, bumpy, jangly. Think San Francisco, not Connecticut or Chicago. Supposedly, these things will be faster and better than bus routes from the airport area to the downtown. Not likely, as trolleys are slower than busses. And the routes being chosen are both the two sides of a triangle rather than the one, shorter side. As others have noted, we'd be better off with a $3 or $4 charter bus arrangement from an airport-neighborhood bus hub to the downtown terminal. Faster and more direct.

[BTW, did you know a cab ride from the airport to the Midtown area can cost nearly thirty dollars? If I were an enterprising guy, I'd start one of those gypsy bus lines, like they have in Boston and New York, ferrying people in vans from the airport to the Bus Terminal downtown. You'd make a mint.]

But don't look for things like that. Too smart, too obvious. And not connected to those big, big pots of money waiting for someone to spend.

No comments: