Monday, November 28, 2005

This Might Be Good News

The Metropolitan Planning Organisation, which MATA touts as the driving force behind the proposed "light rail" system between Downtown and the Airport, is now reconsidering it's support.

Presently, we're told it will cost the City of Memphis alone about $100 million to build. (Another $300 million comes from the State and the Federal governments.) That assumes there won't be cost over-runs or unexpected additional costs. Where does the City expect to find that kind of money? With the recent continued lowering of our bond ratings, how can we justify the additional interest costs for a city that can't even meet its own reduced budget? We already have to find at least $25 million to make up last year's shortfall (and it might be more, we've been warned before an accounting study is released); we face shortfalls for this year as well.

Take a look at some figures: The original capital cost was supposed to be $36 million, but when it was finally opened, MATA President William Hudson crowed about coming "under budget" at $56 million! Don't think the same cost-creep won't happen today.

There is also the issue of surface-level "light rail" cars moving along high-traffic areas like Madison and Cooper and East Parkway, or Pauline and Lamar. I was under the mistaken original assumption (thanks to terrible explanations from MATA and the local media) that the line would use trolley cars, like the Madison and Main Street Trolleys. What will be used is something larger and, supposedly, faster but it will still use the same overhead tangle of power lines and tracks imbedded in the road surface. How this system is supposed to work quickly, mixed in with regular Memphis traffic, is never quite explained. And, as I have noted before, the light-rail experience in Houston is that traffic accidents are a common occurence. Imagine how much worse it will be in red-light running, crackhead driving, drunk driving, aggressive, impatient Memphis. (You can review the proposed routes here and read MATA's plea here.)

We're told it will relieve congestion and attract more riders, but already the Madison Avenue Trolley line is well below its projections. (The Commercial Appeal had a story on this, but an attempt to use their search tool to find it was frustrating and pointless. There is a gap in their list of "trolley" stories from 2003 to 2005! Go figure....) Expecting different from a light rail system is foolishness.

The Madison Trolley currently enjoys a Federal subsidy of nearly $3 million a year. In another year or so, that will be cut and then a few years later it will disappear. Where will we make up the difference? Even propenents admit that light-rail doesn't pay for itself. So we will soon be carrying the costs of two systems to the tune of millions a years. Millions we don't have at all today.

There is no good reason, in realistic terms, for this project to go forward. But I still suspect it will. The Memphis road builders are looking at $400 million to be dumped here. You think they won't spread some of that around to the various public boards and the City Council? There are also the social utopians who want to remake the city to their ideal, no matter the cost. This project is a centerpiece.

It will be used to "tie in" with the projected redevelopment of the Fairgrounds, and claimed as a "kickstart" for the declining Overton Square. The folks at Cooper-Young want no part of it. They have enough traffic problems and congestion without the headache and chaos of squeezing in a lane for light-rail cars and over head wires. The folks along Lamar Avenue would love to get it, but they aren't the target demographic for connection and redevelopment.

I would hope we can kill it, but like so many bad, but profitable, ideas it will limp along until opponents are paying attention and the bribes finally add up to a sale.

While I've linked the story in the Commercial Appeal, let me highlight this passage:
MATA president and general manager William Hudson acknowledged that transit officials must make their case and show there's "enough support to move the light-rail project forward." He noted that a survey conducted in the 1990s found 85 percent of respondents favored light rail.
Clever, that, except that since then the City has gone into a financial death spiral that shows no signs of turning around. Try asking them now.
At a public meeting this summer, Hudson pointed out that the council vote that nearly axed the light-rail project was "along racial lines." White members voted against the funding, while black members voted to keep it in the budget.

But in a recent interview, Hudson said he doesn't think "there's anything racial" about the council vote.
See the kind of dirty hardball proponents are willing to use? That's a sign of how much push there is behind it, and resistance.
Although MATA has some leftover funds that could be applied to light rail, much more significant funding commitments are needed to proceed further with the project.
Leftover funds? From where? Why aren't they being used to reduce fares? Buy new, cheaper buses? MATA is about to reduce routes yet again (including reducing the famed Madison Avenue Trolley! I told you.) but they have money squirreled away?

Someone's got some 'splainin' to do.

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