Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A Desire Named Streetcar

The Cato Institute has released a study on public transportation that should be read by Memphians who have already had the Madison Trolley inflicted on them, and have the Airport "light rail" system waiting in the wings.
Prior to 1964, when Congress began subsidizing transit, the industry was mostly private. Since then, the industry has been almost entirely taken over by state and local governments. Today more than three of every four dollars spent on transit come from taxpayers, not transit riders....

The nation's mass transit system is a classic example of how special interests prevail over the needs and interests of voters and taxpayers. Total inflation-adjusted subsidies to transit—buses and trains—have more than doubled since 1990, yet total ridership has increased by less than 10 percent. Train ridership has dropped dramatically while automobile use has skyrocketed.
I've only skimmed it, so I don't have much more to add yet.

Remember this: the Madison Trolley is presently being subsidised in large part by Federal dollars. Slightly more than a million dollars a year in Federal money will go away in a couple more years, to be picked up by the City of Memphis. Similar operating subsidies apply to the Airport line, and will go away over time, leaving Memphis to pay for something that few use.

There are only two reasons these rail / trolley things happened. First is an activist group determined to turn downtown Memphis into Manhattan on the Mississippi. The Belz / Turley group have massive investment both downtown and in the Mayor, and expect results. The Smart City crowd want to build an island of prosperity for themselves at the expense of the rest of Memphis. The trolley / rail thing is part of the illusion of progressive city planning.

Also, local builders and contractors want those millions of Federal dollars. It doesn't matter to them if the thing gets used or not, or how successful or remunerative it is. Their only concern is the building of it, which they profit from immensely. If the choice is between having millions of dollars flow into the community to build another white elephant or not, they choose to build.

It will mean traffic tie-ups for years, again. It will mean higher taxes for Memphis, to pick up the slack in coming years. It will mean higher bus fare and declining service from MATA. It will mean expensive maintenance, if that happens, or more likely it will mean slowly deteriorating rails and roads until the City Council is presented with an expensive crisis.

The City really wants the line to tie in Downtown, Overton Square and Cooper-Young, even if that means the imposition of rail lines, stops and wires in spaces that can't handle them. They will destroy OS and C-Y in order to make them prosperous feeders to Downtown. The smarter choice, along Lamar, will play havoc with already congested traffic and present more pedestrian dangers, but it's the "wrong" kind of neighborhood to regenerate, if you know what I mean. And I know you do, if you're a Memphian.

But hey, at least we'll be necklaced by this albatross and can claim our rightful place alongside other "world class cities" because of it. Somehow that's more important than civic and fiscal responsibility.

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