Out of Control Policy Blog

Make your city a ýrealţ cityˇjust add rail

A college newspaper oped-er gushes over Minneapolis's light rail line:

    arguably the most striking effect of the new train system has been the way that the city's inhabitants have begun to view their own city, best stated by the headline of the St. Paul Pioneer Press on the light rail's opening day that read, "Now it feels like a real city!"

    It's time for Madison to become a "real city." It's time for transportation on rails.

Forget your sterile cost-benefit analysis, the desire to be a "real" city lies at the heart of much of the light rail craze.

But if it's "real" expensive, the "real" city dream might not last long.

Consider what's happening in Portland, Oregon the city that I think is almost entirely populated by out of town city council members oohing and ahhing over real-live light rail lines. They're eager to bring "sustainable" transportation to their home towns, but how sustainable is Portland's approach?

Headline: Transit projects running on empty

    Metro estimates that the state's 24 cent gas tax, last increased in 1993, would have to be raised $1.40 a gallon to pay for everything in the current [$10 billion long-range] plan. That's clearly a fantasy, [Metro Councilor Rex] Burkholder says, and he wants to bring a dose of reality to the process.

There's also a "financially constrained" list of projects that costs $4.2 billion:

    But Burkholder says even that 2004 "constrained" figure was based on a 1 cent annual gas tax increase. Not only has that not happened -- voters overwhelmingly rejected a nickel increase in 2000 -- the amount available for new projects is even less because it will be needed to pay the debt for the state $1.3 billion bridge repair program.

Apparently some revamping is in the works:

    Burkholder says he expects the revamped project list to be smaller. Projects that survive will meet these criteria: clean air, safe and pleasant neighborhoods, reliable -- if not necessarily speedy -- commutes, and freight reliability.

BTW, something else is waning in Portland. John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute points to a Portland Business Alliance survey (see last page of pdf) that shows that the percentage of downtown employees who use light rail to get to work has tumbled from 20 percent in 2001 to 14 percent in 2005. This is especially significant since downtown commuters are typically the easiest people for rail lines to serve.

Related: Other Cities Celebrate the Transcendent Power of Rail

Ted Balaker is Producer


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