Pining for more waste

Pining for more waste

A Post-Gazette columnist pines for the expansion of Pittsburgh’s light-rail system.

The rationale is that the “T’s” North Shore Connector has been such a “success.” And, supposedly, it has somehow cut congestion and has paced economic development. Then, too, because “federal dollars” pay half or more of such projects, betcha-by-golly wow, that’s darn near akin to “free” money.

Of course, a few salient facts are left out of that scenario.

There’s the hubris of backers claiming the half-billion-dollar project was brought in on budget, despite the fact that the “spine line” to the David L. Lawrence was lopped off. The project that was left assumed the full, original cost (and then some).

There’s the fact that, at last check, the Port Authority doesn’t even count the number of riders using the connector leg of the system.

Then there’s the fact that the rides require subsidies – above, that is, the usual per-rider subsidies associated with mass transit.

It was back in 2004 that the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis issued a cautionary analysis of light-rail transit and all the gush-gushing for those advocating expansion. From that assessment:

“Citizens can pay tens of millions of dollars annually to subsidize light-rail transit in their community. If the benefits exceed these costs, then rail transit would be socially beneficial. However, many of the argued benefits of light-rail transit, such as alleviating traffic congestion and pollution, may not come to bear.

“One clear benefit of rail transit, however, is higher property values for homes and businesses located near a transit station. In fact, in many cities one can see economic development occurring around transit stations, although this may not be causal evidence of the relationship between rail transit and economic development.

“But again, the increase in property values and economic development are subsidized benefits and may not be greater than the subsidy costs.

“Both citizens and local officials should have an understanding of the costs of light-rail transit relative to the potential benefits.

“Given the size of costs relative to the benefits, the creation of light-rail transit systems or the expansion of existing systems in American cities may be difficult to justify.”

Not much has changed in the ensuing 15 years. Just five years ago, the Cato Institute was even more harsh:

“Proponents misleadingly call these light-rail lines ‘high-capacity transit.’ In fact, the ‘light’ in light rail refers not to weight, but capacity; light rail is, by definition, low-capacity transit.

“Rail advocates don’t like to admit it, but buses can carry more people, more comfortably, and to more places, for far less money, than light rail.”

Concludes the 2014 study:

“The race to build light rail is a race to waste money. American transit agencies should abandon this race and stick to comfortable, affordable bus service.”

More recently, the study’s author, Randal O’Toole, published an extensive book-length study called “Romancing the Rails.”

His bottom line:

“Federally subsidized efforts to return to that Golden Age (of rail travel), through subsidies to Amtrak and local transit agencies, are doing more harm than good to personal mobility.

“Instead, the transportation of the future will rely on America’s 4 million miles of roads and air travel that requires minimal infrastructure.”

There are other curious lines in the columnist’s pining for light-rail transit expansion and plaudits for North Shore development. Such as “the North Shore is already a dreamscape compared to the asphalt sea that surrounded Three Rivers Stadium for three decades” and how “much of this would not have been possible without light rail crossing under the (Allegheny) river.”

Let’s see, heavily subsidized sports stadiums (built before the connector and with sweetheart leases to the barons of sport) begat sweetheart deals with the franchises for development rights for unimaginative cookie-cutter buildings.” Just in case you missed it, “sweetheart deals” are subsidies, too.

To each his own, one can suppose but one rah-rah-sis-boom-bah-er’s “dreamscape” typically is the taxpayers’ nightmare. And light rail and the North Shore are classic examples.

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).