The District on Friday completed the first phase of testing for its $1.5 billion streetcar project. The nation's capital joins big cities like Los Angeles in advancing the revival of a transportation option that has been obsolete for more than half a century. The Obama administration is spearheading the effort to turn back the clock.
If $1.5 billion seems like a lot - it's an entire year's income-tax revenue for the city - Washington bureaucrats have a ready answer. A January 2012 study commissioned by the city concluded the 19th-century-style trolley service "strengthens real-estate values by adding $5 billion to $7 billion to the value of existing property and sparking an additional $5 billion to $8 billion in new development in the 10 years after completion." But wait, there's more. Operating electric trains in the middle of busy city streets will "draw an additional 6,300 to 7,700 jobs" to the District.
It's a perpetual-motion machine of prosperity, and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants more of it. Two years ago, he loosened funding rules so light-rail and trolley projects would have an easier time bypassing pesky cost-benefit analyses. "Measuring only cost and how fast a project can move the most people the greatest distance simply misses the boat," Mr. LaHood wrote on his Fast Lane blog on Jan. 14, 2010.
On Easter Sunday, Mr. LaHood blogged triumphantly over a 5 percent bump in transit ridership for the month of February, saying, "If we build it, riders will come." Objective measurements suggest that's simply not the case. According to the Census Bureau, the number of people commuting to work on public transportation dropped from 12.6 percent in 1960 to 5 percent today. The percentage of the population that depends on the automobile for this task has remained essentially unchanged since the 1970s despite the hundreds of billions of dollars spent by state and federal authorities on transit.
Almost as many people work from home - 4.3 percent - as take the bus or subway to work. The number who take a streetcar or trolley is an almost unmeasurable 0.1 percent, but not because the systems are unavailable. Last year, the Cascade Policy Institute surveyed five major events in Portland, Ore., to count how many in the liberal stronghold took advantage of the tram or train. A mere 8 percent hopped on the trolley on the way to the circus. About 80 percent of the environmentally conscious attendees of a "green building" show at the Expo Center used internal-combustion machines to get there. Light rail accounted for just 2.2 percent of trips to the shopping center on the Friday before Thanksgiving.
The folly of trolleys goes far beyond the massive debt they create. Mixing a rail system with automobile and pedestrian traffic is a recipe for accidents. Houston's "Wham Bam Tram" caused 245 accidents between 2004 and 2009. They also take away on-street parking spaces and significantly increase congestion.
Still, public officials remain infatuated with the idea of getting other people out of their automobiles so the government can decide when and where they can travel. In these tight budgetary times, such old-fashioned transit boondoggles should be the first to go.
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