Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Streetcars for all the wrong reasons

Washington DC - reports that Washington DC is now jumping on the streetcar bandwagon. The reasons given are all of the standard boiler plate Light Rail Transit (LRT) arguments which proponents try to overwhelm the general public with.

Once again we hear about the economic boom times that are ahead once the line is built. We hear about all the development that will occur. We hear how it will reduce traffic. We hear how it will clear the air. We don't hear one word about if it will actually move people any better than a decently operated bus route could.

We even receive an environmental brow beating from Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Washington's delegate to Congress. "Light rail is the wave of the future if you care about the environment" Holmes tells us.

As stated in an earlier Laurels & Lances article, it is unclear as to how well rail lines actually help the environment. Rail lines, like streetcars, don't reduce pollution near as much as proponents claim. The traffic will still be there and congestion will increase. Cars and trucks will be spewing more pollution into the air from the increased congestion. Pollution will still be generated to run the streetcar, albeit at a distant power plant. The environmental claims of reduced pollution for LRT and its offshoots are a dubious claim at best.

The line is planned to run by the new Washington National's ballpark set to open in 2008. The ballpark is what will spur development in one of Washington DC's poorest neighborhoods, not the streetcar line. We'll never know that once the rail proponents start spinning the facts and claim anything that is built in the area, including the ballpark, is proof that streetcars spurred the development.

What is often overlooked in these deals are that the poorest residents, the same ones that the politicians claim they want to help, will be displaced. The poorest residents will be pushed out so development can occur. This little fact is one of the most glossed over items of revitalization efforts in any city. The politicians and pro-side activist groups will end up getting the residents all excited about having their neighborhood and life quality improving so that none of them will question anything until they get a court order to move out so a developer can build a condo. Rather than actually improve the lives of its residents through proper education and proper investment in the community, cities opt for unneeded capital projects which ultimately force the "problem" out of their area and into another area.

Although the city is financing to build this line, it eventually will be dropped onto the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority's (WMATA) lap to operate. WMATA is already facing a multi-million dollar operating deficit and this is just what they need, another fiscal black hole to try and fill.

Then there is the American Public Transit Association (APTA) comment from Bill Millar. "Washington seems to be following what many cities are doing: to see how the use of streetcars might be helpful in not only solving transportation problems, but in helping with economic-development issues", states Millar. His comments are typical of what I expect from APTA as they are just a lobbying group that routinely calls for "style over substance" transportation solutions as well as refusing to address the true problems facing the future of public transit.

While this streetcar line may actually work well, the reasons being cited as to why the line is needed are not the reasons it should be built. Not one reason given in the story is a good reason to pour millions of tax dollars into building and operating the line. It's all political spin that is based in conjecture rather than fact.

Such a streetcar line, as this one in Washington DC, should be built if it is the best transportation mode for the area. This line is not that and the proponents make no claim that it is. It's just another attempt to jump on the LRT/Streetcar bandwagon using the worn out pro-rail rhetoric.

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