Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The streetcar debate rages in Madison

Madison WI - This is a two piece article, all in one, regarding the streetcar proposal in Madison.

Two interesting articles were posted in the Madison Capital Times that I felt needed to have some additional comments made on them.

First, in a commentary for the Capital Times, writer Rob Zaleski gives an overview of Little Rock, Arkansas' trolley operation as food for thought regarding the streetcar proposal in Madison. A few items I disagree with based on past knowledge of how cities do things. Primary in my disagreement is where development is discussed.

A good part of the development occurs at the taxpayer's expense. Through grants, tax breaks to the developer and low interest loans (which are often not repaid), developers will come in to build. The issue is that the development is attributed to the rail line without any mention of what it actually cost the taxpayer to get the development there in the first place.

This tactic conveniently ignores the fact of why the development happened and is a good example of the spin used by the pro-rail crowd when trying to ram another rail line through. The dirty little secret is that the development would happen with or without the rail line as long as the developer received the taxpayer supported monetary incentives to build.

Beside the development issue, there was also mention of the "cheap" fares. While it is mentioned that the Little Rock trolley is hurting the bus system by not allowing it to expand to where it needs to, it omits the point that the "cheap" trolley fares are being subsidized by the much higher bus fares.

The high ridership of the trolley line is a direct result of the "cheap" fare for the rail line. To charge the full bus fare on the trolley route would deeply cut into the ridership numbers that the transit system and the city need to justify the trolley line.

The second part of this article deals with an article in the Capital Times that makes the claim that rail doesn't hurt the Portland bus operation.

Using FTA and APTA reports, the writer, Ward Lyles states that rail service has not effected the bus operation. He fails to mention that those numbers are highly massaged numbers and often are off by 30% or more. It's not just rounding up to the next highest 100 or even 1,000. TA's have a mathematical formula they use to calculate ridership which includes a fudge factor that is manually applied to get the numbers they want to see or in some cases, have to see.

Transit systems routinely massage ridership numbers and other data to generate what they and key officials want to see. We, the general public, will rarely get to see the true raw data used to generate the numbers that are reported to the government and to the APTA industry trade group. All we usually will ever see are the post massaged numbers with no explanation as to how they arrived at the numbers in question.

That's where the pro-rail crowd gets much of their power, from the government and industry approved final numbers that they love to wave around. If one were to actually look at the raw data before the transit systems massaged the numbers, one would find much of the success in many rail lines are grossly exaggerated.

City leaders and transit officials have to cover their butts when pushing for expensive projects like rail. In my home system, I have had internal reports of dropped ridership on the LRT line yet when the raw data is processed, it suddenly turns into an increase in ridership. They manually increase the raw ridership numbers to show an increase. The reason in my home system? To try and justify an unneeded rail extension that they ultimately can't afford to operate.

"But it will bring development and help the region's economy" they state. Wrong, the development is occurring because of the two stadiums. By the time all is said and done, the pro-rail crowd will be claiming the two stadiums were built because of the rail line. As far as helping the economy, the transit system can't afford what it has now and is planning a major hack and slash of service and jobs. How does cutting entire sections of the county off from transit and eliminating jobs help the economy?

The bottom line should be "can the system afford to operate what they so desperately want?" In many cases, the answer is no but through political spin and waving heavily massaged ridership reports around, city and transit officials, along with the pro-rail crowd, convince themselves they can make it work.

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