Thursday, September 27, 2007

The push is on for streetcars in Tacoma

Tacoma WA - The push is on once again for streetcars to ply the streets in Tacoma. The Tacoma Daily Index has a story on one of the activists pushing to saddle the city and its taxpayers with the expensive toy. Now that the city is once again considering the plan, the activists are coming out of the woodwork.

Tacoma resident (at least he's a current resident unlike the Kansas City meddler) Morgan Alexander has been leading the charge at the grassroots level to bring back streetcar. The article on him stood out to me based on a quote from Alexander which was: "I guess it's just one of those ideas you either get right away, or you don't get at all."

Based on the rhetoric Alexander uses for his support of bringing streetcars back, I don't think he gets it.

Alexander of course uses the standard boilerplate argument that developers will flock to Tacoma. What Alexander won't tell you is that it can take decades to get developers in and then the vast majority will only come after hundreds of millions in tax concessions and other taxpayer funded sweetheart deals are offered up.

The line is clearly being considered strictly for development with transportation secondary. Alexander so much as states this in the last part of the article. "The advantage of a streetcar over a bus is that it's a real visible, physical improvement and investment in the city that developers will build around. Plus, they are just fun. I think it's key for the City of Tacoma because there's really not a lot the city can do to really impact economic development itself. The current model is to have developers and business owners do it. I think it's a great way for the City itself to build a community, and the system be a visible outgrowth of the city's spirit."

Alexander also won't tell you that the local transit system, the Spokane Transit Authority, will suffer. Where does he think some of the funding to run the streetcar will come from? That's right, a swap of funds from the STA to the city or non-profit entity set up by the city to run the operation. More than likely, the STA will be stuck running it while the city coughs up only a small portion of the true operational costs. That ultimately translates to fare hikes and route cuts down the road.

The STA is a rather well run system and I even honored them with the MOD Award on January 12, 2007 for their back to basics approach to public transit. Tossing in a streetcar will throw that agency into a tail spin. Even though the STA is well run, they still are on a precarious perch financially and don't need a fiscal black hole sucking down the money needed to run the entire bus system.

His explanation of how this streetcar line will be financed is confusing to say the least. It does involve the "tax everything" philosophy however. While he admits that the private sector must be involved in helping to finance the building of the line, he doesn't relate the fact that it will be hard to obtain the private funding and that offsetting taxpayer funded tax incentives to the private entity will need to be done.

Of course, the obligatory trip to the Holy See of the streetcar movement, Portland Oregon, was done and the city tossed up as an example of how great Tacoma could be if they only listen and build the streetcar line. Again, Alexander fails to state how many billions of dollars Portland truly spent on their rail lines through making taxpayer funded sweetheart deals that will cost taxpayers for decades to come.

Alexander also goes on about how much public support there is for a streetcar line in Tacoma. Of course there is. When the question is worded in such a manner that it paints the streetcar as the saviour of the city, people will say they support it. I've seen the same thing in Pittsburgh. The North Shore Connector, when originally brought up, was widely supported by the general public in various polls until the cost of the project was discovered in addition to the fare hikes and service cuts. People then realized that the system couldn't afford it but it was too late to stop the project.

While I am the first to admit that a streetcar is nice, I also realize that it is expensive and doesn't do what proponents such as Alexander claim it will do. What Alexander is doing is literally akin to the old snake-oil salesman of the past. Selling a product based on totally false claims. Development, solving traffic problems, cleaning the air, etc. are all dubious claims that are routinely used to promote rail.

Tacoma really needs to rethink the streetcar plan. It won't do what they think it will and will ultimately end up making the city much more expensive to live in due to all the increased taxes that will either directly or indirectly be needed to pay for the building and operation of a rail line that really isn't needed. For once at least I can't use the argument that they need to fix what they have in terms of the STA since that agency is one of the shining stars in the otherwise bleak cosmos of public transit these days but they still don't need the fiscal black hole known as a streetcar.