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Are Streetcars Mostly for Tourists?

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Evidence that streetcar ridership is unrelated to service frequency, bus connections, and job proximity. 

Another day, another massive U.S. streetcar project cost overrun. This time it’s Arlington, Virginia’s planned Columbia Pike line, which reports now say will cost as much as $100 million more than the latest county estimate. The news follows word from earlier this year that Atlanta’s streetcar will cost “significantly more” to operate than anticipated, and from last fall that the proposed Los Angeles streetcar could double in cost. This is exactly what streetcar advocates don’t want to hear, because it’s exactly what streetcar opponents have vocally feared.

To be fair, we should expect mega-transportation projects to come in way over budget. Whether as a result of the “planning fallacy” (people like their own ideas too much) or “strategic misrepresentation” (officials lie about the cost), roads and rails routinely cost more to build than initial projections suggest.

Story continued here at The Atlantic CityLab

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Special Edition

Who did developers bribe to get this project completed?

Who did developers bribe to get this project completed?

Megaprojects Invite Corruption

FBI agents posed as transit-oriented developers willing to bribe the mayor of Charlotte to get his support for a streetcar line, light rail, and related projects. The now-ex-mayor Patrick Cannon gladly accepted bribes in exchange for lying to investors and pushing city planning agencies to fast track the developments. When on the city council, Cannon had opposed construction of a streetcar line, but mysteriously changed his vote when he became mayor.

The Antiplanner isn’t enthusiastic about police entrapments, but this case brings to light one of the seamier sides of rail transit. These projects cost so much that they make some sort of corruption, if only in the form of campaign contributions, mandatory.

The FBI sting has to raise questions about other rail projects and developments, especially considering the current U.S. Secretary of Transportation was the mayor of Charlotte just prior to the one who was stung.

News from Washington reveals that Charlotte isn’t alone.  A draft report to the Federal Transit Administration criticizes the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) for giving out millions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts, sending work to preferred but unqualified vendors, and keeping people on payroll after they left their jobs. Another investigation revealed that a Metro employee pocketed $60,000 by selling heavy equipment, including a bulldozer and roller, from a Metro warehouse.

While these actions may be illegal, there are plenty of legal but yet questionable activities around rail transit projects. For example, a recent consultant’s report concluded that a streetcar in Arlington, Virginia, would generate more than $3 billion worth of new development. This was based mainly on the experience of the Portland streetcar, yet the report never mentions that Portland gave developers close to a billion dollars worth of subsidies in the areas along the streetcar line, nor that virtually no new development took place where the streetcar went but the subsidies didn’t. Neither did the report mention studies that show that rail lines don’t generate new development; at best they merely influence where that development takes place, making the development a zero-sum game for a region.

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