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Trump’s transportation policy paves the way for the future

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Last month the Trump administration released their budget proposal, which among many shifting priorities, included eliminating a long-standing federal program called “New Starts.”  New Starts was created in the 1990s and has funneled hundreds of millions of federal monies to localities to build expensive transit projects, including light rail systems.

It was no surprise that many who have benefitted from the light rail gravy train over the past few decades reacted as if the fields were on fire.

Scot Mussi

Scot Mussi

Among the arguments made to attribute value to the New Starts program, was the claim that light rail in the Phoenix metro area has generated $9 billion in “real estate activity” surrounding the transit line in the last decade. More than being overly optimistic, this claim has been summarily debunked.

Just a year and a half ago, light rail enthusiasts took credit for $7 billion in development.  Upon further investigation however, it was discovered that new development was actually $6.9 billion in development plans. And these plans were mostly submitted prior to the financial crash and prior to the light rail line opening or even being announced.

Furthermore, many of these plans languished and never came to fruition. Specifically, at least half a billion dollars were cancelled and as a result, assertions that a boon of development had occurred were pared back from $7.4 billion in 2009 to $6.9 billion in 2013.

Not only did many private developments fall through or cancel, much of the development that has occurred has been subsidized by the government in the way of low-income housing tax credits and other government programs. In many instances the government has had to pay people to build by light rail.

And lastly, Valley Metro has included in their figures, development that would have occurred anyway, such as the construction of a new high school and the expansion of the Phoenix Convention Center.

This isn’t just in Phoenix.  There is no evidence that light rail spurs development.

According to the independent study commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration itself, light rail does not create growth, but at best redistributes it. The strongest correlation in fact, is the cities that have spent the most in transit have had the slowest growth. Though not spending money on transit is not a guaranteed advantage, spending more on transit has consistently been correlated to slow or stagnate growth.

This should come as no surprise considering the amount of debt cities generally take on when building fancy rail lines.  Not only do many cities incur debt to fund capital costs to match federal contributions, but often cities fail to have the necessary funds for ongoing maintenance and operations costs.  Of all the rail lines in the country, only one has been built “on time” and “on budget.”  And it wasn’t Phoenix.

But set aside the apparent fact that Arizona has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a transit system that has increased congestion on the roads, cannibalized bus ridership, and failed to provide any external growth.  There’s an even more salient reason taxpayers should be thrilled by Trump’s prerogative to eliminate the carrot for more light rail spending.

The country is on the verge of a transportation revolution. The reality is no one knows what transportation, transit, or infrastructure will look like in the next five to ten years with the advent of autonomous vehicles.  Government incentivizes to incur long-term debt to invest in century old technology that is already obsolete is an absurd policy decision.

Rationalizing spending more money on a sunk system because we have already spent so much, is throwing good money after bad.  It’s past time the outdated New Starts program as well as the old transit line technology be ushered out to make room for the possibilities of the future.

— Scot Mussi is president of the Free Enterprise Club.

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The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

2 comments

  1. This is the second Opinion in this single issue of ACT hawking self-driving vehicles and either ignoring or putting down public transportation, on dubious technical and ideological grounds. What’s with this influx of near-alt-right commentators (disparaging, but without threatening violence) now appearing in the ACT, remarking on topics that require more dispassionate attention — like local transit — than Mr. “Free Enterprise” Mussi can muster? Is there a dearth of progressive commentators who can balance these “debates”? it’s unlikely they don’t exist. Is it because they’re not incented to write (they usually aren’t paid well or at all, as are these corporate mouthpieces)? Or, especially if they are in the public sector, do they fear publishing their opinions for which they may suffer retaliation from rightist scourges like the laughingly tax-exempt Goldwater Institute?

    Whatever the cause, it’d be nice in these days of the Imperial Presidency and our Capitol’s Dunce-ocracy to read in the ACT greater variety among the Opinions, written with real critical thought — not more paid pats on the back for the White House’s increasingly brutish, butcher’s knife-wielding policies in one sector after another: this week transportation, next week healthcare, the next education, etc., etc. At least have them pay ACT for the free advertising, to defray your costs of publication and distribution, at least. They obviously have money to burn.

  2. Here’s some critical thought for you, @Sol. There is no less flexible or more expensive (per passenger mile) form of public transit than light rail. How could rational thought bring us to the most costly, least responsive way to meet our transportation needs? Building out light rail based on what we expect our needs to be 30 years from now is completely irrational but it does make the city council feel like they are a “real” city, like Detroit or Chicago. Personally, I don’t think those are the best role models to emulate.

    Here’s another rational thought. If the federal government was following the mandate the people provided in our Constitution, it would not be meddling in Arizona’s transportation, healthcare or education in the first place. We don’t need 49 other states telling us what to do, Arizona knows how best to provide for Arizona.

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