Saturday, April 11, 2009

Streetcar Would Return $4-$8 for Every $1 Invested

By J.W. Madison
Founder, Rails Inc.

We Albuquerqueños have finally arrived at a point in our history at which we realize that we need more and better transit. This is the good news.
The bad news is that, unlike cities all over the West, we're still fooling around with partial and obsolete solutions to this problem. We're still caught in the bus trap.

If car-crazy towns like Calgary, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Salt Lake City can break out of this trap, why can't we?

We need streets. We need cars and trucks for police, fire, emergency, construction, repair and delivery purposes. We need expanded facilities for bicycles, wheelchairs and feet. And we certainly need buses, big and small. But all these by themselves amount to branches without a trunk.

For the massive daily work of moving commuters, students, event-goers and tourists, and of facilitating people-powered transportation, nothing does it like a train. Here are some of the reasons:

• Fuel/energy economy that's two to three times that of bus-based transit. This picture gets even prettier when you realize that roads, unlike rails, are themselves made largely out of petroleum products.

• Long life and low upkeep. A modern rail vehicle lasts at least twice as long as a bus, and similar durability applies to rails vs. roads.

• Safety, convenience and reliability in all kinds of weather. And, though rail systems are not immune to disastrous weather episodes, they "weather" them more easily, and can be returned to service faster and cheaper when they do break down.

• Wise use of resources. A rail system moves from three to four times the people (or tons of freight) as does a road system using up the same amount of steel, concrete or real estate.

• Renewal of city centers and first-ring suburbs. Rail promotes more choices in residential and commercial infrastructure. In other words, rail fights sprawl. This may not be good news to everyone, but it is to an ever-increasing number of us.

• No tire disposal problem. Toxic and flammable tire mountains are becoming a serious problem worldwide, and they're not that easy or safe to recycle.

• People really like riding trains. There a problem with that? People by the thousands will ride a train who won't ride a bus; although oddly enough, implementation of rail transit leads to increased use of non-rail transit, if the system is configured properly. And any good transit system promotes walking and biking as well.

So what progress are we making toward city rail for Albuquerque?

After the modern streetcar initiative failed in 2006, the 21st Century Transportation Task Force, chaired by Isaac Benton, was convened to study local transportation and related tax policy and to make recommendations. I was a member.

After eight months of twice-monthly meetings, a large majority of us recommended increases in funding for transit, biking and walking improvements; including an improved modern streetcar proposal. "Streetcar II" would cover a long-enough distance (Central from Atrisco to San Mateo) to be the start of a citywide rail transit network.

Our findings were sensible and modest — hardly an incitment to riot — yet there they lie, stuck in Albuquerque's nearsighted and contentious politics. Abundant proof exists that tax money invested in rail transit multiplies four-to eightfold in various benefits to the public. Rail doesn't cost, it pays. Not for years, but for generations.

Given this high return on public investment, it's a wonder indeed that these cost-effective taxpayer's delights are still widely regarded as a waste of money. Epithets like these are misleading red herrings; the equivalent of "Commie" and "Pinko" in transportation discourse.

If anything is more truly conservative than a return to the public of $4 to $8 dollars for every tax dollar spent, I for one have no idea what it is.

Add to this the benefits, financial and otherwise, of a cleaner environment, greater energy self-sufficiency, better health and more money in your pocket and you have to wonder just who around here is responsible for our backwater status in transportation.

One of the biggest jobs of our political leaders is to invest our tax money in what promises the greatest return, financially and otherwise. Modern rail is a proven winner in both areas.


Ian said...

I appreciate your passion for the subject and agree we should make public investments that pay back. However, there was no analysis or sources in your post, and so I'm left completely baffled as to the economic means by which the investment would pay back. And why would the streetcar (the slowest transit mode available) be used as a trunk line? Wouldn't a faster high capacity mode be better used as a trunk and the streetcar would be a local circulator?

Tim said...

Ian, I'm certain the return on investment numbers are from private investment in the form of development along transit routes. While there is no sources cited I know you are aware of various projects around the country where these figures aren't unheard of. Opponents also use construction costs in their arguments but never quantify intangible value brought on by such infrastructure. The "backbone" argument is well...arguable as a result of the RailRunner. This streetcar along Central Ave. is a viable concept when combined with proper zoning, guidelines, and incentives.

Thanks for posting this, abqdwell. I've been defending this argument over on city-data.

Jenifer said...

I know you are aware of various projects around the country..
You cannot go wrong on the best security systems