Look! In the street! Is it slow? Is it expensive? Then it must be a federally subsidized streetcar project!
Randal O’Toole (pdf), a transportation scholar at the Cato Institute, explains how the Obama Administration is literally rewriting the rules to make an inefficient mode of transportation easier to fund:
The Obama administration is currently rewriting the rules for Small Starts [a federal program to subsidize local mass transit projects], and the draft rules, issued January 25, 2012, effectively eliminate the cost-effectiveness requirement. Instead, the administration proposes to judge projects by how well they promote “livability,” which Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHoood defines as, “If you don’t want an automobile, you don’t have to have one.” In this case, it evidently also means, “If you don’t want to take a bus, taxpayers will provide an expensive rail alternative.”
Why the need to change the funding criteria? O’Toole explains:
When the [Federal Transit Administration] applied the [cost-effectiveness] rules to the Small Starts program, however, streetcar advocates complained that the rules discriminated against streetcars because streetcars did not save time. Instead, advocates argued, the FTA should evaluate streetcars based on their perceived contributions to livability and economic development.
Among other uses “livability” is code for “high density,” a term that translates into smaller living spaces crowded together in apartment buildings instead of single family homes with a yard.
California Governor Jerry Brown is notorious for preaching an “era of limits” that lets the state’s freeway system decay in order to force people into high density housing in the urban core. With everybody living on top of each other, cars become unfeasible and mass transit suddenly becomes relevant.
But even in this Orwellian vision, streetcars like the ones favored by the Obama administration don’t make economic sense because buses can go faster, seat more people and cost less to operate because they don’t depend on railway lines to move.
No matter. With the new rules in place 45 cities are lining up to qualify for streetcar subsidies.
If the Feds are paying, who cares about the costs?