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 V.15 No.48 | November 30 - December 6, 2006 

The Real Side

The Streetcar Railroad, Episode II:

My developer is better than your developer

When we last rode the Trolley Named Folly, Mayor Martin Chavez and City Council President Martin Heinrich hit us with a massive tax increase to pay for a $270 million streetcar line along Central ["The Streetcar Railroad," Nov. 23-29]. But they weren’t able to slip this massive project by without the public taking notice. So now they’ve promised to let us vote on it [read this week's "Council Bite” on page 8 for more details]. How considerate of them.

The caboose, however, still precedes the engine. Heinrich has introduced legislation to float $200 million in bonds to finance the streetcar. The vote on his proposal is set for the same night the Council will consider authorizing a full-scale cost/benefit analysis to see if the streetcar project makes economic sense. That’s right, Heinrich wants to burden us with $200 million of debt, plus millions more in interest and underwriting fees, before asking the hard questions about whether this money should be spent.

Chavez also wants to put the tax increase for the streetcar to a vote in February, rather than November 2007 when the regular municipal election is held. Why the rush?

Similar to how streetcars can’t handle traffic bumps, this project won’t be going anywhere if too many questions are asked.

Take, for instance, the claim that 7,100 more people will use mass transit on Central if we replace buses with streetcars. That claim underlies the argument about the streetcar project being “progressive urban transportation policy.” But this claim collapses under the weight of a simple question:

Currently, 10,000 riders use the Rapid Ride and Route 66 buses along Central. Why does the city think ridership will leap 71 percent simply by replacing buses with far more expensive streetcars?

I put that question to Mark Motsko, public information officer for Albuquerque’s Department of Municipal Development. He’s the designated streetcar answer man. He said the estimate came from the project consultant, but avoided answering the direct question of why they think 7,100 people will get on a streetcar who won’t get on a bus.

I put the question to City Councilor Brad Winter, who opposed levying a streetcar tax without a public vote from the beginning. “They pulled that number out of thin air,” he responded.

I also asked Paul Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a free-market think tank that was one of the first voices to question the streetcar project. I must have caught him in an unguarded moment. “They pulled that number out of their ass,” he answered.

Whether of celestial or colonic inspiration, the assumptions underlying the streetcar project should be subjected to intense cross-examination. Councilors serious about protecting taxpayers would allow time for all the inconvenient questions to be asked.

Councilors' haste leads us to wonder: Who really benefits by pushing this thing so quickly that it escapes scrutiny? Building a streetcar line along a corridor already served by a modern bus system certainly wouldn't be done for commuters. In a Nov. 20 press release, the city boasted a 31 percent increase in boardings over last year's numbers for the Rapid Ride Central line, far exceeding original expectations.

The Rapid Ride system is an undisputed success. The city runs its entire bus system for only $35 million annually. So why replace Rapid Ride with a streetcar line that will cost $28 million a mile to build?

The real beneficiaries of a quarter-billion-dollar streetcar line will be real estate speculators. Albuquerque's transit director, Greg Payne, boasts how property values have soared 89 percent along streetcar lines built in other cities. No wonder developers were out in force the night the Council rammed through its Central streetcar project and tax levy. The new urbanism of inner-city redevelopment is looking a lot like the old urbanism of subsidizing sprawl. Either way, taxpayers are being exploited to boost profit margins for real estate developers.

We’re admonished that encouraging inner-city redevelopment is “progressive policy.” Those guys on the West Mesa are “bad developers.” The guys speculating on old motels and vacant lots along Central are “good developers.” The same “progressive” Democrats who once condemned forcing taxpayers to subsidize sprawl now propose going beyond anything done for Westside developers. Their streetcar tax will be the first tax to directly benefit private real estate development.

The ham-fisted way the Council and mayor have handled the streetcar tax has provoked suspicion and an unfortunate backlash against Downtown and the Central corridor. You can hear it in the voices of angry neighborhood leaders from the Northeast Heights and Westside. Chavez and Heinrich would do well to take the streetcar tax off the table, and return with a well-considered plan for a transit system that benefits the entire city instead of the latest developers de jour.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. E-mail jims@alibi.com.

 
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