While many Republicans politicians oppose public transportation, especially rail transit and intercity rail, Donald Trump appears to be a supporter. Perhaps that should not surprise us given that is a New Yorker. While he may not often use New York’s subways, he certainly knows the city would come to a halt without it. What would his New York real estate investments be worth if New York’s rail transit ceased to operate? Businessman are aware of this sort of thing.
Trump’s few statements on infrastructure and passenger rail also give cause for optimism. He has repeatedly called for a massive program to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure. In the speech announcing his candidacy, he said, according to Business Insider, “Rebuild the country’s infrastructure – – nobody can do that like me, believe me. It will be done on time, on budget, way below costs, way below what anyone ever thought. I look at these roads being built all over the country and I say, ‘I could build these things for one third.’ We have to rebuild our infrastructure: our bridges, our roadways, our airports.”
This is a point he has repeated. According to nymag.com of May 5, 2016, Trump said on CNBC’s Squawk Box, “Maybe my greatest strength is the economy, jobs, and building. We do have to rebuild our infrastructure.” The same source quotes Trump calling for a “trillion-dollar rebuilding plan” which would be “one of the biggest projects this country has ever undertaken” and create 13 million jobs. It further quotes Trump’s book, Crippled America, as saying, “A few years ago, Moody’s. the financial investment agency, calculated that every $1 of federal money invested in improving the infrastructure for highways and public schools would generate $1.44 back to the economy. On the federal level, this is going to be an expensive investment, no question about that. But in the long run it will more than pay itself.”
Of course, as public transportation advocates know only too well, “infrastructure” could mean just highways. What has Trump said about rail? Time magazine of March 3, 2016 quoted Trump as saying some encouraging words:
In a freewheeling speech Thursday afternoon, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump stumbled into a riff about how great trains are. It’s sad, he said, that the American rail system is so dilapidated while China’s is now slicker than ever.
“They have trains that go 300 miles per hour,” the populist billionaire exclaimed, “We have trains that go chug…chug…chug.”
All this certainly is certainly more encouraging than anything said by any of the other Republican candidates. More, because Trump is a businessman, as President he might do what Democrats have shown they will not, namely put a cap on the explosive and unjustified escalation of building rail transit. We now see proposals for streetcar lines coming in at more than $100 million per mile, when they can be built for much less.
What is needed is a common business tool called “should cost” limits. In relation to transit, “should cost” means the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) would set limits on the cost of building new rail transit lines, limits based on internationally-derived best practices. If a city wanted to pay more, it could, but all the money above the “should cost” figure would have to come from state or local resources. The feds would not pay for more than the line should cost. This would create a now-absent incentive for consultants and contractors to keep costs down.
Establishing FTA “should cost” limits is something a President with a business background would be more likely to do than would one with a previous career as a politician. Too often, politicians care only that the money go into the pockets of their political friends.
The current rapid escalation in rail transit costs threatens to put rail out of business. If, on the other hand, construction costs were to be forced downward, we could expand the amount of rail transit we could afford to build. From that perspective, President Trump might prove a better friend of transit than President Clinton.
William S. Lind serves as Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation based in Washington, DC
The Norfolk Virginian-Pilot published a guest editorial on Sunday, March 20, by Glen Bottoms supporting an extension to the Hampton Roads region’s light rail line (The Tide) to the Virginia Beach Town Center. The editorial, which lays out the reasons why the extension should make sense to conservatives, can be found here: http://pilotonline.com/opinion/columnist/guest/glen-d-bottoms-light-rail-a-wise-choice-for-hampton/article_3d43a53c-5b5d-5170-bd46-41b92bd0363a.html
Bill Lind and Glen Bottoms have collaborated on a penetrating article printed in The American Conservative entitled Don’t Railroad Amtrak: Americans Love Trains. So Should Conservatives. Lind and Bottoms tender persuasive arguments detailing why Amtrak deserves the strong support of conservatives across America. It can be accessed at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/dont-railroad-amtrak/
Bill Lind and Glen Bottoms have penned an incisive article in the Texas Tribune urging Texas conservatives to support rail transit in the Lone Star State, including a private initiative to build high speed rail between Dallas and Houston. With expanding rail systems in Houston and Dallas, and a viable high speed rail initiative to connect Dallas and Houston making progress, Texas has the opportunity to demonstrate the transforming power of rail passenger transportation. Lind and Bottoms also describe the high speed rail project as a real game-changer with enormous potential. The article, entitled The Conservative Case for Public Transportation can be viewed at http://tribtalk.org/2015/07/19/the-conservative-case-for-more-rail-transit-in-texas/
Glen Bottoms has written a review of Benjamin Ross’ provocative book, Dead End: Suburban Sprawl and the Rebirth of American Urbanism. The review provides revealing insights into Mr. Ross’ research and oftentimes unconventional but firmly supported conclusions. The review was published in The American Conservative and can be read at: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-to-reclaim-suburban-sprawl/
The book was published by the Oxford University Press and is available at local bookstores or through Amazon.
An article appeared in The New York Times on Saturday, January 2, 2016, entitled “In Atlanta, a Ride Many Scorn Is No Longer Free.” That title says it all and obviously requires no imagination to guess how the Times feels about Atlanta’s initial streetcar line. The sole motivation for the article appears to be the fact that people will now actually begin paying to ride the streetcar. While the streetcar just completed a year’s operation, the Times appears keenly disappointed with these first twelve months. The Times reaches the conclusion that the streetcar will have minimal impact in solving the traffic woes of the Atlanta metropolitan area. Really? The Atlanta Streetcar is a downtown circulator, that is, it is completely oriented to improving mobility and enhancing development prospects in the downtown area and, not incidentally, represents the first small segment of a much larger system that will tie together Atlanta’s central core.
Not mentioned in the article is a major catalyst for the streetcar system, the Belt project, a far-reaching initiative that will create a circular band of parks, trails, housing (affordable and otherwise) and, yes, a streetcar line circumnavigating a necklace of abandoned railroad rights of way around the city. The planned streetcar system will connect with this circular greenway at a number of locations. As with the streetcar, this has nothing to do with the commuters in the suburbs bound to their cars, trying to negotiate the Atlanta region’s epic traffic congestion created by maximum highway and minimal transit investment. This is about improving the quality of life in central Atlanta. Incidentally, the trail system buildout along the belt is already underway and the completed sections have become immensely popular.
The Times article slays the usual share of strawmen, quoting a spokesperson from a local libertarian think tank, who solemnly (and predictably) pronounces the project dead after the first year, saying
“They’re holding it [the streetcar] as the way of the future for the rest of Metro Atlanta, and heaven forbid we should follow the example of the City of Atlanta on the streetcar . . . We need to accept that this was a dismal failure . . .”
A libertarian think tank in Phoenix also made declarations of doom for that city’s light rail system before it opened. Not only is that system a roaring success, the city’s voters recently approved an increase in the sales tax to support a substantial expansion. That think tank has had little to say about the system since its initial predictions.
And how are other cities faring that have embraced the modern streetcar? Portland’s streetcar system, begun in 2001, is regarded as a success as is Seattle’s South Lake Union streetcar. Less known but equally successful is Tacoma, WA’s streetcar line. Tucson, AZ’s streetcar opened in July, 2014 and has quickly become an indispensable part of the city, spawning development and spurring a renaissance in transit riding. Dallas has opened an initial streetcar line connecting the downtown to nearby Oak Cliff. Washington, DC finally opened in February 2016 and service, like Atlanta, is initially free of charge. Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Detroit will open later in 2016. Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Fort Lauderdale will soon break ground for their own downtown streetcar circulators. The point is that plenty of cities are opting to adopt the streetcar to enhance mobility in the urban core while spurring and channeling development in targeted corridors.
Certainly, the jury is out on the Atlanta Streetcar. It’s only been open for a year, and this is hardly the time to draw hasty conclusions. While the experience gained from this initial segment will be helpful, especially regarding development along the line, the overall utility of this segment can only be accurately assessed after it becomes part of a growing system, benefitting from the connectivity and resulting cohesion that many expect to help transform downtown Atlanta.
Articles such as this one make pursuing a long term project all the more difficult, as the naysayers will use their platforms to make simplistic criticisms and employ ridicule to intimidate and ultimately defeat less committed decision-makers. I always look for opponents to proffer alternatives, but if they don’t, I know they simply want to preserve the status quo, and that is a time-honored recipe for stagnation and ultimately rot. Yes, Atlanta’s initial streetcar segment may well be in for a bumpy ride but the promise that a comprehensive streetcar system brings to downtown Atlanta will be well worth the journey.
Glen D. Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation