Guest Commentary 

Tucson's streetcar project shows city officials are looking out for themselves, not their constituents

As if Tucsonans were not troubled enough already, our city government has succeeded in putting together enough funding for a really bad idea.

How bad is it? Well, I watched a deeply moved Mayor Bob Walkup make the announcement to the City Council. He looked like he had just received a telegram from Jesus saying that Tucson had made the list for the Second Coming Tour. This idea is so bad, in fact, that Councilwoman Nina Trasoff interrupted him to thank him for "working hard" on the project, and for his "leadership."

What is it that makes the usual suspects so giddy? It is the Tucson modern streetcar project. The "good news" was that the U.S. Congress moved something to some kind of phase that virtually assures federal funding. This is the brass ring for the Tucson Department of Transportation, which took a blow when voters turned down a sales-tax increase for transportation projects in 2003. Undaunted back then, the department jumped through all the hoops, did all the studies and just landed the big score. Tucsonans are not off the funding hook entirely, however. According to the Tucson Department of Transportation, money will also come from local sales taxes (the Regional Transportation Authority) and the tax-increment financing (TIF) plan, aka Rio Nuevo.

The transportation guys were almost as giddy as Mayor Walkup, which is appropriate. After all, transportation projects are what they live for. It's what they do.

The politicians, on the other hand, are supposed to look out for the interests of the people, and keep city agencies in their service. This project represents a failure of our elected representatives. People really do not need, nor do they want, more transit projects. Our elected city representatives want to repeat the mistakes of other municipalities, 10 to 20 years behind the curve, when they should know better.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that adding to the mass-transit system is a good thing. It makes much more sense to increase bus service than to build streetcar, trolley or other light-rail systems. According to the Government Accounting Office (GAO), new bus lines cost about 2 percent of the cost of streetcars to start, cost less to maintain and are much more flexible. (You can't easily reroute track.)

This is where someone shouts, "But streetcars are sexier than buses! People will leave their cars to ride them!" Alas, this is a case of wishful thinking. According to Randal O'Toole of the Cato Institute, "The average number of trips taken per light-rail vehicle mile declined from 7.3 in 1995 to 5.2 in 2005, indicating that light rail is suffering from a serious case of diminishing returns." Many of the positive rider numbers being bandied about come from samples taken during the first few days of operation, when the system is new, and people have endured months of hype. After checking it out for a ride or two, people go back to their cars.

I would also suggest that we try a little firsthand objective observation. Go to the nearest major street, and look at it. How many people are moving down it in cars? How many are traveling in buses--even when bus riding is subsidized?! What does that say about the choice of the people? Trust your own observations.

Speaking of observations, when was the last time you heard someone say, "Gee, I wish there was a subsidized way for me to go back and forth between the University of Arizona and downtown Tucson!" Has it been a while? Did you see dozens of people overflowing the trolley cars the last time you were on Fourth Avenue? As you might be guessing at this point, that's where our "modern streetcar" is going. Say what you like about Steve Farley, but at least he knew where to put his bad idea back in 2003.

So it leads one to wonder who are our elected officials representing: the people, or themselves? Half of the City Council will be up for election in 2009, including Nina Trasoff. Bob Walkup will be up in 2011. Elections are a good time to let politicians know who is calling the shots.

More by Jonathan Hoffman


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