Gravy Train

City planners want a piece of the light-rail action--and they're not thinking spare change

Of course, Garner notes, all the current proposals are still in the blue-sky stage: No one knows for sure whether the light-rail line, currently under fire at the state capitol, will even be built. And if it is, trains aren't slated to begin running until 2004. Partly because of that, debate on the subject has not begun in earnest at the city council. But First Ward council member Paul Ostrow says the city should be cautious before committing major subsidies. "I think we're going to have to be thoughtful and look to other cities and see what they've done," he offers. "Some of these things aren't going to happen overnight."

In fact, some experts contend, they may never happen at all. "Rail has not been a magnet for development," says John Charles, environmental policy director of the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute. When Portland's line first opened in 1986, says Charles, development was so sparse the city council finally passed a tax-abatement policy to attract investors. These days, says Charles, if you took the train in Portland and looked out the window, "What you'll find is either a) nothing has happened, b) it's been built by the government, c) it's been subsidized by the government, or d) it would have happened anyway." (Kim Knox, land development manager with Portland's light-rail management agency, Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation, says there have been $1.9 billion of mostly private investments along the rail line; she says she has no data showing the total public cost.)

Public subsidies have been typical anywhere development has sprung up along light-rail lines, says Wendell Cox, a St. Louis-based public-policy consultant and former member of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. He decries what he calls the "false gospel" preached by those who have gotten transit-oriented development religion: "Light rail in itself does not spur development," he maintains. "Subsidies will spur development, whether or not you have light rail."

On that score, the MCDA's Garner would not necessarily disagree. "Development will happen with or without [LRT], and public investment in vital public infrastructure will happen with or without [LRT]," notes the planner. "When the market study says 'additional public investment,' that's not being driven by [LRT] being built. The level of funding is driven by costs of things like public infrastructure. These are typically things we would have to address anyway as a city." Maybe, Garner adds, it all comes down to which kind of transit-related project the city chooses to subsidize: "Who can look at the last 40 years of highway construction and say it didn't create development?"

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