After pouring more than a half-billion dollars on city projects to create streetcar routs, the Obama Administration has little to show for it. Politico reports on the reversals, delays, and failures that have haunted the streetcar blitz. When the Administration loosened the restrictions on federal funding for transportation projects—which used to favor projects that decreased commuting time and were cost-effective—streetcar projects exploded, but they are now slowing down:
From D.C. to Atlanta, from San Antonio to Salt Lake City, streetcar projects have run into delays, cutbacks and other snags, and some have been scrapped altogether. The most dramatic recent example was November’s demise of a $550 million, state-aided streetcar project in the liberal, traditionally pro-transit D.C. suburb of Arlington County, Va., which had turned politically toxic as its price tag more than doubled. (DOT rejected an application for federal funds for that project, but supporters believed a second attempt would succeed.) […]DOT’s TIGER program, which funds transportation projects of all shapes and sizes, saw 10 requests for streetcar projects in 2009 and 14 requests in 2010. In those two years, seven streetcar projects won a total of $240 million. But the requests have dropped sharply in the past four years, falling to just six or seven streetcar applications per year. In that time, seven projects have won $102 million.
Many of the Obama Administration’s most embarrassing failures have come from policies where the green and new urbanist agendas intersect: solar power installation fiascoes back in the days of the stimulus, the various high speed rail fiascoes, extremely expensive efforts to subsidize electric cars which no one, well, really wants, and now the streetcar “revival.”The dream of turning American cities into walkable paradises of dense settlement, apartment living, mass transit, trendy coffee shops and bars—a post-car, post-suburban lifestyle—appeals to policy wonks and dedicated urbanites. (I plead guilty myself, by the way: I’ve been living in dense, mass transit urban areas since the 1970s and quite like them.) It’s a beautiful dream, but it only works in a few places in part because that kind of settlement turns out to be an expensive way to live—especially if you are trying to raise kids.While a number of Americans like and will continue to like urban, Jane Jacobs-style living (and most of the neighborhoods she praised are now only affordable to I-Banking zillionaires and movie stars), the reality is that most Americans are going to continue to live in suburbs and exurbs. Smart college presidents keep their campuses green by watching where the students make paths on the grounds and then putting the paved walkways where the students actually walk—as opposed to putting the paving in first and then relying on “Keep off the Grass” signs to keep the students walking where they are “supposed” to go. Likewise, instead of tsk-tsking the suburbs and trying to block housing developments and heavily tax gasoline to penalize the people who live the “wrong way,” we’d be better off if more effort went into improving life in the places and settings where people actually go.Pumping money into ritzy enclaves for upper middle class urbanites is probably not the smartest way for the federal government to spend scarce resources. It’s certainly not the fairest. There’s a lot that can be done to improve suburb living, and politicians who embrace a solid pro-suburban agenda are likely to do well. An agenda that involved promoting telework and Google cars would do more to cut costs and improve the quality of American lives than any number of expensive but ineffective streetcar projects. If you are serious about helping the American middle class, the burbs are where the action is.