Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Desire Named Streetcar II

I blogged a bit in the past on the various failed postwar rail transit plans.
Now it appears there is movement on the latest one, to connect the UD area with downtown and the Oregon district.

This concept seems similar to the Cincinnati Streetcar plan, as it would act as an armature of sorts for economic development. Both Dayton OS and Dayton Most Metro have blogged on the Dayton proposal, with some naysaying posts in response.

The concept sounds interesting, and I had thought that RTA would be the logical choice choice to operate this. In general I liked the idea as a novel approach that would act as a tourist line plus have some side benefits for transit purposes.

After reading a bit more on the Cincinnati line, and then about RTA's problems with their operating budget, and then about the changes in rationale for the line I have begun to question the approach being used and what the agenda is here.

Deviation from Original Concept

The streetcar concept was orginally sold as something related to the Dayton Aviation National Historic Site, to connect the Wright Dunbar unit of the site with downtown and then eventually the Air Force Museum and the Huffman Prairie unit.

This plan was too costly and a scaled back plan was proposed instead, connecting the Wright-Dunbar unit with downtown and the Oregon District and Riverscape. A second part of this plan was to connect down to Carillon Park, touching UD en route. The rationale seemed to be a tourist or recreational line, with some transit side-benefits.

Now it seems the plan has been scaled back to connect with UD and it's new NCR site with downtown, as an economic development initiative for the Brown/Warren corridor. The connection between the streetcar and the Aviation sites has been dropped.

If this is primarily an economic development initiative who benefits? It appears two large landholders in the area will: University of Dayton and Miami Valley Hospital, with some side benefits to the residents of Fairgrounds and maybe South Park.

How much are these entitities and communities being asked to contribute?


RTA is the Lead Agency. Why?

One would think it logical that RTA would be the lead as this is transit?

But is it?

If the rationale is that this is an economic development, not improved transit, why would RTA, whose mission is transit, be the lead?

In the case of the Cincinnati line, it is the City of Cincinnati that is acting as the lead and primary funding source. One wonders if this is the more relevant approach given the special purpose of the proposed line.

RTA Budget Woes vs Streetcars

RTA is about to raise fares and cut back service, imposing economic and timing hardships on its customers. Many of these customers are transit dependent or lower income, people who can ill-afford fare hikes or loss of access to suburban jobs and shopping. And, due to the decentralized nature of the Dayton area, most of the jobs and shopping are in the suburbs, not downtown.

So, can RTA afford to accept the capital and operating costs of a special purpose transit line one that does not benefit the majority of its riders? One can assume that while initial capital costs would be high (to install rails, modify trolly wires, aquire rail vehicles, and modify the repair barns to accept rails and a rail vehicle repair shop), there would also be an added operating costs due to ongoing maintenance of rail vehicles and perhaps some additional right-of-way maintenance costs.

Revenues: connecting method of finance with benefit (operating costs)

RTA is funded via sales tax, an elastic form of revenue that varies with sales activity in Montgomery County. Apparently this revenue stream has been stagnant or dropping, due to reduced economic activity in the County (particularly since new retail sales complexes are being built in Greene County).

If this revenue source is tapped to subsidize streetcar operations and maintenance then fare increases or service cutbacks would be needed to ensure there is no depletion of reserve or need for an increase in sales tax (which is a regressive tax). The transit ridership across the county would be directly subsidizing the streetcar, and indirectly, the economic development of land along the line.

One would hope, if there is an increase in operating costs associated with the line, that this be put to vote as a supplemental sales tax levy, or some other operating cost susbidy be found, rather than asking the RTA ridership to bear the burden, assuming that operating costs would not be neutral.

Revenues; connecting method of finance with benefit (capital costs)

Where are the initial capital investment dollars coming from? From the Feds, local, state, or some mix of the three?

If additional captial funds are needed, or the federal and/or state funds fals through, the capital costs need to be subsidized via TIF drawn around property along the route. A defined TIF would ensure the increased value accruing to economic development associated with a streetcar would be used to pay off the capital investment for the line.

People have advocated developer fees to pay for road infrastructure, establishing an nexus between public infrastructure and private benefit. A TIF for the streetcar would do likewise.

Conclusion: Equity vs Subsidy.

I have no ideological problem whatsover with public subsidy for rail transit. Nearly every rail transit system in the USA, and many in Europe, operate via public susidy.

These transit systems are, however, generally operated on a citywide or regional scale, for the benefit of a wide public, or they are starter lines (like the Sacramento light rail) with promises of future expansion across a metro area.

The system being proposed for Dayton is quite limited, and the justification is economic development along a defined corridor, not transit.

Futhermore, a cash-strapped transit agency that is cutting back service and raising fares is being asked to take the lead.

Thus I believe, in the interests of equity, that the initial capital investment and recurring operating costs be sudisidized in such a manner that they do not impose a cost or service burden on existing riders of RTA, as those riders will not benefit (or have a minor benefit) from this line.

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