Uncle Sam buys us toys we can't afford to run
I got into it a little bit with Chris Smith, the streetcar shill and Portland City Council wannabe, over on Amanda Fritz's blog recently. There was a thread going on and on over there about how the federal government pays most of the cost for building transit facilities such as streetcars and light rail. (They were also noting how OHSU paid the lion's share of the cost of the aerial tram [rim shot].)
What nobody was even acknowledging is the fact that while the federal government pays most (but not all) of what it costs to build some of these things, it hardly ever pays a penny to help operate them. For example, the city's taxpayers get to foot at least a third of the bill for the streetcars, and they aren't cheap to operate. As I pointed out:
Even if the feds and/or the state paid the full cost of building the streetcars (which of course they didn't), they don't pay jack squat toward operating them. Those shiny little condo sales toys currently cost the city "only" $1.6MM a year, according to your blog, and now we're talking about extensions that will run the total to $2.5MM or higher.A little while later, Smith took the bait, sort of "responding" this way:
The aerial tram is another several hundred thousand -- we never got a straight answer, but I'm guessing [the city's share is] $350,000 a year.
Millions and millions every year that could have been spent much more wisely on other things. And wait 'til the equipment starts getting old. Is Earl the Pearl going to get us federal repair funds? Dream on.
They never talk about any of this when they're on the snake oil stand. Hey, Smith, what are the projected city general fund subsidies for operating the couplet streetcar and the east side streetcars once they're built? [crickets chirping]
To Jack's question about operating funds, on the west side we have largely funded this out of increased parking revenue. Essentially the business owners downtown have agreed to have parking rates increased to pay for this (and for some of the Mall Light Rail expansion). The east side will be trickier but I think in general we'll find relatively 'local' sources of operating funding - which may include rethinking fareless square in some way.Such a typical nonanswer to a straightforward question. See any numbers there? Of course not. All you see is the double-talk about some magic special fund that's going to appear to pay for it all.
It will be all smoke and mirrors, just as it was in the Pearl. Parking meter rates went up, and somehow it's o.k. to divert all that added revenue to the annual streetcar subsidy, because... because... well, there's no reason, just because.
Wrong. Parking meter revenues can and should be used for pressing road maintenance needs -- you know, the ones that have now gotten so bad off that we'll need a serious gas tax hike or else "more people will die"?
A $2.8 million subsidy for streetcar and tram, every year, forever, is the equivalent of $56 million in your hand right now. Even just looking at an annual subsidy of, say, $600,000 for the proposed new streetcar lines, it's like $12 million in present value.
None of these figures factor in Tri-Met's costs to run the streetcar, which are twice as high. That agency loses money with every rider; the only way it stays afloat is through payroll and self-employment taxes, which every working person in the area pays directly or indirectly, willingly or not.
So when they all pat themselves on the back for the federal funding that they got to build the new toys, remember who's going to pay to operate them as they splash through their sea of red ink year after year. It's not Uncle Sam -- it's you and I here in Portland.