The next fiasco: the east side streetcar
Maybe I need to get my tinfoil helmet adjusted, but there's something about the way the City of Portland is pushing the east side streetcar extension that doesn't seem genuine. If I didn't know better, I'd say the people who run the city aren't so hot on the idea after all.
Granted, there's the big public show going on, with a lot of the trappings of a classic Portland snow job. The public-private (i.e., nonaccountable) corporation that runs the streetcars is out front and center, with city commissioner wannabe Chris Smith and his newfound buddy Mike Powell ready to drive the first platinum spike for the trolley rails. The buzzwords are flying. "It will spur $700 million in private investments," linchpin bellwether yada yada. "The route is expected to attract 2.4 million square feet of development and 15,000 new jobs, while reducing congestion and global warming..." Fifteen thousand new jobs? Don't tell me -- biotech jobs.
Pardon me while I lose my breakfast.
There's even a trumped-up deadline for a federal funding application, which we're told means that a decision has to be made wiki-wiki. No time for serious public discussion of the many other things we're sacrificing to build this, folks -- we've got to get going! (So much for "visioning," I guess.)
The developers are lining up with their apartment tower dreams along the route of the thing. Joe Weston's already shown us a monster that he's going to construct over the by the Lloyd office towers, and he's licking his chops over the land across NE Broadway from the Rose Garden, where he'd like nothing better than to punch out a couple of similar skyscrapers.
Did somebody say "Joe Weston's money"? Well, then, the deck has probably been stacked. Over on Amanda Fritz's blog, she says the streetcar's a done deal, and old Smith is right there, figuratively rubbing her back the whole time.
But there are a few features to the current campaign that are different from previous go-rounds, and they all scream "Don't do this!" Interestingly, the warnings aren't all coming from the usual anti-transit wingnuts. Many of them are emanating from the mouths of the public officials themselves.
First, they're actually laying out big, fat cost figures for public scrutiny. The current liars' budget says that the new line will cost $147 million to build. At four miles of new streetcar (and I think it may be less mileage than that), that would come to $36.8 million a mile. As Jim Redden lays it out in the Trib today:
The council is scheduled to vote Sept. 6 on whether to commit $27 million in urban renewal funds to the project, currently estimated at $147 million, including $75 million from the Federal Transit Administration and $20 million from the Oregon Lottery....As we've pointed out on this blog time and time again, those magical, mysterious "urban renewal funds" are property taxes. Nearly 20 cents of every dollar of property tax collected by the City of Portland goes toward "urban renewal." So that's $27 million from taxpayers citywide, plus another $21 million from folks old and new somewhere near the project route. Forty-eight million very local clams.
City Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams briefed the council on the streetcar project Tuesday morning. He said the council needs to commit $27 million in urban renewal funds by early next month to secure $75 million in Federal Transit Administration money for the extension.
According to the budget presented to the council, the rest of the project would be funded with $20 million in Oregon Lottery bonds, $15 million from property owners along the line, $6 million from system development charges assessed against new projects in the area and $3.7 million in federal funds administered by Metro.
But wait, the dollars get bigger. This time, they've unveiled not only a construction budget, but also an operating budget. Now here's where this extension is starting to look different from the previous ones. You never, ever heard a peep in the media about the operating budget, which requires a heavy city subsidy, in planning discussions surrounding previous streetcar extensions. And on this one, the subsidy's a doozy: $2.2 million a year, split half-and-half between the city and Tri-Met.
A million-plus a year in city money to run the thing? Come on. The city's annual subsidy of the entire streetcar system up to this point is reportedly something like $1.6 million. This single extension is going to increase that by 68.75 percent? Gee whiz.
Capitalized at 5 percent, the present value of $1.1 million a year in perpetuity is $22 million. And so the local cost share, in present value terms, just went up from $48 million to $70 million. That's taxpayer money. From Portland. (Not to mention another $22 million from Tri-Met, which survives on payroll and self-employment taxes from throughout the tri-county area.)
Second, everyone's admitting that the preliminary budget figures that are being thrown around have at best a tenuous link to reality. They're likely to go up, and that's putting it mildly. The City Council heard this week that the budgeted figures are "low confidence estimates." Well, of course, they are -- we all know that infrastructure construction budgets are always understated. Always always always. When this project is being built, surely we'll watch that $147 million break $175 million -- it's virtually guaranteed. (Indeed, in March 2005, they said the cost was going to be "only" $85 million. It's nearly doubled in the last 29 months.) But to have someone from the city government actually come forward and rub people's noses in that fact at the outset -- well, that's new.
An amusing example of this phenomenon came this week, when even the operating subsidy suddenly shot up by 10 percent in the blink of an eye. Tri-Met had signed on for an annual $1 million cough-up, but the Portland bureaucrats jacked it up to $1.1 million for the City Council meeting without telling anyone in advance. Tri-Met boss Fred Hansen wasn't too happy about it.
Anyway, when the streetcar costs skyrocket, as we know they will, who will pay the overruns? In this case, who else is there but taxpayers -- and probably only Portland taxpayers?
Third, they've allowed comparisons to the OHSU aerial tram [rim shot] to be passed around in public discourse on the streetcar extension without refutation. "Isn't this another aerial tram?" the mayor asked (perhaps not in so many words) earlier this week. You would think the streetcar pushers would have an organized, bullet-point answer to that one ready. But they don't.
There's one difference that's easy to spot, of course. This time there's no OHSU standing by waiting to chip in more bucks for this if and when it starts to go all weird. There's just us Portland folks, and maybe we can beg a few more bucks from our good buddies in the Bush administration or from the lottery.
Fourth, a few key players in the bureaucratic machinery are voicing serious misgivings about the project, particularly the way it's being financed. Earlier this month the chair of the ever-weakening Portland Development Commission wondered aloud at a hearing whether the streetcar extension would gobble up everything in the PDC budget other than transportation and housing funds. He didn't sound pleased. The Tri-Met folks don't seem to be clicking their heels over this. The mayor's raised his eyebrow pretty high as well.
Fifth, and it's a related point, to pay for streetcar, the city's financing plan will involve raiding other urban renewal pork barrels, all of whom have their constituencies. As the O explained it Wednesday:
The city contribution would come from three urban-renewal districts: $17 million from the River District, $4 million from Convention Center and $6.2 million from the Central Eastside.As noted here yesterday, the PDC already has around $600 million in debt outstanding for urban renewal. Debt and real estate are tanking at the moment, and they're taking the rest of the economy down with them. Is this a good time to leverage Portland even further, including "short-term" debt against the city's general fund -- over the freakin' streetcar? San Diego, here we come.
Keith Witcosky of the Portland Development Commission explained that each of the these districts has money budgeted for the streetcar extension but at much smaller amounts than Adams is asking for.
That may require the city to raise debt limits, put off other projects, and take out short-term loans backed by the city's general fund.
Sixth, the natives are getting quite restless. Not only don't the inner east side blue-collar businesses want to cough up good money to bring the yuppies into their neighborhood -- even the Holy Rosary Catholic Church (confessions held daily) is protesting the $126,000 that it will have to pay toward building the streetcar. The church's outraged letter, which of course was written in Latin, made the paper this morning. Then there are all the new parking meters that will go in on the south end, and service cuts on the no. 6 bus -- more p.r. disasters in progress.
In sum, with all the mess that's been created around this boondoggle, you couldn't make the public more uneasy about the streetcar extension if you tried. It's almost as if the city's not that interested in making it happen. Wouldn't it be something if public opposition killed it? Gee, that would mean that the streetcar ran only on the west side, where Homer Williams's money is. Wouldn't that just break everyone's heart at the University Fight Club?
But no, I'm hallucinating again. Surely this foolishness will come to pass. It's a law of nature: The stupider it is, the more the Portland City Council loves it. We'll soon have yet another wasteful project that the public never wanted and that won't perform as promised. We can all hate it as we worry about paying for it.
And isn't that the way it goes with anything that's being spearheaded by the city's dysfunctional transportation commissioner and next mayor, Sam the Tram? The guy is a walking stress machine, and it's starting to rub off on the city, big time. When he's running the whole show, we're going to long for the relatively stable, level-headed days of Vera Katz.