Defending the trolley | Arkansas Blog

Friday, September 22, 2006

Defending the trolley

Posted By on Fri, Sep 22, 2006 at 9:45 AM

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We'd written several days ago that a Washington-based foundation would be stopping in Little Rock yesterday (Thursday) as part of a national tour against "earmarks," the appropriations added, sometimes  mysteriously, to federal legislation. They come at immense cost to the treasury. The group is highlighting earmarks around the country -- here, the River Rail trolley money.

The River Rail is a handy whipping boy. No, of course it's not a revenue producer. Nobody ever thought it would be. It was one of the key issues -- though irrelevant given funding sources and the relative pittance the county contributes to transit in the city against jail needs -- in the jail tax debate. But it was powerful symbolism. Why does the county government support empty trolley cars when it has an overstuffed jal?

The group had its news conference and got a little coverage in the paper today. Later, I received a copy of an e-mail from Central Arkansas Transit's Keith Jones that has some useful things to say about government subsidies and the earmark process. It's on the jump.

E-MAL FROM KEITH JONES TO LOCAL MAYORS AND OTHERS


I just learned that a group "Americans for Prosperity Foundation" from Washington DC s holding a press conference this afternoon in the Riverfront Park (LR) as part of its Ending Earmarks Express tour. According to a press release which I have NOT seen, they are objecting to the $6.5 million in earmarks the River Rail project received from Congress.

I returned calls to reporters from the Democrat and AP and told them I have no idea what their complaints are, but the River Rail project has met and exceeded all local goals regarding ridership, supporting economic development, supporting convention and concert events, connecting with the historic past, and other intangible and tangible benefits alike.
 
As I told the reporters, virtually all of the Federal Rail program (entitled New Starts Rail) has been earmarked for years nationwide. It is not a subjective process. We submitted huge amounts of project justification to Congressional committees and the FTA alike, and our project was evaluated many times. A formal report (the "5309(m)(3) Status Report" is made to Congress on all rail projects annually) .
 
Our eamarks are not a matter of "clout" or special interests. In general, our congressional members do not sit on committees that deal with transit appropriations and do not have any particular influence with those committees. Also, for much of the time we have been receiving earmarks, most of our congressional members were on the minority side. Therefore, they relied on the merits of the River Rail project to advance our project through the congressional appropriation process.
 
We have also received earmarks that were vital for the construction of the River Cities Travel Center and for extra bus replacement money in years we did not have enough in the regular formula amounts.

I am told the press release mentions the low fares. I told the reporters it is ludicrous to think that breaking even through the farebox is a goal. If that were possible then private enterprise would appropriately be building streetcar lines like they did 100 years ago. I suggested the reporters ask the Foundation members if they think they paid for the entire cost of parking in the Riverfront Park (if they were charged at all), or if the streets, highways, police departments, fire departments, etc are designed to "break even". We priced the streetcar fare to be low to entice people to ride and see the many venues along the route. Most visitors to the Clinton Library or Convention Center might not see more than those attractions and the one or two blocks around their hotel if they did not board the streetcar to see both sides of the river.
 
The Foundation offices in Washington are on Metro subway lines, which have been paid for by earmarks by the entire nation, and I would bet a bundle that a large portion of the Foundation staff commute on these subsidized Metro lines, paying a fraction of the cost to provide them with this service.
 
Since the streetcar opened in 2004, more than $180 million in real estate development has started coming out of the ground along and within two blocks of the streetcar line. We do not pretend to believe the investment would not have occurred if the streetcar was not in place, but can you find another area in the County with this much development, with several more projects nearing announcement particularly in North Little Rock? The streetcar is a catalyst, a factor, according to almost all who have a role in these developments.

I am not sure how much, if any, actual publicity this group will get, but I do not plan to go to the press conference but will continue to get the POSITIVE side of this out to the media.

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