Who said… (#4 in a series)

…”I just see the whole thing as a waste of taxpayer dollars”?

It was a Roanoke resident, commenting on that city’s investment in a trolley connecting downtown to the medical center in a 2-mile loop.  If Prince William commits to a future based on transit rather than more roads/more cars/more taxes/more congestion… our elected officials will have to stay the course and deal with critics who question the expense of transit.

Roanoke will be an interesting model for Northern Virginia communities.  The city has reinvented itself, after the decline of Norfolk and Western railroad jobs, the flight of downtown retail to suburban malls, and the shift of banking headquarters to Charlotte, North Carolina.

At one point, downtown Roanoke could have gone the way of Route 1 in Prince William… but the city officials made some key decisions, and downtown is back.

The city’s downtown core is now a vibrant business and arts/entertainment center.   The city thrives on revenue generated by people buying stuff as well as meals when visiting downtown restaurants, museums and festivals every weekend in the summer months.

The trolley is the next step in keeping downtown revitalized; city officials are not sitting on their hands.  The trolley is intended to provide reliable service at least every 10 minutes from 7:00am-7:00pm, drawing people downtown and reducing congestion by eliminating the need for short drives between the medical center and the city core.

However, the Star Line Trolley is not crowded.  According to The Roanoke Times on May 21, while ridership is increasing faster than projected, the trolley now carries an average of just 50 or so people/day.

Especially at the start of the service, before developers rehabilitate existing buildings to take advantage of the trolley’s steady stream of potential customers, it’s easy to see the trolley as an expensive frill.  If you ignore the capital costs of buying the trolleys, the system requires a subsidy of $40/passenger now.

Obviously that cost/passenger will drop dramatically as ridership increases, but no public transit system makes a profit.  Roanoke must plan to pay for trolley costs every year, just as it subsidizes other public services.

If trolleys are just a frill, they will have a short half-life.  When grants dry up and times get hard, city officials will need to affirm the Star Line Trolley as a priority, and focus on the long-term benefits of transit services to shape desired redevelopment.

Unless Roanoke officials have a vision of how easy transit is fundamental to their downtown’s future, the trolley will get squeezed, just like the GEORGE bus system in Falls Church.  The city must pay the costs of transit – or pay the costs of cars, the only alternative.  (OK, officials could just throw up their hands in despair and blame increasing congestion on Richmond/Washington or earlier officials, in the “allocate blame/fix nothing” game.)

How can any community fund new transit services, for the long term?  In smart-growth communities such as Portland, Oregon, real estate near transit has increased in value.  Access to public transportation would be a windfall with no costs for developers – so Portland has funded new transit by a special tax on property within several blocks of their light rail route.

That way, landowners who benefit from the transit services pay for those services, through their property taxes.  That’s fair – and we already do it in Northern Virginia.  Fairfax developers  used this approach to finance Route 28 widening and grade-separated interchanges, and to bring Metro to Tyson’s Corner.

Everyone loves to talk about extending VRE or even Metro in Prince William (see Washing Post on May 7).  The dreaming is fun, especially when stuck in traffic – but the reality will require elected officials to demonstrate both vision and “stick-to-it-iveness” when the complaints about transit costs come rolling in.


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