Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Little Train That Couldn't

As we prepare for the upcoming public meetings on the faltering Braddock Road Metro plan and the controversial proposals of the Ad Hoc Transportation Task Force, it's instructive to read Debunking Portland: The City That Doesn't Work, a new study by Randal O'Toole, senior fellow at the Cato Institute. Click here to download the full report.

O'Toole, a native Oregonian and long-time resident of Portland, points out the weaknesses in the smart growth lobby's arguments for high-density mixed use development centered around transit.

O'Toole debunks the theory of "build it and they will come" and analyzes how transit oriented developments in Portland have required massive government subsidies, failed to significantly slash the number of vehicles on the roads, and experienced difficulty attracting and keeping retailers in mixed-use developments.

The paper includes a discussion of tax increment financing (TIF) — currently being floated here as a way to finance bus rapid transit along Route 1 — and provides evidence of its adverse effect on the revenue stream for core City services.

The study is an eye-opener, with a number of uncomfortable parallels to our situation in Alexandria. For example, here's the story of how the Oak Grove neighborhood faced possible rezoning for greater density:

When planners held public hearings to find out how residents felt about the plan, they were confronted by hundreds of angry homeowners. Local government officials reluctantly asked Metro, Portland’s regional planning agency, to take Oak Grove off the list of neighborhoods slated for rezoning, saying “there is no community support” for the plan. Metro and other local governments responded by not holding public hearings in most other neighborhoods slated for densification. Instead, plans were written by committees consisting of a few neighborhood residents who were prescreened to insure they supported Portland’s densification, along with many more nonresidents, such as officials representing TriMet and other government agencies. (Debunking Portland, p. 10)
Sound familiar?

The net result, says O'Toole, is that Portland has increasingly unaffordable housing prices, greater traffic congestion, higher taxes or reduced urban services as tax revenues are diverted to rail transit and transit-oriented development, and a reputation for having an unfriendly business environment.