If You Love it, Let it Go
All good things must come to an end; many misguided policy initiatives and programs must come to an end too.
As some readers will be aware of by now, the 8th wonder of the world, the Delmar Loop Trolley, is in a financial pickle. The head of the company said that it needs $200,000 by next month to continue operations through the year, and $500,000 more to operate in 2020. One could call this a shocking policy failure, but I think many of us saw this coming. Whether it’s putting together or working within a reasonable budget, finishing a project on time or with appropriate permitting, or coming even remotely close to meeting ridership projections, the trolley leadership has proven time and time again that it cannot be trusted by policymakers or taxpayers.
(You should know that when your plan to boost ridership is to have stand-up comedians ride the rails, your project is absurd.)
But what I do find shocking this time around is the total lack of accountability exhibited by trolley leadership. They claim the trolley’s failure should be chalked up to delays in getting additional trolley cars on the tracks. So, the firm renovating the trolley cars is responsible for the delays, and thus responsible for the trolley’s laughable performance.
But this finger-pointing is all too easy to see through. First, the firm renovating the cars is accountable to the trolley company, its customer, and so, the trolley company should be compensated for the delayed product delivery. If the trolley company cannot be compensated by a contracted vendor for its failure to deliver, then the trolley company simply entered a bad agreement.
Second, it seems there are a number of other and far more reasonable explanations for the trolley’s failure. For one, the project was delayed for years and developed a sort of toxicity, and so would-be riders just gave up on ever riding. When you fail to deliver half a dozen times, people tend to just give up on you. Another explanation is that the trolley just doesn’t provide a valuable service, and so people just don’t ride it. Who wants to pay to sit on a glorified bus that takes you down the loop slower than the pace of an average pedestrian? And how many people do you honestly think are going to drive to the loop just to pay to take the trolley to the history museum? I’ll let you in on a little secret: not very many! (I am in the loop every day, and the most common number of riders I see is zero.)
But what about the $200–300 million in development the trolley has apparently spurred? Doesn’t that make the project worthwhile? Well, no. For one, most if not all of the recent development around the trolley has been subsidized. Who can tell if it was the trolley or the subsidies that spurred the development? Two, the loop is hot real estate, and so I think the strong market, rather than the presence of a needless novelty, is what spurred development. Three, the only reason for thinking the trolley spurred this development is that it occurred after the trolley was in place. But temporal succession is not identical to causation. Moreover, there is little evidence in general to suggest that vintage streetcars or streetcars in general spur investment.
So what should policymakers do at this point? Well, they needn’t rip up the tracks and say goodbye to the trolley forever. Here is a modest proposal: Don’t bail out the trolley company again. Force its leadership to find the funding on its own. In the meantime, shut the trolley down if need be. The more the trolley company is responsible for itself, the better it will be. And, let’s be honest; it won’t be leaving many riders stranded.