February 20, 2013

The Questionable Economics Of Building Around Light Rail

There has been a lot of talk in the community about transit-oriented development (TOD) and its supposed benefits (which I contest). If you want to hear about these supposed benefits, a second round of public meetings regarding future Saint Louis TOD projects are scheduled over the next week.

Citizens for Modern Transit recently hosted a luncheon with national TOD expert Dena Belzer on the Economics of Building Around Light Rail. I had an opportunity to review her Powerpoint presentation, which did not convince me of any such economic benefit.

Granted, I have to hedge my comments with the fact that I did not physically attend the presentation. That being said, the most outrageous trend running throughout the presentation is that TOD will save money. It will save money for the government, it will save money for households, employees, employers — pretty much everybody.

The presentation suggests that compact development helps municipalities save money. Just like you save money at Jos. A. Banks buying two suits to get the third one free, when you did not even need a suit. Spending money just to get a “good deal” is not always a good justification for spending that money.

And what about households? Belzer’s presentation suggests that TOD can save households billions of dollars and that money can be reinvested in the community. First of all, TOD will not save us money when we are paying for it in our taxes.

Secondly, she cites figures that suggest Portland’s transit policies save residents $2.6 billion per year. However, more than half of that imaginary figure comes from the estimated value of commute time that has been reduced due to transit options — the opportunity cost. I do not know about you, but I have not found a way to manufacture gold coins from the time I save on days that traffic is light. Nor do I mind my commute to work. Many people choose to spend more time commuting in favor of lower housing costs, community preference, or a variety of other factors.

Other people prefer to use transit or live near a Metro stop and enjoy a predictable commute. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it is not a sufficient reason to compel all taxpayers to subsidize housing, retail, and office facilities around transit stops so that planners can impose their views on the rest of us.

A project of the


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