Could the fate of cities be tied to their investments in public transit?

Could the fate of cities be tied to their investments in public transit?

Photo courtesy of Boston.com

In the past week, two high-profile transit stories surfaced. Cincinnati’s recently elected Mayor John Cranley moved to put a stop to a streetcar project already underway, while in Boston, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick announced plans to pilot late-night weekend service on the MBTA. In each case, the cities struggle with high public transportation debt. Also in each case, private sector leaders have stepped up to help address funding gaps.

In Cincinnati, the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation offered to fully fund an independent financial review of the Streetcar project, and an anonymous donor offered to fund continued construction while the review is underway. Halting the project is expected to cost the City between $2.6 and $3.6 million per month in contractual obligations – a number that would exceed the cost of simply moving forward with construction as planned. Also, if the project dissolves, the City could be on the hook for the $5 million in funding by the Federal Transit Authority that it has already spent; thereby increasing the tax burden for local residents.

The Cincinnati Streetcar was anticipated to attract residents back to the urban core; to attract private sector development along the line; and to rebuild the tax base of the city. Now, in a matter of just weeks, Mayor John Cranley has jeopardized the six years work that it took to bring the Cincinnati Streetcar to fruition.

In Boston, the notoriously underfunded MBTA has often used fare hikes in order to maintain the nation’s oldest light rail system. Last week, Governor Patrick announced that that the state has found $20 million to combine with private sector funding to put towards a 1-year pilot that will keep the MBTA running longer on weekends. Transportation Secretary Richard Davey has indicated that up to a half-dozen “well-known” companies may be interested in sponsorship opportunities, and that “Nobody has said ‘no’…It’s a question of the size of the commitment.”

The distinction between the cities’ approaches to transportation is important. In Boston, policymakers view the late-night MBTA service as a boon for entrepreneurs in the thriving innovation economy. The City has recognized that the entrepreneurs and innovators are critical to sustain Boston’s growth, yet its workforce doesn’t live in a 9-5 work world. Untraditional schedules mean that people need to travel all hours. Late-night service will also benefit thousands of lower-income restaurant and hospitality workers who work late in to the night, and who often rely on expensive cabs to get home after their shifts.

Importantly, the late-night service may help to shape a new culture in downtown Boston. Many entrepreneurs have viewed Boston as a Puritanical, sleepy city where bars close between 1 and 2 a.m., and last trains leave the city around 12:30 a.m.. Even night owls had to head home early.  Late night train service will allow Boston to compete more closely with cities like New York and San Francisco, to draw talented workers and entrepreneurs.

Regardless of project costs, it’s clear that transit investments can drive economies in cities like Boston, while cities like Cincinnati that “pause” these forms of development are in danger of derailing their growth. Investing in infrastructure seems to delineate cities: those who want to be global, innovative cities of the future, and those who will continue to struggle in the face of underinvestment. 

Is this really true:  “It’s clear that transit investments can drive economies in cities like Boston, while cities like Cincinnati that “pause” these forms of development are in danger of derailing their growth.”  Do you have some statistics on this, correlating economic vibrancy with transit investments?  What about investments in other services and infrastructure?

By Marc Brenman on 01/06/2014




BY Amanda Maher on December 10th, 2013

TAGS: economic development | transit | cincinnati | boston

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