Sun, Mar 14, 2004 - Page 11 News List

Bad financial performance doesn't stop US streetcars

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TRENTON, NEW JERSEY

From rail yards in Camden and Trenton, cars will roll out this morning for the very first trip on what transportation experts say will be the light-rail line with the worst financial performance in the US.

The people along a string of shrinking towns on the Delaware River are expected to make about 5,900 one-way trips a day on New Jersey Transit's new River Line. Each trip will cost New Jersey taxpayers about US$30 to cover operating costs and debt service. And the state has already sunk US$1 billion into the project.

Light rail -- this generation's name for streetcars and trolleys -- has been introduced or revived in about 20 American cities in the last 20 years, drawing attention with a winning combination of nostalgia and novelty. How well these lines have worked is a subject of fierce debate; few if any pay for themselves. But even the state transit officials in charge of it say the River Line is a cautionary tale.

At a time when the state treasury is bare and New Jersey Transit in particular is starving, the River Line, which will carry fewer than 1 percent of the agency's passengers, is expected to drain about US$65 million a year from the transportation funds allotted for the entire state.

"There is a desire named streetcar among planners," said James Dunn, a political scientist at Rutgers University who studies public transit. But if lightly traveled light rail lines do little to serve transportation needs, that is almost beside the point for the political officials who want to build them, he said.

In the political sphere, "it's a benefits regime" that distributes jobs, contracts and influence, Dunn said. "The costs are the benefits."

And the River Line illustrates those costs.

The line was a notion of the 1990s, when light rail was catching on across the country. New Jersey approved a 20-mile line along the Hudson, from Bayonne to Bergen County, and obtained federal funds that would eventually pay for most of it. South Jersey legislators responded with a plan for the 34-mile Camden-to-Trenton line, a proposal little noticed in the flush, free-spending years of Governor Christie Whitman's administration, and that was approved, too. Most of the old rail line that would carry the light rail was in Burlington County, home of state Senator William Haines, the chairman of the Transportation Committee, who died in 1996.

One critical distinction of the South Jersey line was that the state made no application for federal aid. "The true scandal of all this is they knew it was bad to begin with and didn't want it evaluated objectively," said professor John Pucher of Rutgers, a transit expert who describes himself as a proponent of light rail.

The project has cost about three times more than the earliest estimates. Since 1996, the state has paid US$476 million for the contract to design and build the system and US$100 million for consultants. In borrowing to keep the project afloat, the state paid outside bond underwriters and lawyers, although those costs are minuscule in comparison to the US$48 million a year to be paid in debt service.

Officials in Governor James McGreevey's administration, having inherited the River Line, thought about abandoning the project and then about letting people ride free, reasoning that the fares -- US$1.10 per trip -- would not cover the cost of collecting them.

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