Rail money better spent on homesteading





The Trenton to Camden line is ill-conceived

Who thought the $600M light rail between Trenton and Camden was a good idea? New Jerseyans and the legislature that represents us must not understand how much better that money could be spent.

The light rail line is estimated to cost $600M before cost overruns. Given New Jersey’s population of 8.5M, the train will cost $70 for every man, woman and child in the state but because passenger rail lines typically aren’t profitable, we’ll incur additional yearly operational costs.

Assuming a $10 ticket and our $70 portion of the capital cost, my wife and I will spend $160 for the one trip from Trenton to the NJ Aquarium we will take. Our alternative is $5 in gas money.

Presumably the train is making life better for state workers living outside the city, but the traffic isn’t that bad. If you’re looking for bad traffic spend a few hours on Rt. 1 in Princeton. Traffic can get rough on I-295 between Trenton and Camden during rush hour, but that’s mostly Philadelphia traffic.

The train will connect two of New Jersey’s more anemic cities and several small ones in between. Unlike the Northeast Corridor to New York which draws thousands of riders a week from Trenton, I would be surprised to find more than 100 people currently riding those trains to Trenton. There is no vital economic reason for ridership on the Southern light rail.

New Jersey clearly doesn’t have an unlimited budget. Equally evident is government’s role in strengthening the state’s economy. The question is whether our state-level budgeting process is allowing the best investments to be made. Visualize what impact $600M could have on revitalizing Trenton and Camden.

If solving a commuting and air pollution problem is the rational for the train, then wouldn’t a better solution be to spend the same $600M to encourage commuters to live nearer to their offices. Assume, very generously, that the train will serve 2000 commuters. $600M could provide 2000 people $300,000 a piece to purchase homes in Trenton. The impact of that many $300,000 homes being built in Trenton would be staggering given that there are fewer than 100 such homes today. $600M would generate $22M in taxes making a significant dent in the city’s $180M budget. Trenton would become self-sufficient and simultaneously lighten the traffic load almost overnight.

Giving away $300,000 homes is a radical idea but is more economically and environmentally sound than spending $600M on a train. A more sensible and impactful suggestion is to use the $600M to fund downpayments on 30,000 $200,000 homes in Trenton and Camden.

Such a homesteading project would stimulate massive private investment in the urban centers we hope to revitalize, effectively turning $600 million into $6 billion. Thirty-thousand new homes would overwhelm the real estate markets in both Camden and Trenton. With the renewed interest in urban living, a new train would hardly be needed.

The $600M price tag comes on the heels of a $105M tunnel that also makes commuting easier to points south and east. The tunnel cost $12 for every man woman and child in the state, funding that could have remodeled every vacant building in downtown Trenton.

As citizens we should ask ourselves which is more important, a train and tunnel that spends our tax dollars or revitalized urban centers that pay taxes?

Our state budgeting process lacks imagination and I suspect that few elected officials are well grounded in economics or project portfolio analysis. Alternatively a cynic might believe, as several papers have reported, more nefarious explanations for the train. $600 million is a vast amount of money and could have had a vast impact on urban economic development, crime prevention or drug rehabilitation in NJ. Instead we will have a train that probably no one will ride, except for my one trip to the NJ Aquarium.

Dan Dodson, a resident of Trenton, is a management consultant and Leadership Trenton Fellow.

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Copyright 2002, Dan Dodson