Perhaps encouraged by the Trump administration’s opposition to wasteful transit projects, it has now become popular for politicians to come out in opposition to those projects when it is clear they are boondoggles. Some of them, however, are expressing their opposition only after it is too late to stop the projects.
For example, Broward County wants to build an inane streetcar line in downtown Fort Lauderdale. Someone twisted Secretary of Transportation Chao’s arm to actually provide federal funding for the project. But when bids were opened to build it, they came in much higher than projected.
Now, all three candidates to be the next mayor of Fort Lauderdale say they oppose the streetcar. But the decision to build is in the hands of the county commission, not the city council, and the county is going to have another bid process. So it is safe for the mayor and council candidates to oppose something they can’t actually stop.
Similarly, Albuquerque’s previous mayor pushed through dedicated lanes for a bus-rapid transit project that was certain to increase congestion and was opposed by many of the businesses on the street where it was to be built. The city spent more than a million dollars each for battery-powered buses to serve the line, when similar Diesel buses would cost only about half that much.
Now the project is under construction and the city is having all sorts of problems. It will likely be at least a year late, which wouldn’t have happened if they had used ordinary buses on shared lanes. Businesses along the Central Avenue, Albuquerque’s main street, have been devastated by construction, with some going out of business entirely, which also wouldn’t have happened if buses had used existing shared lanes. The bus stops are so poorly designed that, in some cases, the buses will block intersections when they stop to board passengers.
The new buses, made in California by a Chinese company, are lemons. The battery chargers for the new buses won’t work. The buses have other mechanical problems such as leaky transmissions. Some parts of the buses are falling apart even before they have been put into service.
Albuquerque also has a new mayor, Tim Keller, who is happy to blame the project on the previous administration. He calls the project “a bit of a lemon” whose “problems are much worse than I think anyone believed,” implying that he himself was skeptical of the project. This gives him the ability to say he was against it if it turns out to be a flop and yet still take credit for it if it somehow turns out to be successful.
Polls showed that, by 2017, 65 percent of Albuquerque voters opposed the bus project, so many mayoral candidates were critical of it. In a televised debate, the eventual winner was more fatalistic. “There is nothing we can do about it because City Council and the mayor have already passed it, and it is going to be what it is,” he said. “So what the mayor has to do is make the best of it.” Before becoming mayor, Keller was New Mexico state auditor and is not known to have expressed an opinion about the project.
I don’t mean to single out Keller, but I’m just saying there is a lot less political risk from opposing a boondoggle after it is too late to stop it. If we are lucky, it will soon be acceptable for major politicians to oppose these projects before the decision to build them has already been made.