Peter Rogoff, the FTA administrator who once said the federal government should say “no” to cities that want federal grants to build rail lines they can’t afford to maintain, is unable to say “no” to Portland when it asked the feds to pay half the cost of a ridiculously expensive light-rail line. Moreover, Rogoff insists that local voters can’t say “no” to providing local funds that their elected representatives have committed to the project.
That’s something of a double standard. Rogoff knows full well that the federal government can still say “no” to funding its share of the project even after he has signed the “full funding grant agreement.” The law specifically states that when such agreements are funded out of “general funds” (as New Starts are), they are a “contractual obligation of the Government to pay the Federal share of the cost of the project only to the extent that amounts are appropriated for such purpose by an Act of Congress” (see p. 493). So Congress can still say “no.”
The light-rail line in question is expected to cost $1.5 billion for just 7.4 miles, making it one of the most expensive light-rail lines ever built on a per-mile basis. By comparison, Portland first light-rail line, which was ten miles longer, cost only about $200 million. The communities the new line will serve, once it leaves Portland, have voted against funding it every time it has been on the ballot.
The county sheriff recently added fuel to the fire. In a recent message to the county commission, the sheriff said that, while he doesn’t “oppose the expansion of mass transit,” he is upset that the county would have to take $1.9 million in general funds to repay bonds sold to fund the rail line–funds that he needs to provide public safety. The sheriff knows that light rail hits his program in two ways: on one hand, the county recently cut his budget; on the other hand, light rail increases the costs of policing.
It appears likely that county voters will ignore Rogoff’s claim that they are contractually obligated to fund their share of light rail even when he is not. Regardless of the legalities, it is time to say “no” to such absurdly expensive projects.