Federal Transportation Dollars Spent On Streetcars No One Rides

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Luke Rosiak Investigative Reporter
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Local governments routinely spend resources on infrastructure they don’t really need or want simply because available funds are sitting in a federal account and are therefore viewed as “free,” according to Sen. Jeff Flake’s new edition of the Wastebook.

That’s one takeaway from a litany of transportation and engineering boondoggles highlighted by the Arizona Republican Tuesday. Flake is the de facto successor to Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who created the first Wastebook and was known by his peers in the Senate as “Dr. No” when he retired in 2014.

Among the transportation and infrastructure examples highlighted by Flake in the latest Wastebook are the “two federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants totaling more than $65 million” supporting a streetcar that no one seems to want.

“I’ve never been on a car with more than 25 other people; it’s usually about a dozen, in a car that can seat 60 and carry up to 195,” a journalist observed, and many passengers are homeless people just looking for shelter, who often “got a little bit rough with the operators” and left it smelling foul, according to the Wastebook.

Low streetcar ridership notwithstanding, Atlanta, Georgia Mayor Kasim Reed bragged that “there have been five rounds of TIGER and we’ve won two. And in the two rounds that we won, we got the largest grants.”

Up north, in the Hamptons of New York, federal officials replaced natural dunes with a sandbag structure that was immediately eroded.

“The Army Corps came in, the funds were available, and this is what they proposed,” said East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “We wanted no walkways at all, and we certainly didn’t want the walkways they designed,” but the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and “the [Army Corps of Engineers] insisted that they be there.”

The chief of planning and policy for the North Atlantic Division of the Army Corps said “we were asked to do this work. We don’t just go places and do things,” according to the Wastebook.

An East Hampton resident said “it was disgusting. Half the beach was gone, and there’s this pipe spewing who knows what.” A coastal geologist said “the project will likely result in significant degradation of the public beach, while providing little protection for property,” he said.

In California, federal officials spent $3.1 billion for a bullet train whose first segment was supposed to be completed in 2018, yet no track has been laid. The train was initially planned to drop passengers off in a dusty pistachio field so the project could be called “shovel ready” under President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program.

That turned out not so easy to do, and taxpayers are consequently now paying to keep construction equipment idle, even as most Californians say they don’t want the train.

“Despite the billions of dollars provided by the federal government, the rail system is struggling to attract capital and is $43.5 billion short. Private investors have shown little interest in the project. Financial support from the state has also been lagging, in part because the federal government waived the requirement for the state to make an upfront dollar-for-dollar match. The unusual agreement allows California to spend federal dollars first before putting up any of its own money,” Wastebook said.

The foreign company building the train said on its bid application that it “will require large government subsidies for years to come,” but California deleted this warning when the proposal was posted online, according to Wastebook.

In Florida, federal dollars bankrolled “golf tournaments, a music and wine festival, holiday wine glasses, and a private boat cruise” by a barely-accountable independent government arm called the Lake-Sumter Metropolitan Planning Organization, which gets $100 million in federal and state funding annually.

Federal money even covers staff who often don’t show up for work. An auditor also found that “mismanagement of grants has occurred consistently.” “I’m unapologetic,” the organization’s director said, claiming that it’s “legally an independent agency,” even though it gets its money from other governments.

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