Usually when proponents of light rail wax poetically about the wonders of that mode of publicly subsidized transit they tell stories of the wonders of such systems in Europe or mention the urban hipness of the light rail utopia that is Portland. I don’t ever recall hearing anything from these folks about how great light rail had worked out in Buffalo. In fact, before I read Steven Malanga’s piece in Saturdays’ WSJ, I was not aware that the city in upstate New York even had such an enlightened transit system.
How Stimulus Spending Ruined Buffalo:
Sometimes these schemes have done real harm. In the 1970s, the federal government decided to invest $530 million to build a 6.2-mile light-rail system through downtown Buffalo. It was supposed to further spur redevelopment, of course.
Opened in 1985 and anchored by a transit mall that banned cars, the rail line fell well below ridership projections—and downtown businesses suffered mightily from the lack of traffic. As Buffalo landlord Stephen P. Fitzmaurice wrote in 2009: "Walk down Main Street on the transit mall; aside from a few necessities like drug and cell phone stores, blight dominates." Last month the city received a $15 million federal grant to restore traffic to Main Street.
So first the taxpayers shelled out over five-hundred-million dollars in the 1970s—when half a billion bucks was still real money—to build light rail and create a “transit mall” in Buffalo and now we’re on the hook for another $15 million to untransit the same street in an attempt to save whatever shred of downtown business that remains? Sounds like a great deal. And one that we should keep in mind as more light rail projects are being pitched with the promise of economic redevelopment.