Trolley Folly

When federal money is blown on “infrastructure” or “recovery” one can be surprised how many projects that ultimately get funded make little sense. That is because the pot of money gets stove-piped through specific categories. If Monmouth or Independence, Oregon were given $3 million in cash, would they spend the money on an imitation trolley? Probably not.

That is certainly the impression I get when I read Monmouth City Manager Marty Wine quoted in the Salem Statesman Journal as saying: “Why do we need it?” Wine said. “I don’t know if we need it. I think the purpose of the pilot is to find out if we need it.”

So how did this get selected? In the wake of nostalgia for an electric trolley that connected Monmouth to Independence from 1889 to 1918, a century after this mode of transportation became obsolete, Paul Evans (D-Monmouth) secured $300,000 for a feasibility study to see if it would be a good investment. The study only cost $55,000 to provide an inconclusive result. Then, a few years later, the American Rescue Plan Act had money to spend on transportation development. Now Rep. Evans could follow through with $2 million. Senator Deb Patterson (D-Salem) had another million to throw away.

That is what happens with federal infrastructure spending. Oregonians are taxed. The money goes to Washington D.C. in a leaky bucket. Some of it comes back to Oregon but without the flexibility to go to its highest and best use.

A good indicator of how valuable this service is expected to be is its price, not the price tag of the project, but the price paid by riders. This Trolley will be free of charge to riders. How many people would ride it if a purchased ticket had to cover the marginal cost of the service? It’s not obvious how many people will be riding it, even without having to pay a fare. This line has two years of funding provided by a one-time grant from the federal government, then what?

The problem is that neither Monmouth nor Independence has a dense enough population to sustain much public transportation. Traffic or parking is not a big problem in these towns either. Given that most riders need to have a motor vehicle to get around anyway, why would they ride the trolley? They would need to drive to the line, park their vehicle, and wait for the trolley, all to just ride for a few more miles. Then, when finished with their reason for traveling to the neighboring town, they would need to wait for the trolley to get back to their vehicle. Why not just keep driving your vehicle a few more miles to your final destination?

Yet there is something nice to say about this trolley: at least it’s not a real street car like what runs through Portland’s Pearl District. The Monmouth Independence (MI) Trolley is a bus that has been decorated to look like a street car. It has rubber wheels that can drive anywhere, not steel wheels that require tracks. For that reason, it’s substantially less expensive to build and maintain. I remember hearing Oregon’s great resident transportation analyst, Randal O’toole say, almost in jest, why pay so much for street cars when you could just outfit a lower-cost bus to look like one. The MI-Trolly, this 20-minute service between Monmouth and Independence, does exactly that.

Will it still be running in two years? I don’t know, but at least no one will need to dig up tracks from the street when this federal money runs out.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of We were winning when I was there.