Ha! Cato’s O’Toole to Detroit: Don’t Repeat Portland and Denver’s “Mistakes”

The Cato Institute’s resident transportation pundit Randal O’Toole is best appreciated as a comedian.

The Cato Institute's Randal O'Toole hilariously warns Detroit not to make the mistake of investing in light rail or it might turn out like Portland and Denver. Photo: ##http://t4america.org/blog/2011/06/15/throwing-grandma-off-the-train-and-under-the-bus/## T4A##

A forestry expert with a penchant for 19th Century neckwear, O’Toole’s latest gag, published in The Michigan View, warns that Detroit is poised to repeat the transportation mistakes of — get this — Portland and Denver.

Let that sink in for a moment. O’Toole is warning Detroit that if the city invests in light rail it could turn out like two of the healthiest, most attractive cities in the country. Heaven forbid.

“Light rail is sooo last century,” says O’Toole (an expert in prior centuries, as you can tell from his tie). Residents of metro areas keep on voting to tax themselves and build light rail, he continues, only because of “a giant hoax perpetrated on the taxpayers of the United States.”

Light rail is expensive, he explains. Denver’s going to spend $7 billion to build its light rail system over 10 years. Classic O’Toole. He doesn’t like to complicate his arguments with superfluous nonsense like comparison to alternative scenarios, or even — this is really a stretch — the concept of externalities. Nope, when O’Toole’s on the case we get a statement of project cost and then, “Gee, that’s a lot of money.”

Here’s where it gets really good though. In what is sure to elicit belly laughs, O’Toole argues that light rail doesn’t lead to development.

He illustrates his point with what is no doubt one of the country’s biggest transit oriented development success stories: Portland. Portland! Where the streetcar led to billions of dollars being invested in TOD, according to the New York Times.

This is a direct quote from O’Toole: “When Portland opened its first light-rail line in 1986, planners rezoned the areas around each station for high-density, transit-oriented development. Ten years later, planners admitted that not one single such development had been built.”

See? It’s funny because O’Toole doesn’t actually name any Portland planners who said the city’s light rail system had not generated transit oriented development. But the planners at Tri-Met, which runs the light rail system, estimate that it has spurred $10 billion in TOD investment.

O’Toole continues: “When asked why they didn’t build around the light-rail stations, developers said there was no demand for such developments.”

Which developers would that be, exactly? Not the ones who built the Crossings, Russellville Commons, or North Main Village.

With the total agreement of all of Portland’s “planners” and “developers” secured, O’Toole segues right into this hilarious conclusion:

“Rail advocates say you need rail transit to be a world-class city,” he says. “The truth is that cities that use 1930s technologies to solve 21st Century transportation problems are world-class chumps.”

If you don’t count its tiny “People Mover” system, Detroit is probably the largest American city without rail transit. Chicago, San Francisco, New York — chumps!

Also for chumps: looking for evidence to back up your assertions.

  • Don’t take shots at him personally (his necktie), it makes you come off as petty, which I know you’re not. Also

    Detroit would love to be like Portland or Denver, what wonderful problems it could have!

  • We don’t need just 1930’s technology, we need a combination of 1930’s technology, and 19th century technology (the bicycle) 🙂 – exactly what the Netherlands has done. Bicycle for local access, rail for city-to-city or cross-city travel. That’s how you can have a prosperous nation where only around 40% of citizens own a personal automobile, dense development that doesn’t feel crowded, public space that is useful to the public instead of just used for storing un-used vehicles.

    Simpler is better.

    I suppose he thinks we should sink everything into electric cars?

  • I’ll forgive them for the neck ware shot. It’s really a tempting target. But yes, O’Toole is best seen as a comedian (like when he suggested NYC would be JUST FINE if the subway system went away). But, when you’re clearly on the losing end of a debate, I guess you get desperate.

  • So if he were wearing a bathrobe it would be off limits? I think crazy clothing eventually reaches a point where it can sort of legitimately infringes on your credibility. This guy, he crossed that line a while back.

  • TM

    Is this blog supposed to be for arguing policy ideas or insulting people we don’t agree with?

  • An

    There’s a great response in the comments under the article itself (although it’s hidden unless you click on it)

  • Joel Batterman

    Although I agree that O’ Toole approaches self-parody here, I do think certain transit-oriented development subsidies do bear closer examination, especially in light of the uncertain equity implications. Obviously those subsidies don’t hold a candle to those for sprawl, but the principle still holds. Portland’s efforts to avert wholesale gentrification along the Interstate Avenue light rail line were obviously insufficient.

    Would anyone else like to see O’Toole and famously bow-tied US Congressman Earl Blumenauer (also of Oregon) engage in a Battle of the Ties?

  • Randal O’Toole

    Portland city planner Mike Saba admitted in 1996 that light rail had not generated any transit-oriented development. In response, Charles Hales, then Portland city commissioner, proposed to begin subsidizing developments along the light-rail and streetcar lines. Since then the city has given hundreds of millions in subsidies to developers, then tells New York Times and other reporters that rail transit stimulated the development. Guess what: when the city subsidizes development without rail transit, they get development. When they build rail transit and no subsidies, no new development. All the developments cited in Schmitt’s post received millions in subsidies.

    Read my full reports on Portland and other subjects before criticizing me based on a 750-word op ed.

  • Joe R.

    I think his point here might be that rail is good, but only if it’s grade separated.  If you run it on the surface, it’s subject to the same congestion buses and other street vehicles are.  The important element of transit in cities is that it must be fast compared to alternatives.  In NYC the subway is more often than not the fastest way to get around.  This wouldn’t be so if it was a light rail line or streetcar line.  Light rail to me is basically the functional equivalent of a very expensive bus running on rails.  While there are applications where this might make sense, especially if the vehicles can run unfettered for good portions of their routes, light rail is hardly the answer in most cases.  Either run a bus (either conventional or limited stop), or if density warrants build a conventional subway.  Yes, subways cost a lot of money.  However, the aggregate time savings pays for them many times over once they’re built.

    The problem is we’re constantly looking to build infrastructure solutions on the cheap in this country.  Penny-wise/dollar foolish is really what light rail is compared to conventional subway.  Light rail might actually be better suited to suburbs where roads have lower traffic density, and the light rail vehicles can average fairly high speeds, perhaps even run in highway medians.

  • Simon Cohen

    O’Toole & CATO are against rail, because it works.

    They don’t object socialist & communist policy for roads.

    For them it’s always; 4 lanes good, 2 tracks bad.

  • Jeffvstl

    In response to Joe L.– light-rail trains don’t necessarily have to run on surface streets.  St. Louis’ light rail system operates like heavy rail, utilizing old rail rights-of-way and even century-plus old subway tunnels underneath downtown St. Louis.  Aside from a few rail crossings, the trains never encounter regular street traffic.  

    To the point of bus vs. rail, you can’t discount the psychological aspect.  Many studies have concluded that fixed-rail transit is perceived by the public as safer, more efficient, and  cleaner than rubber-wheel transit.  Whether real or imagined, there’s s a stigma attached to buses.  That perception in itself adds value to the concept of rail.  St. Louis recently completed a prospective ridership study of bus vs. rail, and the results overwhelmingly supported the case for fixed-rail as opposed to rubber-wheel transit.  I am happy to report that construction on the St. Louis streetcar is scheduled to begin next year.

  • Joe R.

    @253e0a17c440bcb518610dd46b41642f:disqus I’m very aware of the stigma associated with buses.  My point is if you’re going to bother laying down tracks, then don’t do it half-a$$ed where the train can’t operate any faster than a bus.  Do it right the first time and make it grade-separated for most or all of the route.  I just can’t see spending billions of dollars, then ending up with a light-rail line which averages 12 mph or worse.  Rail may initially attract more passengers than a new bus line would, but it won’t keep those passengers long-term if it’s slow as molasses.  With grade separation, plus vehicles which accelerate quickly, you can average 20 to 30 mph in urban settings with fairly frequent stops.
    Buses in an urban setting work best as feeder routes to grade-separated heavy or light rail, rather than as “main-line” transportation.  When used that way, they don’t have the stigma usually associated with them because most people are only on them for 15 minutes or less.

  • Rob Steuteville

    O’Toole’s response below is good comedy. So, $10 billion in investment is all because of subsidies? Nice story, but the real reasons that TOD was not built before 1996 — it takes decades for developers to learn how to take advantage of new transportation infrastructure like light rail. Also, the zoning laws made good, walkable development illegal. And the developers didn’t know how to build it, and the financiers didn’t know how to finance it. the market for TOD was just emerging. Everything has changed but O’Toole’s worldview, and the $10 billion in development (plus, what, $4 billion or so for streetcar?) is just the beginning.

  • Obviously Mr. O’Toole only visited areas of Denver where LITTLE TO NO Light Rail service currently exists AND hasn’t heard of a little project called FASTRACKS which would CORRECT this

    Additionally, he seems to think that ALL of Denver’s Light Rail track is on flat land & was just laid down during Light Rail construction.  What he FAILS to realize that RTD used PRE-EXISTING rail line in MANY parts of town where Light Rail service now exists by MAKING ARRANGEMENTS & FORMING PARTNERSHIPS with other rail operators to grab A SHARE of the TOTAL amount of pre-existing track & secure it for Light Rail use.  This only leaves the track they had to lay down on a section of Downtown Denver streets (Which were re-configured for Light Rail) as well as other areas where no tracks exist (Thus CUTTING DOWN their costs)

    In short, O’Toole is just engaging in politics in an area where history is simply not on his side

  • GB Arrington

    The interesting thing about the libertarian hate-and-envy of Portland is they do such a good job of stretching facts like cotton candy until the facts no longer resemble reality. Mr. O’Toole quotes Mike Saba as saying there was no TOD in Portland in 1996. A better source might have been the 1996 paper I wrote for TriMet ”Beyond the Field of Dreams: Light Rail and Growth Management in Portland” which documented $1.32 billion in development around Portland’s first rail line. Certainly a larger number than the zero Mr. O’Toole contends is the case.  

  • heh; Though I’ve often read his ignorant ravings, I’ve never seen a picture of O’Toole before … man, he even looks crazy…

  • Cal2neb

    It should be noted that O’Tooles solution to congestion is cars that drive themselves. I wish that were a joke.

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