Proponents of Greenlight Pinellas like to point to Economic Development that will allegedly come if voters approve a 14% sales tax rate hike in November to build a passenger train from St. Pete to Clearwater (not Tampa). The Greenlight Pinellas Website FAQ offers this: “Transportation improvements like the LPA and expanded bus service have the ability to transform our community and help bring our economy back with opportunities for new development.” Unfortunately an objective analysis of data reveals that economic growth mainly occurs only adjacent to the rail line and is usually at the expense of the taxpayers and other areas in the community. The Sun Beam Times will be tackling this matter in detail this week. The first analysis will be a comparison of cities with and without rail to determine the economic growth that has occurred. The analysis shows that there is essentially no difference in the average rate of economic growth between cities with and without commuter rail. Since 2001, the Tampa-St. Petersburg Metropolitan area has had greater economic growth than most cities with rail.
To evaluate economic growth, the Gross Domestic Products (GDP’s) of Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA’s) were compared. Data was taken from the Federal Bureau of Economic analysis using their “interactive data” tool. Cities of a size similar to the Tampa St. Petersburg area were selected – those with populations between 450,000 and 1.2 million. The cities chosen were the same as those analyzed for congestion data in a prior post at the Sun Beam Times (showing that traffic speeds were higher in cities without rail). Metropolitan areas were analyzed for the percent change in GDP between 2001 and 2012, the full amount of data available. Excel Spreadsheets and raw data are available upon request.
The results contradicted the purported benefit of building rail in a city. Good experiments have control groups and experimental groups. In this case the “experimental group” would be that with rail and the control group would be those without rail. Now this is merely a survey of cities and not a true experiment to control for all the factors that could influence the evaluation. For instance, not analyzed was the impact of Federal “stimulus” funds on certain cities compared to other, or the type and location of rail and more. However, this survey does provide some insight into cities with and without rail. Greenlight proponents constantly compare our area to “modern” and “progressive” cities who have put rail in place like Charlotte, Austin, Portland and more. But they only seem to cherry pick the examples they like, and don’t evaluate all important factors.
The analysis of GDP changes shows that analyzed cities with and without rail had about the same rate of economic growth. The rate was 4.0% in all cities on average from 2001-2012. Tampa-St. Petersburg had a higher rate of growth than nine out of 16 cities with rail and had a slightly higher than average rate of growth overall (4.05%). So by this measure of economic growth, the claim that rail will help our area grow is highly suspect. It is more reasonable to conclude that there is no difference in economic growth compared to other cities on average.
Stay tuned for more analysis on the means of economic growth that can occur: economic benefit for the rich and well-connected who develop land along rail corridors at taxpayer and community expense.