Transit Expert: Economic Benefits of Rail “Overblown”; Benefit for Few at Expense of Others.

Dr. Robert Cervero, Chair of Urban Studies, UC Berkley, Director of Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD) and the University of California Transportation Center.

Dr. Robert Cervero, Chair of Urban Studies, UC Berkeley, Director of Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD) and the University of California Transportation Center.

Part of Series: Read “No Difference in Economic Growth in Rail/No Rail Cities,”  (7/8/14)”

Greenlight Pinellas continues to trumpet that their $110 million annual tax hike on the community will create economic development. Their plan is to increase density along the rail with a strategy called “Transit Oriented Development”. That’s right, in a county that has the highest population density in the state, the planners want MORE DENSITY!  They plan to take an extra 14% in sales tax money out of the pockets of poor and middle class taxpayers to transfer to the pockets of rich, well-connected land developers, contractors, and investors to build denser residential and commercial units along the train line (government gets their cut too along with fatter government forever). This is a clear redistribution of the income from the poor to the rich, not “economic growth” as claimed by Greenlight supporters like the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce. As the Sunbeam Times continues to debunk the economic growth myth, we turn our attention to the work of a highly acclaimed and internationally recognized transit authority Roberto Cervero, Ph.D. Dr. Cervero says this about economic development as a result of rail: “…the economic development benefits of transit is often overblown” (see full quote below).

Dr. Cervero is the Friesen Chair of Urban Studies and a Professor of City & Regional Planning at UC Berkely. He is a widely published and sought after expert on the subject on transit and the Director of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development (IURD) and the University of California Transportation Center (UCTC). He has done extensive, scientifically strenuous work on the impact of rail financing on local economies. Dr. Cervero was contacted by Sunbeam Times Founder and editor Dr. David McKalip for this story. Dr. Cervero has previously evaluated the economic benefit of public transit projects to communities. In 1995, he reached this conclusion:

“Urban rail transit investments rarely ‘create’ new growth, but more typically redistribute growth that would have taken place without the investment.”  (Cervero & Seskin, FTA Report #TCRP-7).

This conclusion was published in a federally funded report commissioned by the Federal Transit Administration and conducted under the auspices of the “Transit Cooperative Research Program”. That study evaluated 30 years of transit research and case studies. In the TCRP-7 study, they also concluded:

Past work also suggests that rail transit investments do not stimulate real economic growth; rather they only influence where already-committed growth takes place.”  

They pointed to examples in Buffalo, Pittsburgh and San Diego and concluded that there were little land-use improvements outside of downtown areas. Negative effects were also noted. In the late ’80’s,  Gimble’s department store in Philadaelphia was put out of business by re-routing of trolly traffic to an underground train that bypassed the business. Cervero and Seskin stated:

“The prospect of inducing real economic growth is often used to justify new light rail investments in particular. Claims for LRT investments have included stimulating community revitalization, job creation, economic development along specific corridors, and maintaining and sustaining dense urban centers whose vitality are being sapped by auto-oriented development.”

That is exactly the case here for Greenlight Pinellas where its supporters are constantly referring to job growth and “transit-oriented” development.

Dr. Cervero was contacted to determine if this conclusion from 1995 was still valid in his opinion. His answer was “yes”, and he again pointed to the scientifically verified evidence that economic activity is confined to areas where the train is built, and not the community as a whole.  He offered this on July 8, 2014 (personal communication to author):

For the most part, I still stand by this statement about transit largely redistributing economic benefits.  It’s never easy to generalize and there are situations where public transit can deliver accessibility and agglomeration benefits (e.g., sustain higher concentrations of jobs in downtown than would otherwise be possible), however outside of big cities with serious traffic congestion and vibrant knowledge-based economies, the economic development benefits of transit is often overblown (though one could also say the same about major sports events like the World Cup and many other public endeavors).  There might very well be other reasons to justify transit investments however a lot of things need to line up for public transit to do things like grow jobs or entice outside investments.”

Dr. Cervero points to the effect of job benefits being focused in downtown areas. In the Greenlight program, the train will bridge the two downtown areas of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, which will receive far richer benefits. The downtown residents and developers building there will reap the reward off the backs of the poor and middle class taxpayers in south St. Pete, the beaches, the St. Petersburg Suburbs, Seminole, Tarpons Springs and Palm Harbor. Those areas will be tax donors for development along the rail.  Further Dr. Cervero indicates that transit is more likely to be successful in “big cities” (think New York, and Chicago) with “knowledge-based” economies. The Greenlight supporters like to say that trains will attract workers for this kind of economy, but again the planners have but the cart before the horse. Like most government planners, they are offering the “if you build it they will come” mentality. Did this work for Tropicana Field in St. Pete (where are the baseball fans)? How about St. Petersburg’s Bay Plaza and Tampa’s Channelside? No. Greenlight is a simple wealth redistribution program from the poor to the rich. It is crony corporatism in its most perfected form (thus the support from so many for this, as was done with the $1.7 million donated  by rail beneficiaries to the failed transit tax in Hillsborough in 2010).

The fact is that data shows and the experts agree that economic development and growth are not a result of a massive tax hike and public program to build trains.  The Sunbeam Times will continue to evaluate the science on this matter this week and hopes to convince you that you should work to stop this rail boondoggle called “Greenlight Pinellas” by going to to sign up to help.

One Reply:

  1. Sun Beam Times Post author

    Yes, I do. I noticed that unlike most “experts” who support transit, he is a SCIENTIST. A TRUE scientist who lets the data and the facts lead him to his conclusions rather than the other way around. Dr. Cervero supports transit. So what? So do I!

    But Dr. Cervero helped to answer a very important question about economic development – does it happen for all or even create new growth? The answer is NO!

    So, I see only one smoke maker here, one person playing fast and loose with the facts and his name is David Kozar, AKA Ron Thompson the internet troll.

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