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Shrimp 'n Grits

Light Commuter-rail - a heavy taxpayer burden
Lee Walton

Whenever the Palter & Chatter hits attentive locals with an across-the-fold, full color, A-1 info-mercial like David Slade's Training Ground on Sunday morning, most readers instinctively groan, grab their wallets and think, Here we go again! Such articles are usually the precursor for another assault on taxpayer sensibilities and ever-dwindling take-home pay. If the Palter & Chatter's facts are correct, Nashville's newly christened $41 million commuter-rail was no bargain to build and became a heavily subsidized taxpayer burden the day it opened. With CARTA struggling to do all but put paper cut-outs in its hundreds of empty seats daily, a poorly planned and under-funded commuter-rail is the last thing the Lowcountry needs now. CARTA can't even crawl on its hands and knees, let alone walk, and now the Palter & Chatter wants to put it in the railroad commuting business.

No wonder that contented commuter couple pictured on the front page proclaimed, "As far as we're concerned, the train was made for us". As two of only 750 riders projected to use Nashville's new 32-mile commuter-rail system in 2007, it may as well be their private railway. At $10 apiece, round-trip, averaging 250 round-trips per year, as a couple, they would pay a total of $5,000 a year or a little less than 16 cents per commuting mile; that's really quite a bargain today compared to the cost of owning and operating a private vehicle. But what's the cost of the taxpayer subsidy? Again, using the Palter & Chatter's own figures, the federal, state, and local taxpayers pick up the $2 million operating deficit to the tune of almost 17 cents per commuting mile over 50% of the projected operating cost per mile. That's a taxpayer subsidy that even CARTA's Executive Director, Howard The Bag Man Chapman, would envy.

Then we get to the Palter & Chatter's pitch line "the 22-mile Summerville-to-Charleston commuter-rail line would cost a projected $46 million, not counting track usage fees to CSX or Norfolk Southern and certain considerable costs, such as acquiring land for stations and some right of way." Annual operating costs are estimated to be $4 million with commuter fares covering about $2.6 million. Using a similar basis for comparison as Nashville (250 commuting days per year) for 1,637 commuters (why not 1,638 or some other just as meaningless number plucked out of thin air), the commuter cost per mile would be slightly over 14 cents in fare box revenue, but only about 8 cents per mile in taxpayer subsidy; that's less than half of what the taxpayer's in Nashville have to pay, and their system is up and running with 22 double-decker passenger rail cars bought from Chicago Transit for just $1.00 each. Nashville is losing almost twice of what these so-called "experts" project Charleston to lose, but Charleston will have to pay for private sector rail usage from CSX or Norfolk Southern while Nashville owns its tracks. Maybe it's just some of CARTA's infamous voodoo accounting.

Most Charlestonians were born at night, but not last night! Who are these come here "experts", that the COG Board is about to hand $75,000 to for another rail study, trying to fool? Also, what makes these same "experts" think that CARTA or any bunch of local time-tested transit management geniuses, led by Howard The Bag Man Chapman, could ever get passenger fares to cover 65% of a commuter-rail's annual operating costs. CARTA's fare box revenue can'ty cover even 30% of its current operating costs. Maybe CARTA's Board should hire these same "experts" to tell them why The Bag Man can't get out of reverse gear when it comes to higher fare box revenue and increased ridership.

Now for the real kicker in Slade's article " Nashville's Regional Transit Authority is discussing ways to secure reliable funding, such as a special tax to fund the rail service", Nashville's Commuter-rail Project Manager was quoted as saying, "A lot of the problems we had were because of the lack of a dedicated funding stream". This familiar song-and-dance routine sounds amazingly like a repeat of Pericles's and CARTA's hand ringing, sky-is-falling lament to the second ½% Sales Tax Referendum. Less we forget, passage of Charleston County's "dedicated funding stream" bailed out Howard The Bag Man and a nearly bankrupt CARTA at the last minute after both blew through almost $24 million in SCE&G start-up subsidy like a sailor on his first liberty in Hong Kong.

Can'tt you just see Howard The Bag Man, Pericles and CARTA's Board Cheerleader Patterson Smith standing by a railroad track and pitching pennies as a train goes by?

Yogi Berra said it best - "Deja vu, all over again!"