Outrages and insights

Same silver bullet project, different day

Metro Rail currently runs from South Campus to Canalside.

Photo by J.P. Thimot


They’re called priorities.


Sure, a new convention center would be nice. The current one is dreary, I admit.


Extending Metro Rail to the University at Buffalo’s north campus in Amherst would make it less of a train to nowhere.


And a new football stadium, especially if built downtown, would certainly help the city project a big-league image.


But the price tag for all this is well north of $2 billion. More important, there are other capital needs, ones that, quite frankly, are a lot more important than the shiny new toys that invariably enthrall many of our political leaders.


Fact is, our regional infrastructure is a mess. Water and sewer lines date back a century—some worn, others corroded. Then there are the ones that include lead. Some water lines are potentially life-threatening—did I mention the lead?—while the state of Buffalo’s sewage systems helps explain why Scajaquada Creek is an open sewer and other local waterways rank among the most fouled in the  state.


Many local roads and bridges are also in bad shape. There are, for example, some 145 bridges in Western New York that are the responsibility of local governments and have been deemed “structurally deficient.” The cost to repair them: $1.1 billion.


Then there’s quality-of-life infrastructure—parks, libraries, community centers, and such amenities. The city of Buffalo commissioned a study several years back that identified some $600 million in needed capital projects. The city’s twenty-five community centers required $70 million in work; parks needed $65 million. You get the picture.


The backlog keeps getting longer, as our infrastructure continues to deteriorate faster than government is repairing it. In other words, the bill is getting bigger and bigger. Which prompts the question: why the fixation on shiny new toys?


“Too many officials in troubled cities wrongly imagine that they can lead their city back to its former glories with some massive construction project: a new stadium or light rail system, a convention center or a housing project,” says Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University.


Agreed, misguided thinking is part of the problem. So, too, is the self-serving nature of most politicians. They like giving the appearance that they’re doing something good. One way to convey that is through photo ops and the favorable press coverage high-profile projects tend to generate. Supporting such projects gives politicians three bites at the self-promotion apple: one at the project announcement, another at the ground breaking, and yet another at the ribbon cutting.


And what makes a better backdrop: a new football stadium or an underground sewer line?


It’s as simple as that. Big ticket projects represent an opportunity for self-promotion, and that is the name of the game in political circles. A second contributing factor: many of our elected officials lack the smarts and/or work ethic to do the homework necessary to make informed decisions. And don’t overlook the economic self-interest of downtown business interests, who know a major public investment can stabilize or increase their property values.


Which brings me to the three big-ticket projects now under consideration.


Governor Andrew Cuomo set aside money in his Buffalo Billion II initiative to fund a study to consider extending Metro Rail six-point-four miles from UB’s south campus on the city line through the Town of Tonawanda to the university’s north campus in Amherst. The estimated cost: $1.2 billion. Proponents would have us believe the transit line would promote massive development, generate tax revenues, remove traffic from the roads, and link downtown to its largest suburb.


One only has to look at the vacant lots that abut a fair number of train stations along the present route to know the claims of development are hooey. Experience in other cities suggests that growth, when it happens, is the byproduct of subsidies to developers. As though we don’t subsidize developers enough in this community.


And forget about getting a lot of motorists out of their cars: rail transit only attracts significant riders when congestion is really bad, usually the result of dense population. That’s not the case here. Amherst, with a population density of 2,364 residents per square mile, is no Manhattan, which packs in 69,468 residents in the same space. Our transportation needs are different.


The more likely outcome is that an expanded Metro Rail will drain money from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority and precipitate further cutbacks in bus service to the people who need public transit the most.


Then there’s the scheme to expand or replace the convention center, at a cost ranging from $329 million to $429 million. As if a facility is going to prompt conventions to flock to Buffalo. Please. Proponents echo the claims of economic benefits that are made elsewhere. But Heywood Sanders, in his book Convention Center Follies, writes, “From Atlanta to Seattle, Boston to Las Vegas, the promises of local officials and the forecasts of consultants have come up short.”


Finally, there’s the drumbeat for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills. There’s a philosophical reason to oppose this: taxpayers should not subsidize highly profitable businesses owned by billionaires.


There is also a practical reason: study after study has documented that sports stadiums don’t pay for themselves. Think about it: how could a stadium used as few as ten times a year ever provide a good return on a $1 billion investment? Sports economist Michael Leeds did a study a while back that concluded a major league baseball team, which plays eighty-one home games a year, “has about the same impact on a community as a midsize department store.”


So I ask you: Would you spend $1 billion of taxpayer funds to build a new Target?


I didn’t think so.


Bottom line: public officials should be investing tax dollars in infrastructure that provides essential services and improves quality of life. Roads, water lines, libraries. Football stadiums, convention centers, and the like are trophy projects, not essentials, and funding them diverts money away from more deserving endeavors.


The politicians need to get their priorities straight.   


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