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Scott MacKay Commentary: The Streetcar No One Desires

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So Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza wants to build a trolley system. RIPR Political analyst Scott MacKay says this is a great idea, but can the city afford...

So Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza wants to build a trolley system. RIPR Political analyst Scott MacKay says this is a great idea, but can the city afford it?

Sure, it would  be wonderful to jump on a Providence  trolley system and ride from Brown University, down historic College Hill, to Rhode Island Hospital..

One can even imagine taking the trolley to a spanking new retro baseball stadium along the Providence River to watch the Boston Red Sox top minor league team.

The street car and ballpark have the potential to transform downtown into a major attraction for both Rhode Islanders and the tourist visitors Gov. Gina Raimondo so covets. Thousands of new people thronging downtown would bring more diners to the city’s fabulous foodie scene and  more business attractions such as live theater, museums and architecture.

Imagine the boost in self-esteem for a city perpetually in the shadow of Boston, a world-class venue with major league teams, the nation’s top universities and world-renowned museums.

As is the case with many Rhode Islanders, yours truly would love to have a shiny new Porsche in the driveway. I’d even settle for Corvette or a BMW. To afford such a luxury, my wife and I would have to tighten our belts. We wouldn’t be able to afford our mortgage anymore, so we would be homeless. Yet we could ride in a Porsche that would draw enviable stares as we cruised down Bellevue Avenue.

That’s pretty much what Mayor Jorge Elorza and Providence City Council President Luis Aponte are buying into when they campaign for the 2.1 mile trolley project that would cost more than $100 million in taxpayer money.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has awarded Providence $13 million to build the streetcar line. In its application for more federal support, the city says it would pay for the remainder of the project using bonds and state money.

A streetcar, says Elorza, "is an essential component of our strategy to enhance public transportation and accelerate economic growth in Providence."

That’s gauzy rhetoric. It doesn’t reflect the reality of today’s Providence.

Our capital city is a storied American city, with a rich history dating to colonial times. We have some of the best colleges, hospitals, parks and churches anywhere.

All of those grand non-profit institutions are magnets that draw thousands to the city every day. What they don’t do is pay taxes at anywhere near the rates levied on homeowners and businesses. And if you have to be anywhere soon, don’t start a conversation about car taxes with a Providence resident.

The mayor’s trolley, of course, would require millions upon millions in new Providence taxes to pay back  bonds used to build it.

Let’s not forget that Providence is more than great non-profit institutions. The state’s capital is also home to crumbling schools, potholed streets and crime-ridden neighborhoods. The municipal public employee pension program is funded at barely 30 percent.

Abandoned houses and buildings sprout like dandelions in our poorer neighborhoods. One of our iconic downtown buildings, the Industrial National Building, known locally as the Superman Building, stands empty and idle, as if in mocking glory to what once was New England’s tallest skyscraper and the anchor of a bustling core city.

Ponds at Roger Williams Park, one of New England’s finest, are hopelessly polluted.

So residents need to ask their mayor and city council president, are you serious?

At this time in the city’s history, Elorza’s trolley idea is more parody  than viable program. Someday, Providence may be able to afford such a frill. That day is a long way off.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:4 5 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our "On Politics" blog at RIPR.org

Scott MacKay Commentary: The Streetcar No One Desires
Scott MacKay Commentary: The Streetcar No One Desires