Denver’s overbudgeted rail system and utterly mysterious connections to foreclosures

Arthur Nelson is quoted in this New York Times piece as saying:

“The underlying lesson is that the further out you go, the more vulnerable you are to losing value in your home,” said Arthur C. Nelson, presidential professor of city and metropolitan planning at the university and author of the research. “Locating near transit and near urban centers is the safer investment.”

Nelson is quoting papers he has done at the county level in metro Washington DC and Phoenix. This is not the right scale of analysis for this kind of thing:

Recent studies at theUniversity of Utah, for example, concluded that foreclosure rates in the Washington area were much lower in counties served by the Metro rail system, compared with the next ring of counties farther out, and that home prices in Phoenix had also fallen in direct proportion to the distance from downtown.

But transit doesn’t serve counties. It serves neighborhoods, and it’s unclear to me that the provision of metro rail does what Nelson suggests: rail is just a technology, one that can also lead to population decentralization. You don’t build density or activity with rail, you build density with buildings and land use which you then serve with rail–and land prices have always been connected to activity. Way prior to rail technologies land in urban centers was more valuable than land on the fringe, and access (by rail or by foot or by car) is an amenity, one that in theory should add value until access becomes sufficiently ubiquitous that people don’t want more.

The reporter goes on:

…money committed years ago in economically flush times emerged as if on cue over the last two years, creating thousands of jobs like rabbits from a hat at precisely the moment an economist would summon them.

I love journalism. Utterly unencumbered by evidence. Of course, if we’d recklessly flung away that public money on schools or water infrastructure instead of rail systems, those thousands of jobs would never have appeared like rabbits from a hat. There are funding tradeoffs. So even if we don’t get passengers, building things is good. I guess.

I don’t understand what any of this has to do with the issue with Denver’s rail being overbudget. I guess what Nelson and this scattered reporter are trying to say is that rail is still a good investment even when it goes over budget because they think it stabilizes home values and creates jobs?

I have another colleague who is always saying “no excuses!” I’m not sold on Nelson’s analysis, but more than that, I can’t live in a world where the argument is: let’s support transit no matter how much it costs or how the institutions behave because transit golly sure is fine.

How about we do something sort of neat with rail investment? Like….serve passengers well and manage construction costs better?

Rail projects go over budget; but highway projects also go overbudget. Is Denver out of line? Not yet, not according to the distribution of over-runs we routinely see in major projects. No story.