Trolley Politics

lego_trolleyAs El Paso city council wrestles with deteriorating streets and trying to keep taxes in check, they nonetheless continue to squander limited resources in the mistaken belief that if you apply enough lipstick on a pig it will miraculously become a much sought after city destination. The fact that politicians and the voters that enable them refuse to accept is that El Paso will never be a tourist destination. People will never flock to El Paso for tourism.

El Paso missed the tourism bubble in the 60’s and 70’s when Juárez was a tourist destination based on its nightlife and Mexican curios. By the late 80’s the curios were being replaced by the maquila industry and the nightlife has all but vanished. Cd. Juárez has accepted the fact that its future is in industry, yet El Paso continues to try to be like other cities instead of accepting what it really is.

As nostalgic as the trollies are their cost and use will do nothing to alleviate the high tax burden that keeps the El Paso taxpayers just making enough just to survive. As long as the fees and taxes continue to be disproportionally high, El Paso will not be a viable attraction for new industry.

As is typical by the Veronica Escobar led “let’s be like other cities and feel-good” nostalgic crowd it’s not about the appropriateness of the project, or the costs but rather about “let’s be like” other cities because El Paso just cannot be, well El Paso. Apparently, being too Mexican isn’t what Escobar and cohorts want. Instead, they want to be like Portland and San Francisco because that’s whom they use as examples of successful city trolley systems.

Let us see, anyone contemplating traveling for vacation has three options – El Paso, Portland or San Francisco. Hmm, I wonder which city will come in last.

Oh, Veronica Escobar and cohorts will argue that the $97 million is free money for the city conveniently forgetting two important details. The first is that the $97 million is taxpayer monies. It comes from the taxpayers and it is not free money. The second inconvenient truth is that there are many more urgent projects that the city taxpayers need before the trolley project.

According to a letter sent out by Joe Pickett on Monday, August 25 to the Texas Transportation Commission there are seven road projects that could use the $97 million of state monies. Among them are the widening of I-10 near the funnel on Airway Blvd. and the expansion of Loop 375 at various locations. These are road projects that are not only vital to the city but actually have the benefit of increasing the likelihood of economic development in the city because it adds road capacity for commercial activities.

Some of the proponents will argue that the $97 million is a done deal and that it is too late to change their minds. Others will argue that it was a choice between using the money and losing it. Pickett on the other hand argues that the money can be used on other projects and that there was not enough public engagement and discussion about its use before the vote was taken.

As a matter of fact, the Texas Transportation Commission is meeting today and it is possible the trolley project may be revisited again, much to the chagrin of Escobar and cohorts.

Pickett is asking the commission to reconsider their allocation of the $97 million and instead use it to deliver much needed road projects to El Paso. Not too long ago Cortney Niland was trying to impose a water fee on taxpayers to expedite much needed road repairs. Yet, she is an ardent supporter of the trolley project. Likewise, Oscar Leeser as harping about how he wants to bring new industry to El Paso to alleviate taxpayer stress yet he has not taken a strong position on whether the trolley project is something El Paso should be focusing on at this point.

In other words, on one hand we have politicians decrying the state of the streets in El Paso and the tax burden on the taxpayers while on the other hand there is $97 million that can be leveraged to alleviate those problems yet they would rather use the money to build a 5 mile nostalgic trolley system that will do little if anything for the plight of the taxpayers of the community.

Clearly, El Paso politicians have a misplaced sense about how to take care of the city’s taxpayers.

Click here to read Joe Pickett’s August 25, 2014 letter to the Texas Transportation Commission.

One thought on “Trolley Politics

  1. Martin,

    I fully agree with you that the Trolley project seems like an unwise project (as much as I may personally like the idea of restoring the old trolleys), but I think you’re missing part of the problem.

    Even the mighty Joe Pickett is basically having to plead with the Texas Transportation Committee. No politician writes a letter like he did when they are in a position of power with another entity. He may be absolutely correct in his assessment of the situation, but at the end of the day, TxDOT is going to decide what it does and how it does it. Even if some things weren’t done properly, by the time any allegations could be litigated (if it even came to that) the project would most likely be underway and it wouldn’t be feasible to stop it.

    In Pickett’s letter you can plainly see, “someone” from TxDOT has made it sound like the money has to be used for the trolley or it will be lost. Even if the money could be used for something else, if TxDOT itself is saying that it can only be used for the trolley or lost, guess what? That’s how they will operate and if it’s not used for the trolley then to bad, so sad, try again next year.

    I’ve had a lot of dealing with government entities over the years and unfortunately it is often not a case of being right or wrong, but of doing what you’re told by those entities. Sure you can fight but that often just poisons the well and you’ll have a much harder time staying in the good graces of the powers that be. For a municipality or a business that can be hugely dangerous because TxDOT is one of the biggest spenders in the stat. If TxDOT is annoyed at you, they can make sure all the processes for everything slow way way way down. It’s absolutely not right, but it’s not that hard to understand why local politicians would take the money and push ahead if the entity giving it to them is telling them what it has to be used for.

    Especially after picking a fight with TxDOT over the Lincoln Center, the city is probably very aware that they have to play extra-nice with TxDOT and say please and thank you with a lot of sincerity if they don’t want the well to dry up. I know for a fact that TxDOT higher ups did NOT take kindly to the city suing TxDOT over the Lincoln Center and they made it clear that they felt the city stepped out of line by doing so. Projects slowed down and TxDOT showed the city what can happen if they don’t appreciate what TxDOT does for them. I may not have a terribly high opinion of many of our city leaders, but they’re not (completely) stupid and after that debacle, it’s not surprising at all that they want to take the money and push forward with any TxDOT project to show that they will play ball and they will gladly take TxDOT’s money (yes I know it comes from the taxpayers, but they call the shots and decide how it’s used so it’s TxDOT’s money).

    Even this last week at city council, no one batted an eye when TxDOT asked the city for $2.2 million dollars for work on the border highway west project. Sure TxDOT is going to spend a huge amount more, but, it wasn’t long ago that the city balked over a stupid landscaping agreement that had a similarly positive return on investment. What changed? I’m guessing that the reality of the situation was explained to city reps and they’ve largely (and for the most part quietly) decided that they need to play ball or TxDOT will punish the city.

    So, yeah. As much as I hope that the trolley project works and is viable, I am highly doubtful that it will be and I’d rather see the $97M spent on more crucial projects that will benefit the city at large. Unfortunately, if TxDOT says the money can only be spent on the trolley, then I say the council is smart in both the short and long term to do what they have to so we get the money. Maybe if someone (with power) can come up with a plan to “fix” how TxDOT allocates funds we could talk about doing the “right” thing, but until that comes along, the city can either whine and complain and stubbornly refuse to do something because TxDOT is wrong (and lose a lot more money), or they can accept the money and move forward with as many TxDOT projects as possible.

    Ultimately it’s not about the money as much as the power and so long as TxDOT feels like it has the power and no one in Austin is able to reign them in, then we can either go along and get money for good and not-so-good projects or we can shoot ourselves in the foot and end up with no money for any projects.

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