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Garceau/My Turn: A community investment

By Tim Garceau
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
(Published in print: Thursday, February 6, 2014)

In the Feb.1 Recorder, Richard Tillberg’s My Turn portrays the reintroduction of passenger trains to our towns as an income redistribution scheme. He asks the questions “Who pays? Who benefits?” and claims that bringing rail service back to the Pioneer Valley will take from the have-nots and give to the haves and, to solve this, proposes using a betterment assessment district to charge property owners who own land near the train stations.

I disagree with his comments that increased property values should be “recaptured for the public good.”

What Mr. Tillberg lacks in his argument is context: both of our region and of 300 years of American history. While his proposal may be appropriate for new rail service providing access to farmland outside Sun-Belt cities like Phoenix, where property values would triple overnight, the rerouted Amtrak line and proposed commuter rail would be restoring access to aging post-industrial towns. These are places that once had rail service and, following Mr. Tillberg’s logic, are towns that should have paid property owners for their devalued property when the train left town 30 years ago since he now expects the property owners to pay for the benefit of the train’s return.

When the train does return, and it cannot come back soon enough, there will be no large-scale profits to property owners in our towns but hopefully, a reward to property owners who have invested in our downtowns even when times were lean. Will their property values increase? I hope so. Increased valuations will lead to increased property tax revenues to the communities. Our towns are small enough that the entire downtown, the town itself and neighboring towns will all benefit, so why should we target just the properties adjacent to train stations?

I would argue that even Mr. Tillberg himself in Whately will experience benefits and, over time, improved valuation of his own home as the region becomes more livable and more attractive. Shouldn’t he, too, pay a “betterment assessment?”

This leads me to my second main point regarding the context of American history. America is the land of opportunity and, since colonial times, people have made money (and also lost money) as land speculators: buying land, hoping and even lobbying for public infrastructure investments to be directed toward their land. Since World War II, rapid roadway and interstate construction made an entire generation of land speculators wealthy as taxpayers subsidized highway construction at the expense of other transport modes, including rail.

For three centuries, private investors have benefited from the creation of public goods like railroads, canals, highways and airports. Mr. Tillberg even provides a reference to canal-building but does not provide any evidence that property owners who benefited from canal-building were forced to pay some betterment tax for their increased value. If that were the case, the state of New York should have charged the entire city of Buffalo when the Erie Canal was constructed, not to mention dozens of towns and property owners along the route!

I am not saying whether it is right or not that some type of large-scale betterment assessment capture never occurred, but I am saying that it is wrong to now unfairly target property owners who have invested and risked their own money in our downtowns. It is also unfair to target rail service. If we propose this assessment mechanism for properties adjacent to transit stations, why would we not propose it for properties at on-ramps and off-ramps to Interstate 91? As was pointed out in one of the recent Recorder articles, we have continued to subsidize automobile and air travel but federal leaders have repeatedly tried to force Amtrak to pay its own way.

We need to cease the 60-year subsidy for highways while failing to provide comparable support for non-car modes. It is time that we finally build a diverse, more sustainable transportation system that provides options and serves a population that is increasingly less able to drive as Baby Boomers age and as Millennials are unable to afford the high entry costs of driving.

Does the construction of new transit and train stations increase the value of adjacent properties? Yes. Would it then, hypothetically, result in public investment benefiting some private individuals? Yes. Does it make sense in the context of our national history and, more importantly, in the context and history of our own towns to develop a betterment assessment district to capture the property value increases? No.

To return to the core questions: Who will pay for the restored train service? We will as taxpayers. Who will benefit from it? We will: as taxpayers, as transportation system users, as commuters, as property owners, as business owners, as job-seekers, as customers and most importantly, as community members.

Restored train service will bolster redevelopment and reinvestment, and we will all benefit as a result. Let’s let our downtown property owners use the extra “windfall profit” to do what they have been doing all along: invest in our communities.

Tim Garceau lives in Greenfield.

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