Can streetcars save America’s cities?

COST Commentary: COST could write a book on this subject but is using this recent CNN report to make comments in addition to the points covered by CNN. Below is this COST page’s above titled CNN report. Cost commentary is integrated in the report below in bold writing.

By Katherine Dorsett, CNN
December 17, 2010 2:43 p.m. EST

• Obama administration touts streetcars as a way to vitalize urban economies
• Feds offer $130 million to cities in Texas, Missouri, North Carolina and Ohio
• Supporters: Streetcars will create jobs, cut pollution, reduce traffic, shrink oil dependence

We know from wide experience and study that street cars do none of this. In fact, in most cases, street cars or “urban rail achieves the exact opposite results at huge taxpayer costs which degrades overall public transit and robs the community of the ability to do those things which will improve mobility or address other needed high priority infrastructure and services.

• Opponents: Streetcar programs waste tax money that could be spent on road improvements

(CNN) — In a down economy, pursuing the American dream can be challenging, but restaurant owner Todd Steele was willing to take a chance.

For nearly 20 years, Steele worked all levels of the restaurant game, from dishwasher to general manager, before partnering with his mom and opening his own eatery called Metrovino on Portland, Oregon’s, 11th Avenue streetcar line.

“I would not have picked this spot if it weren’t for the streetcar, and my business has certainly benefited from our location,” Steele said. “Streetcars are also a romantic way to travel, and they are fun to watch from inside Metrovino.”

There are many examples of restaurants on train transit lines which have failed because of the lack of parking and easy access by potential customers.

While America lost much of its love for streetcars as public transportation during the 1960s, a few cities have kept the romance burning. The heart of San Francisco includes its nearly 140-year-old electric cable car system. In New Orleans, the location for Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” many tourists are drawn by the picturesque St. Charles Avenue Line.

Since there are no other situations like the San Franscisco cable cars in the United States, it is not a model which provides valid insight into the desirability, use and success of rail transit. The New Orleans line is a very limited route, almost totally a tourist attration and not a model to support wide use of train transit.

The Obama administration recently offered some U.S. cities a piece of a $130 million federal fund for streetcar projects aimed at reducing traffic congestion, cutting pollution and reliance on foreign oil, and creating jobs. Transit systems in Dallas, St. Louis, Cincinnati and Charlotte, North Carolina, are slated to share grants from the Federal Transit Administration’s Urban Circulator program.

None of these objectives can be achieved with streetcars and their high costs and low ridership are not sustainable.

Other cities have plans and other funding for streetcar projects, too.

The good news is that the federal government is broke and cannot possibly support all the irresponsible requests from cities for rail transit. This can help force more constructive approaches to improving mobility and city services.

But not everyone is a fan of streetcars. “This is a waste of money,” said Ron Utt of The Heritage Foundation. “Streetcars certainly create jobs, but they are a poor investment and create little lasting value,” he said.

COST disagrees with Ron on this point because of possible miss-interpretations. Streetcars do not create new jobs outside of those directly related to the short term construction and operating and maintaining streetcars. In fact, most streetcars are built in foreign countaries, so, much of the construction job creation is not in the US. The on-going jobs are not very many and are not all increased jobs because, in many cases, the streetcar operation results in reductions in other jobs such as bus operations and maintenance. Because it requires extensive ongoing subsidies, the streetcar is also unsustainable. [This is the most improtant word and concept which will (has) bankrupt Cap Metro and will do the same to the City of Austin if the City follows their current irresponsible path to implement urban rail (streetrcars/trolleys)]. Improving roads would be the better bet in most communities.”

CNN iReporter Raymond Becich is a supporter. “Sure, Portland paid incentives to businesses to build along the streetcar (line),” he said. “But how is this any different than any governmental jurisdiction giving tax breaks and other incentives for businesses to relocate to a city or state?”

Incentives to bring businesses to a city or state are totally different (if they are unique businesses and not more of those already there) in that businesses bring new people, long term jobs and development that trains do not. The incentives to build along the tracks in Portland were needed because little or no development was occurring by market forces over the first 10 years. The large reduction in tax revenues due to tax incentives negatively impacted all City services and quality of life for citizens.

Streetcars have transformed a “blighted warehouse district … into a vibrant area of shops, grocery stores, restaurants and apartments that provide entertainment and employment,” he said.
This did not occur because of the trains.

The trains did not create any of this. The trains did not make the developmnts successful and the developments did not make the trains successful. All other required ingredients and regulations had to be there. Much of the development was due to tax incentives for commercial and residential.

But there’s nothing streetcars can do that buses can’t do better, faster, safer and for far less money, said CATO Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole. “Even though a single light-rail train can hold more passengers than a bus, a bus route can move more passengers per hour than any light-rail line.”

This is a key point that many do not understand and it has been proven many times in actual operations.

On average, public transit takes much more time than private vehicle.

Portland’s streetcar system attracts about 12,000 daily riders at an average ticket cost of $1.47. Its creators credit it with $3.5 billion in surrounding development, including shops, restaurants and 10,000 new housing units.

One must remember, this is not 12,000 daily riders but closer to 6,000 daily riders as a person taking a two way trip is counted as two riders.

This is not net new development as shown in many cities and in a Heimsath study, paid for by the City about three years ago. It is a ‘zero sum game (see the COST web site under ‘Reports’ for this report and COST’s commentary.) Location may be affected in a few cases but the total is the same. For example: 10,000 new housing units did not get built because of the train. They were built because there was a market demand and need for them and they would have been build somewhere to serve this demand. The train did not create the jobs that brought these people. The creation of jobs in many businesses brought these people. As an aside, there are almost no children in this warehouse area of Portland because it is too expensive and not the widely desirable living environment for young families. There are very few 3 bedroom condos.

Also, streetcars that run on either hydro or coal-generated electricity spit out less greenhouse gases per passenger mile than diesel buses, according to University of California researchers.
This is a more complex subject but in many cases this is not true due to the low ridership average throughout the day.

So, what is a streetcar, exactly? The transportation community generally defines it as a rail-based passenger tram that shares streets with cars and trucks.

Becich said he rides his city’s system so often he’s considering selling his car.

There are clearly a few people living downtown who can benefit from streetcars but why should the rest of the community highly subsidize this small number of people who are generally not low income. There is no societal benefit and a siphoning of funds from more important city needs. It would be better to give this small number of people “lifetime free taxi passes” if it was considered a worthy taxpayer cost. It is not!

“Riding public transportation in Portland is quick, easy and enjoyable,” he said. “It’s absolutely easier than driving, and streetcar operators go out of their way to be helpful.”

Great, why doesn’t he pay the cost? Why should all taxpayers subsidize a few people like him.

But is it faster than driving? “If you count the time from point A to B, it is slower to ride the streetcar,” Becich said. “But if you factor in time to find a place to park and the cost of parking, it is more convenient and cheaper to ride the streetcar.”

This is for a very small number of very special cases which taxpayers gain zero benefit from subsidizing.

It’s no secret that public transit offers commuters an escape from hectic traffic and a chance to read, make phone calls or snooze.

This is true if one is not concerned with the substantial time increase and the limited places one can go with public transit. Why should all taxpayers subsidize these few folks?

These transportation issues were recently at the heart of an $85 million question faced by leaders and residents of Fort Worth, Texas: Should they green-light a proposed three-mile streetcar line from LaGrave Field through downtown and into the near-south side?

After much debate, city leaders decided “no” earlier this month “because of the timing and questions regarding how it would be fully funded.”

This is one of the more intelligent decisions lately regarding rail transit. Austin is moving full speed ahead without a clue as to how urban rail/streetrcars can be paid for and without any foundation evaluation and analysis which concludes the urban rail is the most cost effective way to achieve objectives or that it will even achieve the objectives. The city has even articulated valid objectives other than glib generalities.

As many as 2,250 people were projected to use the system daily, according to a city study. Utt says that’s not very many riders, considering the cost of building and maintaining the line. “Most ridership projections are overly optimistic,” he said. “There are good reasons why most cities got rid of their trolley systems in the ’50s and ’60s.”

A federal transportation official acknowledged that ridership is often low, according to industry studies.
In Michigan, supporters are working to bring a light-rail line to revitalize downtown Detroit, a city among the hardest hit by the recession.

But on Capitol Hill, a House transportation committee spokesman acknowledged that there may be less federal money available for streetcar projects as Republicans prepare to take control of the House in January.

Even the head of the FTA said, before the election, that many proposed rail systems should be bus systems and that the FTA could not fund all the train requests.

Transportation blogger Yonah Freemark agreed. “Based on recent decisions by party members at the state and national level, that will mean a renewed emphasis on roadway projects and less proposed funding for transit.”

This adjustment in priorities would be a major improvemnt in mobility and quality of life for huge numbers of people. Without this sanity, the opposite will continue in many cities as congestion increases causing reduced mobility and, directly related, quality of life.

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