Austin’s ‘Urban Rail’ is Another Name for ‘Outdated Streetcars’

COST Commentary: this posting is updated to add a third and well written streetcar urban rail) article from Milwaukee, just below ‘COST Commentary.’ As discussed below, this is another example of Austin’s urban rail or modern trolley folly.

Original Posting on June 24, 2013 is below:

The two articles below from Oklahoma City and Orange County, California are about local streetcar plans and implementations.

Austin has named its planned downtown rail: “Urban Rail.” Regardless of Austin’s description of urban rail being somewhat a hybrid between streetcars and light rail, it is essentially a streetcar. Traveling on busy central city streets among cars and people, it will be very slow, with frequent stops like a streetcar and will be very unsafe.

The two short articles and the referenced longer reports below fully develop and describe the ineffectiveness of outdated streetcars (urban rail) in meeting today’s transportation needs and their exorbitantly high costs requiring huge taxpayer subsidies while degrading social equity by raising fares and reducing bus service for low income citizens.

Austin should not continue to follow in the rail transit path of the many cities which have proven it is the wrong answer, resulting in degradation of the overall transportation system and other city services while increasing taxes with few or negative benefits for the vast majority of taxpayers.

In late 2010, Fort Worth rejected a streetcar plan in favor of buses for all the right reasons, stated in the articles referenced below. Fort Worth, almost the size of Austin, indicated high costs and lack of flexability were major factors in rejecting rail.

As a reminder that people often tend to remember the “good old days” and forget reality, an article from ‘Ft. Worth, Texas’ magazine noted: “Today, streetcar advocates nostalgically recall the good old days when streetcars roamed the city, and they talk about all the economic and cultural benefits that would come with a reborn system. What they conveniently forget is that the original system never worked as well as we think we remember it, proved a financial black hole, and was gladly abandoned as soon as alternative forms of mass transportation came along.” The alternative forms were primarily rubber tire vehicles with much greater flexibility and much lower costs.

The last stanza of the 1901 streetcar poem had this to say:
Do the companies care
A snap for the public except the fare?
Not much; they don’t and they never will,
As long as the cars are there to fill,
To fill to the limit, to stuff and stuff,
No matter how many cry “Enough!”

Please see the following streecar articles on this site:

The Streetcar Fantasy
The Great Streetcar Conspiracy
Can Streetcars Save America’s Cities
Defining Success-The Case against Rail Transit
Paint is Cheaper Than Rails”: Why Congress Should Abolish New Starts

Is The Milwaukee Streetcar Project Dead Yet?

By Rick Esenberg,, Published: 6:30 AM May 02, 2014

It may or may not be dead. But its survival is now a bit more closely tied to its merit.

Here’s why.

The Journal Sentinel editorial board assert that the street car is just like a public road. It is not. The project is not being promoted as necessary to get people from point A to point B. Indeed, even the editorial board recognizes that – almost immediately contradicting itself – by conceding that the street car is an “economic development project.”

This matters because, as an economic development project, it is designed to generate local benefits. Proponents of the streetcar believe that returning to an outmoded and agonizingly slow transit technology that snarls traffic (thereby increasing pollution) and uses more energy per passenger than other forms of transit will by some mysterious form of alchemy, revitalize downtown.

Count me as skeptical. The economic and environmental record of downtown streetcars is abysmal. They cost more than they are expected to. They attract fewer riders than they claim to. They do not lead to economic development unless, as in Portland, they are accompanied by massive subsidies – in which case it is the subsidies, not the trolley, that leads to the development.

Of course, you can support this magical thinking by the type of superficial economic “analysis” that is so often offered in support of public works. Of course, it we spend tens of millions of dollars on a streetcar, some people will be employed. If we took the money over to Cathedral Square and burned it, we’d need to hire someone to tend the fire.

But, as I’ve said before, the difference between a real economist and a fool is recognizing something called opportunity costs. Money that is spent on a streetcar is not spent – whether by the government or private parties – on something else. That “something else” could be more productive. It might “create” even more jobs.

One way to ensure that public projects are worth it is to make that the political bodies that claim their benefits pay for them. One way to ensure that they are not worthwhile is to permit these public bodies to shift their costs on to others – persons who will not benefit from or who have had no say in whether to build them.

In other words, if the City believes a streetcar is worth it, it should be willing to pay for it.

But, of course, the City is not willing to pay for it. The streetcar is being built – if it still is -because a great deal of the claimed cost is being paid for by federal dollars appropriated over twenty years ago. It is being built because Mayor Barrett and the Common Council have agreed to lie to each other and pretend that this money will be “enough” to cover the cost of construction and that fares and other non-tax revenues will cover its operating costs.

It was central to this deceit to wish away the cost of relocating the utility infrastructure that would have to be moved in order to place tracks in city streets. If this cost – which has the potential to cost an additional tens of millions – had to be footed by city taxpayers, the streetcar would likely not be built. It is quite clear that, while the Common Council wants the trolley, it does not want it enough to actually pay for it.

So the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) brought a proceeding before the Public Service Commission (PSC) seeking to force the city to pay for what it wants. We sought to prevent Milwaukee from shifting the cost of utility relocation to ratepayers throughout southeastern Wisconsin – people who will not benefit from the project and who had no say in whether it would be built.

After we filed our petition and the PSC issued a preliminary ruling affirming its ability to grant the relief we requested, the legislature passed a bill forbidding this type of cost-shifting. Last week, the PSC granted our motion and declared the city’s action to be illegal and void.

Will the streetcar still be built? Only if the city decides it is worth paying for.
Oklahoma City Times,
Institute fellow: OKC should scrap plans for streetcar system
BY RANDAL O’TOOLE • Published: June 15, 2013

Oklahoma City officials who believe an expensive streetcar line will promote economic development are doomed to disappointment. Streetcars are obsolete. They move slowly and their tracks are hazardous to bicyclists. Unlike buses, they’re unable to pass one another if something goes wrong. Streetcars are also environmentally “brown” as most American streetcars use far more energy per passenger mile than a large SUV with only one occupant.

There’s a good reason why all but six of the more than 800 American cities that once had streetcars replaced them with buses: Streetcar infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain, requiring complete replacement about every 30 years. Even their operating costs are high: Streetcars operating in American cities cost two to three times as much per rider to operate as buses in those same cities.

Streetcar advocates say streetcars hold more people than buses, making them more affordable. In fact, the “modern streetcars” used in Portland, Ore., and other cities have just 30 seats, while modern double-decker buses have more than 80 seats. During high-demand periods, buses can also operate more frequently than streetcars; for safety reasons, streetcars can run no more than about 20 times an hour. Buses are faster, cleaner, more flexible and more comfortable than streetcars. The only thing streetcars can do better than buses is waste a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Streetcar advocates persuaded cities such as Dallas and Atlanta that streetcars would stimulate economic development. This is a giant hoax perpetrated on taxpayers by engineering firms eager to get contracts to design and build streetcar lines. This hoax began in my former hometown of Portland, which opened its first streetcar line in 2001 and immediately offered developers along most of the route hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to redevelop the area. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of new development.

Instead of generating economic development, streetcars merely give cities an excuse to subsidize development after they’ve subsidized the streetcar. No subsidies, no development. The real goal of streetcar projects is to get money out of the federal government: The current US administration has offered up to $75 million to cities that agree to build one. But local taxpayers must put up matching funds for construction and then cover operating and maintenance costs for years.

For the good of the city and its taxpayers, Oklahoma City should immediately stop planning for this obsolete form of travel.

Orange Ciounty Register

Editorial: Throw streetcars under the bus

As the city of Anaheim moves full speed ahead with plans to build a $318 million streetcar line, the City Council ought to take a hard look at Tampa, Fla., which built a similar system 10 years ago.

Tampa’s 2.7-mile streetcar line has consistently operated in the red elected since welcoming its first riders in 2002. That’s because passenger fares don’t provide even half the light-rail line’s annual operating budget.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who voted against the streetcar when he was a councilman, would like to shut the money-loser down. But city officials fear if they scrapped the streetcars, the federal government almost certainly would expect to recoup at least part of the $55 million it has sunk into the system.

Anaheim is convinced it will succeed where Tampa has not. It believes that construction of its proposed 3.2-mile streetcar line will come in at or below projected cost; that ridership will meet or exceed projected estimates; and that the city ultimately will not have to rely upon general fund revenue to cover operating expenses.

The city could have hedged its bet by opting for “enhanced” bus service that would traverse the same 3.2 mile route as the proposed streetcar system but would only cost one-fifth as much as the streetcar.

However, a 3-2 council majority opted for the streetcar, reasoning that a fixed guideway system would be more visible to prospective riders, particularly to city visitors unfamiliar with the streetcar. “The visibility of tracks in the street and substantial stations are likely to attract greater ridership,” said a report from Department of Public Works staff.

Even so, that would not justify laying out $318 million for a bright and shiny new streetcar system that is far less cost-effective than enhanced bus service, as borne out by an analysis recently authored by Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute.

In a recent post on his Antiplanner blog, Mr. O’Toole argues, persuasively, “streetcars are just plain inferior to buses in every possible way. They are slower; can’t carry as many people per hour; prone to system failure (if one is disabled, every car on the line has to stop); can’t easily respond to changes in travel habits and are far more expensive than buses.”

Cities like Tampa “try to give people Disneyland” by building streetcar lines, Mr. O’Toole told us. “Anaheim already has Disneyland. It doesn’t need a streetcar.”

He suggests that Anaheim opt instead for a “downtown circulator,” the “bus-equivalent of street cars,” which would hit all of the city’s main attractions.

Such enhanced bus service has proven successful in places like San Francisco and Washington, D.C. And the buses don’t cost the local government anything because they actually are owned and operated by private companies.

Enhanced bus service actually received the endorsement of Peter Rogoff, head of the Federal Transit Administration. “Paint is cheap,” he said, “rail systems are extremely expensive. “You can entice even diehard rail riders onto a bus if you call it a ‘special’ bus and just paint it a different color.”

Anaheim should not be in such a hurry to spend $318 million on the streetcar of its desire. Especially when enhanced bus service can achieve the same end at a fraction of the cost.

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