Light Rail Follies #3: Seattle Jumps on the Streetcar Bandwagon

by Randal O’Toole posted in Transportation, News commentary section of The Antiplanner, December 14, 2007|

Not content with building the most expensive light-rail line in the world, Seattle has to keep up with its Northwest neighbor, Portland, by opening a streetcar line — the unfortunately named South Lake Union Trolley (SLUT). Although this line is only opening today, they are already talking about building more.

Testing the SLUT.Flickr photo by Choconancy.

Streetcars are so insipid that their advocates barely even claim that they have anything to do with transportation. Instead, they are supposed to stimulate economic development — though the only evidence of that is from Portland, which just happened to offer hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies to developers along its streetcar line. Especially when you consider that many of those subsidies went to the construction of parking garages, can anyone really think that the streetcar had anything to do with the developments?

In any case, the supposed “advantage” of streetcars is that they cost “only” $40 million per mile — less than Seattle’s light-rail lines, but then, what isn’t? Several light-rail lines have been built for around $20 million per mile, but Seattle is spending at least $148 million a mile on its first line. Plus the $40 million per mile doesn’t count the cost of building new bike lanes to satisfy cyclists’ complaints that the grooves between rails and pavement are dangerous to bicycle riders.

Starting or beefing up bus service costs only a fraction of the price of building a streetcar line. Not only do streetcars cost far more to build than buses, Seattle estimates they will cost 55 percent more per hour to operate than buses. And that doesn’t count the cost of maintaining the rails, which will need periodic rehabilitation or replacement.

Despite the high cost (paid, of course, by someone else), many people are looking forward to riding the SLUT.Flickr photo by Punkjr.

Seattle’s new streetcar line is only 1.3 miles long, yet despite these high costs, they are already talking about “Seattle’s streetcar network.” Why the push for more streetcars? Politics. Portland has one, so Seattle had to build one to keep up. And you can’t build just one: now that one Seattle district has a streetcar, other areas want one. “We deserve one, that’s pretty clear,” said one politician. “Do we need one? That’s not as clear.”

As Clint Eastwood says, “Deserves got nothing to do with it.” Nobody needs one, unless you define “need” as “Our city has too much money and we need to spend it on some new toys.” Any city that really has that much money should give it back to the taxpayers instead of building clunky, expensive trolley lines.

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