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Archive for December 6th, 2012

The streetcar fantasy

One reason that Charlotte still lacks a capital spending plan is the controversy surrounding the proposed streetcar line. The Charlotte Chamber, long key in pushing local government spending proposals through, is on the the sidelines in this one, as its members are divided about the wisdom of the streetcar.

And there’s good reason to question the wisdom of building streetcar lines. Randal O’Toole has a new paper called “The Streetcar Fantasy” out for the Heartland Institute on streetcars, in which he notes exactly how they are oversold:

The biggest argument for streetcars is that they promote economic development. This is mainly based on the experience in Portland, where officials claim a streetcar generated billions of dollars of economic development. In fact, that development was attracted by roughly a billion dollars worth of tax breaks, tax-increment financing, and other local subsidies to developers.

In Northwest Portland, the streetcar serves two neighborhoods of roughly equal size, in one of which developers received hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies while the other received none other than the streetcar. According to the city’s own tally, the first neighborhood received more than 75 times as much investment as the second. Clearly, it was the subsidies, not the streetcar, that attracted the new development. City officials who think a streetcar alone will generate new development have been misled.

What streetcars do is impose huge costs on taxpayers. Cities with streetcar lines spend three to four times as much to operate a streetcar one mile as they spend on buses. Far from moving large numbers of people, most streetcars actually carry fewer people, on average, than the average buses in those cities, and the cost of moving one person one mile is two to seven times greater by streetcar than by bus.

Though streetcar advocates like to call streetcars “high-capacity transit,” they are actually one of the lowest-capacity forms of transit available. So-called modern streetcars can move only about 2,000 people per hour, most of them standing. By comparison, standard 40-foot buses can move well over 6,000 people per hour through city streets, all of them comfortably seated. Double-decker buses are now available that can double this throughput without occupying any more street space.

Claims that streetcars have some kind of a “rail advantage” that attracts travelers who won’t ride a bus are purely hypothetical. If there are people so snobbish that they will ride public transit vehicles only if those vehicles are on rails, taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to subsidize them.

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