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Will Columbia Pike Transit be Another Boondoggle?

According to Arlington County’s website, “The Columbia Pike Transit Initiative is an important element in the effort by Arlington County and Fairfax County to accommodate growing demand for transit services along the quickly redeveloping urban corridor of Columbia Pike. Many in the local community have expressed a desire for a modern, higher capacity transit system that supports expected levels of ridership and reinforces the "Main Street" environment envisioned for the Pike.”

But, Steve Thurston of the Arlington Mercury, an online news website (June 8 here and June 13 here), reported on the efforts of some to get the masterminds on the Arlington County Board to move from a  street car version towards a bus alternative. In his first report, Thurston wrote about a meeting that “was an opportunity for the county staffs from Fairfax and Arlington to present a report of four alternative transportation plans for the Pike and the environmental impact of each.” Then in the June 13 report, Thurston wrote:

“The Arlington Transit Advisory Committee does not support articulated buses over an electric streetcar system along Columbia Pike. The committee voted six to five last night against a resolution that supported the bus service, rather than an electric streetcar that the county management favors. We reported last week that this vote was coming.

“By bypassing this [the streetcar], we may be missing a long-sighted opportunity that the county has, for a limited amount of time,” said committee chair John Carten.

“However, bus proponents cite studies that show the articulated bus plan is more cost effective to build and maintain than streetcars. Streetcar capital costs are over $250 million compared to $39 to $68 million for an articulated bus service, according to county documents. The $250 million price tag would be paid for with a special business tax.

“Annual operating costs for the streetcar are also $3.5 million higher than the $22.1 million estimated for articulated buses, according to the "Alternative Analysis/Environmental Assessment" report written by the county government.”

Given that most Arlingtonians, including yours truly, may not be familiar with all the alternatives associated with streetcars and the various forms of buses that can be implemented, let’s turn to a recognized expert on the subject, Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

Last week, the Cato Institute published his policy analysis, “The Great Streetcar Conspiracy” (No. 699, June 14, 2012, requires Adobe). Here’s is the report’s executive summary:

“Streetcars are the latest urban planning fad, stimulated partly by the Obama administration's preference for funding transportation projects that promote "livability" (meaning living without automobiles) rather than mobility or cost-effective transportation. Toward that end, the administration wants to eliminate cost-effectiveness requirements for federal transportation grants, instead allowing non-cost-effective grants for projects promoting so-called livability. In anticipation of this change, numerous cities are preparing to apply for federal funds to build streetcar lines.

“The real push for streetcars comes from engineering firms that stand to earn millions of dollars planning, designing, and building streetcar lines. These companies and other streetcar advocates make two major arguments in favor of streetcar construction. The first argument is that streetcars promote economic development. This claim is largely based on the experience of Portland, Oregon, where installation of a $103-million, 4-mile streetcar line supposedly resulted in $3.5 billion worth of new construction.

“What streetcar advocates rarely if ever mention is that the city also gave developers hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives to build in the streetcar corridor. Almost no new development took place on portions of the streetcar route where developers received no additional subsidies.

“The second argument is that streetcars are "quality transit," superior to buses in terms of capacities, potential to attract riders, operating costs, and environmental quality. In fact, a typical bus has more seats than a streetcar, and a bus route can move up to five times as many people per hour, in greater comfort, than a streetcar line. Numerous private bus operators provide successful upscale bus service in both urban and intercity settings.

“Streetcars cost roughly twice as much to operate, per vehicle mile, as buses. They also cost far more to build and maintain. Streetcars are no more energy efficient than buses and, at least in regions that get most electricity from burning fossil fuels, the electricity powering streetcars produces as much or more greenhouse gases and other air emissions as buses.

“Based on 19th-century technology, the streetcar has no place in American cities today except when it functions as part of a completely self-supporting tourist line. Instead of subsidizing streetcars, cities should concentrate on basic — and modern — services such as fixing streets, coordinating traffic signals, and improving roadway safety.”

According to O’Toole, Arlington County is just one of “more than 45 American cities (that) are expanding, building, planning, or considering streetcar lines.” In his conclusion, he writes:

“Transit advocates who believe streetcars offer a “quality” alternative to buses are fooling   themselves. Their low average speeds, limited number of seats, and inflexibility make streetcars inferior to buses in every respect except in their ability to consume large amounts of taxpayer money.

“City officials who believe that streetcars alone will revitalize blighted parts of their urban areas have been deceived by smooth-talking consultants and dissembling politicians who were foolish enough to build streetcars in their cities. Cities with a billion dollars or so to burn could spend $100 million on a streetcar line, support it with $900 million in other subsidies to developers, and still not get the success of Portland’s Pearl District unless they do it in an area that is already rapidly growing.

"Streetcars are a long-obsolete technology. Cities that wish to revitalize neighborhoods would do better to invest in modern transportation, including repairing their streets, installing the latest traffic signal coordination systems, and improving safety for all travelers.”

Don’t be put off by the 20 pages in O’Toole’s analysis. Take a few minutes to go through it. Then use our contact information to write the County Board masterminds to tell them what you think about the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative.

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