Legislature shouldn't waste money on streetcars

  • Article by: DAVID OSMEK and LINDA RUNBECK
  • Updated: January 17, 2014 - 7:25 PM

This urban fad would cost more and achieve less than adaptable buses.

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Taxpayers deserve the most bang for their buck. When it comes to transportation, hard-earned dollars should go toward critical road improvements, larger bus fleets or bus rapid transit (BRT), not toward a high-cost, slow-moving, obsolete technology — namely, the streetcar.

Streetcars have become the novelty du jour for Minneapolis and St. Paul city leaders. As policymakers at the Legislature, however, we are loathe to see taxpayers required to pour in hundreds of millions in new transportation dollars only to see them diverted to pay for “wants” instead of needs.

Lax federal government standards are responsible for city leaders being lured to streetcars. Setting a new, low bar for evaluating project proposals, the federal New Starts program promises “free” federal grants to virtually all cities that invest in streetcar lines regardless of whether alternative improvements are less expensive.

To understand our concern, let’s look at a streetcar vs. BRT comparison:

• Cost-effectiveness: Streetcars are far more expensive than buses.

A 6-mile streetcar line along W. Broadway in Minneapolis would cost $154 million to construct and $3.2 million per year to operate thereafter. That’s more than eight times the cost of a BRT arterial corridor, which would require $18 million to construct and $2.5 million to operate annually, according to the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s “2013 Legislative Report: Guideway Status.”

And let’s not forget buses. How many buses could be purchased for that $154 million?

If the metro area’s deficit-ridden light-rail lines are any indication, these figures also do not account for costs caused by increased congestion or the tens of millions of dollars Minnesotans will be required to pay every year to subsidize the system due to low ridership and low farebox recovery.

• Efficiency: Streetcars are inflexible and move fewer people.

Streetcars often have lower capacity than buses, move fewer people per hour due to safety reasons and are inflexible by virtue of their construction. Operating agencies spend from two to eight times more to move passengers a mile on streetcars than on buses, according to the federal government’s National Transit Database from 2011.

Alternatively, BRT is an adaptable mode of transit. BRT allows people to travel faster and go where and when they need or want to need to go, not where and when the government chooses to build a line.

• Economic development: Still dependent on government subsidization.

Proponents of streetcars proclaim the good news of economic development that will grow along the fancy new tracks. But as we’ve seen with the Central Corridor light-rail line, construction only serves to displace dozens upon dozens of businesses. Economic development often entails millions in taxpayer subsidies to guide, promote and sustain the commercial or residential redevelopment envisioned in transit-oriented development plans.

Even meeting ridership goals may require subsidization, as we see in some cities such as Portland, Ore., which achieves its goals through low or no fares. One begins to wonder if the goal of streetcars is to benefit the urban planners and economic development businesses or the citizens who need flexible transit options.

Streetcars cost more, move fewer people and cannot adapt to changing travel patterns, compared with BRT or enhanced highway systems. They clearly do not fulfill the core function of government-sponsored transportation: to move the most people and products in the most cost-effective manner.

As Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle travels the state promoting a potential tax increase for transportation projects, we would urge caution about seeking taxpayer money for faddish projects that rely on lax federal review standards for issuing matching federal money. As we look to the 2014 legislative session, we need to assess our real transportation and transit needs, while remaining accountable to the taxpayers of today and tomorrow.

 

Linda Runbeck, R-Circle Pines, is a member of the Minnesota House. David Osmek, R-Mound, is a member of the Minnesota Senate.

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