The rush to build streetcar lines in cities across the country is slowing as some cities that were once on track to implement the systems are beginning to change course, the New York Times reported this week.
One of the biggest reversals is in Washington D.C., where rising costs has given city leaders pause, according to the Times. There has also been 11 accidents between cars and streetcars on a current streetcar line in that city and a fire started by the system’s overhead wires, the newspaper reported.
The district council has decided to cut the planned system in half, according to the Times.
Other municipalities — like San Antonio and Arlington, VA — have also cancelled plans to build streetcar systems due to “fiscal and operational challenges,” the Times reported. An expert quoted by the Times cited “blunders” like streetcar routes that seemingly go nowhere, infrequent service and wildly varied costs.
Streetcar fever has also struck Orange County. Anaheim and Santa Ana are planning separate streetcar systems, and debate has raged over whether the projects are a prudent use of taxpayer money.
Anaheim’s planned system has drawn particularly fierce criticism for having a nearly $100 million per-mile price tag, which is far more expensive than the $5.7 million to $67.5million range of per-mile costs for other projects cited by the Times.
From the article:
Even the most ardent streetcar supporters acknowledge that the challenges are daunting, though they argue that the rewards far outweigh the costs in terms of the economic development and quality of life that make cities more livable and attractive.
William S. Lind, director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation and a strong right-leaning voice for streetcars, said that trolleys remained “not only a viable but an essential component” of successful cities. “That said, there have been some blunders.” These include, he said, building short lines “that don’t go anywhere,” infrequent service and excessive and widely varying costs per mile, from $5.1 million in Kenosha, Wis., to $67.5 million in Washington.
“There is a lot of controversy around the country,” says Rick Gustafson, former executive director of the Portland system and a consultant to several cities planning streetcar systems. “At the same time, you’ve got 20 systems funded. So some cities are able to put it together, hold it together, build it. Others are facing all kinds of battles and fights.”
Stable political leadership is vital, Mr. Gustafson said. “There’s benefit in keeping all the initial investors and interested parties,” he said. Otherwise, the projects may not “survive the political transitions that occur in elected office.”
The Arlington reversal was a surprise. The 26-square-mile county is widely regarded as progressive on matters of transit and urban planning — it already has five Metro subway stations in a two-mile stretch on its north side — and the decision to drop the streetcars was made shortly after the suburban county had awarded a $26 million preliminary engineering contract.
The 7.5-mile Columbia Pike line was considered such a sure thing that developers had already started investing along the route and citing the streetcar in their plans. Under the adopted timetable, the south-county line was scheduled to open in 2020.
But John Vihstadt, a streetcar critic and a subway commuter to his Washington law office, had just been elected to the Arlington County board. The campaign’s dominant issue was the planned system, with Mr. Vihstadt arguing that it would be too expensive and ineffective, compared with faster bus service. The vote was seen as a referendum on the project that had been planned since the 1990s and formally approved in 2006.
“At the end of the day,” Mr. Vihstadt said, “Arlington voters concluded the streetcar didn’t make sense from a transit or economic perspective, that it would cost too much and do too little. I was the vehicle for that sentiment.”