Oklahoma City officials who believe an expensive streetcar line will promote economic development are doomed to disappointment. Streetcars are obsolete. They move slowly and their tracks are hazardous to bicyclists. Unlike buses, they're unable to pass one another if something goes wrong. Streetcars are also environmentally “brown” as most American streetcars use far more energy per passenger mile than a large SUV with only one occupant.
There's a good reason why all but six of the more than 800 American cities that once had streetcars replaced them with buses: Streetcar infrastructure is expensive to build and maintain, requiring complete replacement about every 30 years. Even their operating costs are high: Streetcars operating in American cities cost two to three times as much per rider to operate as buses in those same cities.
Streetcar advocates say streetcars hold more people than buses, making them more affordable. In fact, the “modern streetcars” used in Portland, Ore., and other cities have just 30 seats, while modern double-decker buses have more than 80 seats. During high-demand periods, buses can also operate more frequently than streetcars; for safety reasons, streetcars can run no more than about 20 times an hour. Buses are faster, cleaner, more flexible and more comfortable than streetcars. The only thing streetcars can do better than buses is waste a lot of taxpayer dollars.
Streetcar advocates persuaded cities such as Dallas and Atlanta that streetcars would stimulate economic development. This is a giant hoax perpetrated on taxpayers by engineering firms eager to get contracts to design and build streetcar lines. This hoax began in my former hometown of Portland, which opened its first streetcar line in 2001 and immediately offered developers along most of the route hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to redevelop the area. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of new development.
Along one segment of the line, however, the city offered no subsidies. Here, there was almost no new development. Developers were following the subsidies, not the streetcar line. After the streetcar line opened, Portland officials gave tours to planners and elected officials from other cities around the country, bragging that the streetcar stimulated all the new development — and never mentioning the subsidies or the neighborhood that got no new development.
Instead of generating economic development, streetcars merely give cities an excuse to subsidize development after they've subsidized the streetcar. No subsidies, no development. The real goal of streetcar projects is to get money out of the federal government: The Obama administration has offered up to $75 million to cities that agree to build one. But local taxpayers must put up matching funds for construction and then cover the operating and maintenance costs for years.
For the good of the city and its taxpayers, Oklahoma City should immediately stop planning for this obsolete form of travel.
O'Toole (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of “Gridlock: Why We're Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.” A streetcar system is under development in Oklahoma City after voters approved the project as part of the MAPS 3 initiative.