Transportation Policy

America's Cities Double Down on Trolley Follies

Streetcars continue to see cost overruns while failing to produce promised economic development.


Portland Streetcar

When the St. Louis Loop Trolley was first proposed, the government estimated that the project would cost $43 million and be open for business by the end of 2016. Since then the project's costs have ballooned to $51 million, with service tentatively scheduled to start at the end of this year. And the Loop Trolley's chairman—businessman Joe Edwards—says the project will need another $500,000 from county taxpayers to stay viable.

"A year ago, I saw this as a boondoggle," St. Louis County Councilman Mark Harder told the St. Louis Dispatch. "Now it's a boondoggle plus 500 grand."

These cost overruns and delays are no doubt frustrating for St. Louis taxpayers. But they are hardly unique. A rash of recent streetcar developments have run into these troubles, thanks to faulty economic reasoning and an open faucet of federal dollars.

"Mayors of large urban cities are looking for economic development, and they thinkputting a streetcar will lead to economic development in certain corridors," says transportation analyst Baruch Feigenbaum of the Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes this website.

Streetcar projects are keen to play up this angle too.

"Trolleys are a proven catalyst for residential, commercial and recreational development," says St. Louis's Trolley website. In Milwaukee, advocates for the currently-under-construction streetcar claim it will be "a critical element in the City's efforts to promote economic development downtown and along the route."

In fact, streetcars mostly succeed in shifting development, not kickstarting it. "It's not that you're creating new economic activity, it's that you are displacing it," says Feigenbaum.

Many of the cities currently building streetcars have had little trouble attracting development downtown. The Milwaukee Streetcar's own website mentions that $5 billion is either underway, planned, or completed in the city's currently streetcar-free downtown.

Edwards of the St. Louis Trolley board has been building and investing in highly successful bars, restaurants, and bowling alleys along the Delmar Loop since the 1970s—long before any streetcar was slotted to go there.

The availability of federal funds also helps fill the demand for street cars, says Feigenbaum.

Atlanta's streetcar project was awarded $47 million—nearly half the cost of the project—through the federal government's TIGER grant program (whose pitfalls Reason has covered here, here, and here). The Phoenix area's $186 million Tempe Streetcar, which started construction this summer, was approved for $50 million in federal funds. The St. Louis trolley is getting $33.9 million from the feds, about 76 percent of the project's initial cost projections.

Despite this federal assistance—or because of it—streetcar projects rarely stay within their cost projections. Atlanta's streetcar was projected to cost $72 million and to begin operations in May 2013. Instead it cost $98.7 million and opened in December 2014. Its operating costs have ballooned to three times the initial projections.

A project's purpose can shift over time too. Way back in 2002, D.C. signed off on a 7.2-mile line to service the low-income neighborhood of Anacostia. One thing led to another, and last year they instead opened a 2.2-mile streetcar line that services the bars along H Street.

The waste involved in those cost overruns is bad enough, but every dollar spent on transit also comes at the expense of other spending priorities.

For instance, while Milwaukee builds a streetcar at the cost of $51 million per mile of track, the city is considering cutbacks in cops, firefighters, and nurses, to deal with increasing pension and debt servicing costs.

Streetcar funds also come at the expense of more effective transit solutions. "Many cities are spending money on streetcars at the expense of their bus system," notes Feigenbaum, even though buses are cheaper, faster, and more flexible. To Feigenbaum, this underlines the fact that these projects are "really not about transportation—they're about economic development. But even the economic development is not really there, so what's the point?"

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  1. Cry me a river about your streetcar problems…

    signed, someone living in Sound Transit country

  2. Streetcars are a really dumb idea for transportation. A bus does the same thing, only better and more practically.

    1. If it’s the electric propulsion that’s appealing, there are trackless trolleys — Stringing up wires without tracks has to be cheaper than digging up streets, altering traffic flow, and building stations at the same time.

      1. The electric propulsion *shouldn’t* be. Over the lifetime of the project (the whole setup will need to be replaced every 20-30 years) its still more expensive to run the wires and support infrastructure than an internal combustion bus fleet *and* they’re still just as unresponsive to changes in consumer desire as an other vehicle stuck to a fixed route.

        1. SF has tracked and no-track electric trolleys. It does so by the aberrant circumstance of owning one of the largest dams in the Sierra with the resultant (“free”) hydro-electric power generation.
          What is not used for the trolley lines is then sold to PG&E, the monopoly power provider for much of Nor Cal, and then sold back to the consumer.
          There was a local lefty rag (The Bay Guardian) which spent its entire life campaigning for ‘publicly owned power’. It also lead the charge to deny space for cell-phone towers, which was amusing after the publisher arranged to rent the roof of the leased building for exactly that. And he also fought unionization for years; lefties are nothing if not slimy hypocrites. The publisher/owner (Bruce Brugman) later proved himself to be slimier yet in lawsuits and the sale of the rag, but that’s another story.
          Hey Bruce? Get fucked by Tony!

          1. SF having ‘free’ power actually has no bearing on SF having trolleys of any type. They had the things before the dam and they’d have them without the dam.

            Because its ‘cultural’ or some bullshit.

            They’re still losing out because the cost of electricity plus the cost of maintaining/replacing the infrastructure plus the loss of flexibility (over buses) even if all they run are overhead lines – when totaled up is greater than the cost of a bus fleet capable of the same capacity.

            1. Are you thinking of the cable cars?

              SF has historic cable cars. Also
              A metro rail system that is underground in many places.

              BART which connects to much of the Bay Area mostly underground.

              Surface street cars.

              And electric buses that use suspended wires. They also have diesel buses.

    2. Streetcars are way better than buses. You can see the tracks and the stops so you know where to go, and you know there’ll be a trolley along shortly. WIth buses you have to like read a book with a schedule and hope the bus shows up eventually and there’s no bum on the bench.

      1. Buses are for poor people. Trolleys and light rail are for hipsters.

        1. Except the Google buses. Those are for the bourgeois wreckers of eclectic city neighborhoods.

        2. This is the real answer.

      2. Except when they are too quiet and kill people.

    3. Streetcars & trolleys were a great solution to the xport’n demands of their time. They’re ridiculous now.

      People sometimes, for the hell of it, think of ways to revive obsolete technologies. Why not? It’s fun. My friend Sheldon Haas came up w a space-saving way to implement field-sequential color TV. Ingenious. Just don’t try to market them.

  3. But even the economic development is not really there, so what’s the point?

    Democrats hate cars.

    1. No more phone calls, we have a winner…….RRRRRRRAAAAAAATTTTTTTTT!!!!!!!

    2. Democrats hate cars.

      I posted this on another thread, which clearly shows that cars kill people. Children are people too. Democrats are simply trying to save the children.

      Why do you hate the children?


      1. Because they are noisy, they eventually go to college and get brainwashed into democrats, etc.

      2. Because they’re ugly and stupid.

    3. Bingo. The promised “economic development” is just an excuse. The real purpose is to strike a righteous blow against the evil freedom-granting automobile and to impose control on us dumb peasants. Streetcars, and other forms of “mass transit” let Our Betters in the government determine where we can go and when we can go there and so are obviously superior to the wicked, privately-owned car.

      1. (Dang it. Bobbled the italic tag. Hit & Run needs a edit function for comments.)

        1. Either you’re new here or just not familiar with how Reason ignores the web site functions.

  4. I went to a meeting last year where some extension of a commuter rail line was proposed. I was the only one there (or only one who spoke up) against it and about twenty five were in favor, along with the big audience that cheered everyone who remarked “we really need this line.” Squeaky wheels get the grease and until libertarians come out in numbers and complain, there is little fiscal sanity that will be applied whether it is trolleys, Olympic games, stadiums, soda pop taxes, etc. etc.

    1. My wife had a similar experience at a township meeting over the construction of new schools. I have to think these meetings get packed with shills for the unions and other direct beneficiaries of the spending.

      1. You are welcome to hate it, but it is true.

  5. America’s mayors: “But Mom, all the cool kids have one.”

    1. Lyle Lanely: This is more of a Shelbyville idea.

      1. America’s Mayors: “Now wait just a minute, we’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville. Tell us you’re idea and we’ll vote for it!”

  6. An expensive government project that didn’t lead to economic development? Surely you jest, spending always helps!

    1. It’s the multiplier effect.

  7. Well I’m packing up my game and I’m a head out west. Where real women come equipped with scripts and fake breasts. Find a nest in the hills chill like Flynt. Buy an old drop top find a spot to pimp.

    1. Have a nice trip, and don’t forget to post!

      1. With a bottle of scotch and watch lots of crotch. Buy a yacht with a flag sayin’ chilling the most. Then rock that bitch up and down the coast.Give a toast to the sun, drink with the stars. Get thrown in the mix and tossed out of bars

        1. Sold your Bitcoin?

          1. No, I think he is channeling his inner Kid Rock.

        2. Thanks for the flashback to my grad school years, homey.

  8. Monorail!!!

    1. Is there a chance the track might bend?

  9. Did no one notice that there used to be lots and lots of street cars and the tracks were all torn up years ago? For a reason? They are dangerous, stuck in one place, expensive compared to buses.

    1. 19th century technology for the 21st century. How can you go wrong?

      1. Moonbeam’s choo-choo.

        1. When it first came into use, I thought the word ‘metrosexual’ would be more appropriate as a description of politicians who appear to be sexually excited by light rail. Nothing that has happened in the intervening years has changed my opinion.

    2. Any good proggie will be happy to explain that trolleys went away because of a conspiracy by automakers who wanted to sell more buses. If not for their evil machinations, we’d all still be riding the trolley, and liking it.

      Not because buses are cheaper, more flexible and produce fewer emissions per passenger-mile.

    3. Mostly the tracks haven’t been torn up, but paved over?because they didn’t have The Rocket Boys to salvage them.

  10. STELLA!!

  11. Our city had a trolley a century ago, but it was scrapped in 1929. There has been some talk of resurrecting it, but fortunately cooler heads have prevailed (so far).

  12. The area that is getting the trolley in St. Louis is already hipsterville and so pretty well off economically.

    We also used to have a trolley back in the 50s. My father would always tell me a story about how he saw someone get run over and lose a leg to it.

    1. Anyway, what it is is basically the guy that runs that part of town, Joe Edwards, is his pet vanity project. He wants a trolley for whatever reason, so he gets a trolley.

    2. I saw the Ardmore Blvd. streetcar operating into the 1970s, from Pittsburgh toward Irwin (don’t know how far it extended that way by then).

  13. Digital sconces light
    the inductive specialties
    of sciences natural
    and Princeton ‘correct’

    Also Whitehead questioned
    like a beast all of this shit
    decades when Russell
    played around with his
    secretary whu=ile his
    wife sat playing her
    clit demanding he go deeper

    Fucking top level ‘schools’
    who make all the worlds
    that is where is all the
    lawyers and states come

    geniuses are like axemen
    and contractors…
    they love group sex and
    boobs, fucking, and dicks

    China is erasing that
    from all our cultures…
    watch even Bob Burger go
    fucking empty at the end

    Watch all your modern
    movies and games go
    sexless and passionless
    no drive but ‘excited for Freudian’

  14. “…And these are our streetcars!”

    “Streetcars? Why don’t you use buses? They’re faster, safer and more adaptable.”

    “No, you don’t understand. This is a jobs program.”

    “Then why not use horse-drawn carriages?”

    1. also the ufo’s
      that option will
      be invested in by
      localities if only
      they could catch
      all the ufo drivers

      1. I feel like I was leaning up against a wall while someone was spray-painting graffiti on it, and they just spray-painted over me.

    2. “Then why not use horse-drawn carriages?”

      Because rickshaws would create more jobs?

    3. Or rickshaws! Plus, they are environmentally friendly!

  15. Trolleys are the fucking
    last rose gasp
    of a street grappling
    with the arts

    paintings old and new
    with brush minds swishing
    dreams and nightmares
    upon them WILL NEVER BE

    but the fucking /cars/
    running about them ‘will’

  16. However…. goddamn niche humming wheels
    in offbeat neighborhoods fucking plying
    confiscated dollars….
    Agile can find entire United States
    Prick Bureaucracies funded by
    the Goddamn BILLIONS
    funded through confiscations
    that make little shit mini
    buster shrunk-wrapped oddity
    wheels appear like
    old prayers on a graveyard
    tomb Loretta sang about in 1879

  17. Normal Americans only see
    Trolleys on vacations
    Otherwise, please focus on
    shit REASON HATES like
    the arms and brains of Gavin

  18. St. Louis needs another 500K to get the trolley running? Too bad they didn’t build that new stadium for the Rams — they could have just taxed the players.

  19. So… while the earth burns and the constitution endures its greatest Fool Mueller challenge in a Blunder Tongue Trump world we have all of nothing to worry about than your fucking shitty cars?

  20. So while Christian reads his Bible and Reason’s Black Jacket jacks off to Fairy Tail Lucy in his thick whiskey basement the entire murky Constitutional world he pretends to have fought for over the last fucking 50 years is melting down while Lucy and Erza sucks his thick super hairy ball sack and cock shaft….black jacket is about to fucking get the smack down because his shit is so goddamn Iran late 70’s. He doesn’t understand modern China or modern Islam. RETIRE HIM to a preaceful valley of mushroom dolls where the neon suns shine forever and red sleds ride oceans of snow next to daddy’s and mommy’s mired naked in a cocktail glass mixed with laser sweet tequila.

  21. FUCK Black Jacket… He lost his mind under swooping swath of lightning speed freedom.

    1. “…You’d turn it off when I was halfway across!”

  22. Not a single place where MOST
    poor fucking fools congregate to
    jaded song birds whilst fucked up
    to a range of things Donald Trump
    Jeff Sessions and the Past Administration
    of Barack Obama would imprison for
    ages and forever would….
    even begin to understand that some sort
    ‘trolley’ would await them to get
    to the the fucking Nike or Barnes and Nobles shitter

  23. Nick Black Jacket
    the Thick Maned
    light-edged opaque
    wearing guitar man

    Nick got lost on his
    guitar past and nothing
    about his dreams and
    fortunes can bely
    his Black Jacket naked lunch

    He is mired in a marinade of
    fucking gonzo where the
    fucking gonzo clasped iron
    and cocaine and eagles

    but… sorry Black Jacket
    Nightmare Mane…
    2017 ain’t 1977…

    You either need to retire
    or get Agile fucking Cyborg
    and shape this place up
    or get retired and go
    away to fishing aluminati
    witches on Old Republican
    Groves down Bohemian

  24. Trolley cars and Black jackets
    Thick opaque manes and
    drippy libertarian executive dick
    shining lights on the vaunted
    last moving about of many
    powerful wizard years
    called Gillespie guild leader…

    Trolley cars to Gillespie Makarov

  25. Seriously:


    Imagine no infrastructure to maintain, no delays to run into, a quiet ride and a really nice view. Yep…. Why did we ever turn away from them. That Oahu is building a light rail instead of a dirigible fleet is beyond ridiculous. Seattle area would’ve and could still have saved billions. Why do we keep trying to build rail where we shouldn’t?!!? and then pay stupid amounts to maintain it?

    1. And, as a bonus, every once in a while they burst into flames and incinerate all the ‘beautiful people’ in the gondola!

  26. Holy crap! Agile is back! I’ve missed your poetry, man.

  27. Cutesy projects like trolleys are just another way that the piggies in politics suck money out of the system. Wouldn’t you love to see how much of the money allocated to the project ends up in the pockets of politicians?

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  29. the city is considering cutbacks in cops, firefighters, and nurses,

    I fail to see the problem here. Every US city could do with a 50-60% reduction in cops, and nurses should never be on a city payroll.

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