Transportation Policy

How Bad Do Streetcar Predictions Have to Be to Get Politicians to Ask Questions?

Turns out, pretty bad.

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Portland Streetcar
Steve Morgan/Wikipedia

When progressive politicians start raising eyebrows at projections for a public transit project, you know something must be very wrong.

Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) ridership and funding projections for its 1.2 mile Central City Connector streetcar are so wildly overblown even reliably pro-transit city councilmembers have worked themselves up to genuine scrutiny.

SDOT is projecting that by connecting Seattle's two currently operating streetcar lines, which have been averaging 5,200 passenger trips a week so far this year, streetcar traffic will jump 317 percent to 21,700 trips in its very first year of operations. And by 2035 ridership is projected at 29,500 a week. That works out to an increase of 467 percent.

"The financial assumptions are simply unrealistic based on our history with the streetcar," Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold told the Seattle Times. "I don't want a situation where we don't meet those projections and the result is we end up seeing bus-service hours cut to pay for any shortfall."

Herbold is no foe of massive public transit expenditures. When Seattle metro-area Sound Transit—an agency with a history of cost overruns and ridership shortfalls—unveiled a $54 billion light rail expansion plan, Herbold voted in favor of a resolution demanding the project add more stops and be completed more quickly.

As far as I can tell, no other streetcar system in America has ever come close to seeing that kind of growth from the addition of a single line.

Take for instance Portland's 2012 Central Loop expansion, considered by other cities a model streetcar project, which connected a current streetcar line with 3.3 miles of new track in the eastern part of the city. Portland boasted the loop would add 8,100 trips in its first year, a 74 percent increase in ridership. Central Loop actually added 2,500 rides— a 23 percent increase—according to the Federal Transit Administration.

If transit-crazy Portland manages to generate more than three times fewer rides than projected with almost three times the track, imagine how easy it will be for Seattle.

Planners for Washington D.C.'s dismally performing Benning Road streetcar are only willing to venture that its expansion will add 3,500 weekly riders. By 2040. Given how often and egregiously the D.C. local government has been wrong about its streetcar projections, there's good reason to think even that timid projection is overblown.

And then there's the matter of paying the freight in Seattle. In spite of projections of three to nearly five times the ridership for Central City, SDOT is guessing increased revenue from fares will still cover only 56 percent of operating costs, about twice the current 23 percent.

The legendary streetcar system in New Orleans, one of the most popular in America, averaging 24,900 weekday trips in the last quarter of 2016, covers about 25 percent of operating expenses with fares, according to 2014 numbers from the American Public Transportation Association.

And New Orleans considers itself lucky. Portland's streetcar tickets sales covers 4 percent of its operating costs.

It's practically a law of physics that mass transit projects will cost more and carry fewer people than promised. Streetcars are a very costly and inefficient fashion statement, rather than a transportation option, as Reason has covered.

Seattle's City Connector project is conspicuous only in that its projections are so wildly unrealistic as to wake up otherwise gullible politicians, even as they spend hand over fist on other, equally dubious, transit projects.

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  1. “I don’t want a situation where we don’t meet those projections and the result is we end up seeing bus-service hours cut to pay for any shortfall.”

    So it takes the possibility of cutting into another area of public transportation to get their attention?

    1. Governments love controlling where you go and when you get there.

  2. They’d have a hard time meeting those numbers if they gave away a hundred dollars with every ride.

  3. What I don’t get it is why they are so beloved even as a fashion statement. Why are these dumb things an image of progressive values? Is it because trains are completely out of the picture?

    1. What’s more progressive than saying, “You will go where I want you to go, when I want you to go there, at the rate of speed that I believe you should go (and that rate ain’t quick!)?”

      1. But buses do that too. And already exist. And are cheaper. And don’t need special infrastructure. I can understand where their fascination with public transit comes from in general, but why light rails?

        1. Because busses are use fuel and are dirty. Whereas light rail is electric and not dirty. At least not at point of contact. And once all our power comes from sun, wind, water, fairy dust, and unicorn farts, they will be super clean and even create energy.

          1. I wonder, if they believe their own shit there that’s both stupid and sad though.

          2. Unicorn farts contain carbon dioxide; so cleaner, but not super clean.

        2. Because trains (ideally) force or prod people to living along the transit lines or corridors. Buses don’t do that so much. Blue state politicians believe that building train line down a street ‘revitalizes’ the area and it fills up with quaint shops and expensive restaurants.

          1. This is interesting. I wonder if this is an actual perceived benefit or just something they use to sell it to people. Certainly that was the most common selling point in both Phoenix and Tucson for their dumb-fucking light rails.

            1. It’s just something they use to sell it to people. The city of Chicago already has a public transportation infrastructure, but the only people who use the Red Line and the Brown Line (the L trains that run north and south and to O’Hare airport) are those with no other options OR criminals with public transport passes provided by the government. The criminal element then preys on the other passengers and regularly robs those businesses that are established in and around the L stations.

              When your public transportation only serves areas that no sane person would enter and there aren’t any additional public safety provisions made, then it won’t do anything to “revitalize” those areas. But it will give criminals something to do during the day.

          2. Because trains (ideally) force or prod people to living along the transit lines or corridors. Buses don’t do that so much. Blue state politicians believe that building train line down a street ‘revitalizes’ the area and it fills up with quaint shops and expensive restaurants.

            In a nutshell, it boosts a region for people unlikely to use the service because they’ll have the money to use better alternatives. Government logic is great, ain’t it?

        3. Because white people like trains and think buses are dirty and gross.

          1. Well, white people aren’t wrong on that one.

          2. That’s only for intercity or city-suburb travel. Within cities, white people prefer buses & think the subways & els are dirty & gross.

            1. I’m white, a cyclist, and I use the train and bus. The train is by far dirtier…I mean, on my way home at night there will be food and trash all over the floor. Sometimes a seat will have a puddle of diarrhea in it. If there are people riding on it at all, you can bet at least one of them will be loud and disruptive. Either laughing/talking with a in-a-concert voice or playing music off their phone.

              The bus otoh is always clean and quiet. If the buses here ran more frequently (once every 20m instead of once every 40m+) I’d use them exclusively.

        4. Buses can be rerouted to meet demand leaving no shiny legacy to remind voters of how awesome some politicians were. I’m surprised the trolley lines aren’t named for the politicians.

          1. Another interesting point. The politicians ultimate goal is to leave a mark. A obsession with the idea that they are one of the unique few who deserve a memorial to their greatness.

            1. Which makes them worse than muggers.

              Muggers don’t demand you praise them for robbing you.

        5. Because it is always about more.
          .
          Light rail is a pathway to construction contracts, additional long term jobs, and a new ‘vehicle’ to expand government.
          .
          All of that expands power.

  4. How Bad Do Streetcar Predictions Have to Be to Get Politicians to Ask Questions?

    Here’s a question I’d like to ask a Seattle politician:
    Why don’t you have Bill Gates pay for the streetcars, their maintenance, operation, tracks, employee salaries and benefits, etc?

    1. Because he lives in Medina. If he lived in Seattle they would probably just try to tax him. Tax the Rich is the platform of both people running for mayor currently.

      1. He should just give it. He’s one of those “the rich don’t pay enough” types.

    2. Why would they do that? They’re building a $54 billion train to Redmond so those underpaid programmers can afford to live in Seattle and have the public subsidize their commute.

  5. SDOT is projecting that by connecting Seattle’s two currently operating streetcar lines, which have been averaging 5,200 passenger trips a week so far this year, streetcar traffic will jump 317 percent to 21,700 trips in its very first year of operations. And by 2035 ridership is projected at 29,500 a week. That works out to an increase of 467 percent.

    Also, riders will be so enthusiastic about riding the streetcar that they will jump up and down until all the money falls out of their pockets.

    1. From what my kids tell me, the people in Seattle who actually ride mass transit do not have any money. Just EBT cards.

  6. Most likely explanation is there is a limit even to Seattle area voter’s stupidity. Over the last decade interest groups have fought 4 or 5 times to impose some new tax to preserve bus service levels, only to come back 2 years later and say they need more money or bus service will have to be cut. Even the progtardiest of progtards might start to question their assumptions after that kind of track record.

    1. Wait until more Californians move up there.

    2. “”Even the progtardiest of progtards might start to question their assumptions after that kind of track record.””

      I’m going with you can’t fix stupid.

    3. “”Even the progtardiest of progtards might start to question their assumptions after that kind of track record.””

      I’m going with you can’t fix stupid.

  7. That works out to an increase of 467 percent.

    It also works out to about 400 people total (assuming round trips).

    In my neighborhood, they cut the goddamned bus service because only 500 people per week were using it.

  8. I think they estimated it would increase usage by 400 people, not 400 percent. I think they had an auto spelling correction pick the wrong word.

    1. Nah. It was a decimal place error. The correct value is 0.400 percent.

  9. When you can’t get people to ride a SLUT…

  10. If we’re going to blow a bunch of money, could they at least be on Dirigibles!

    1. Too much humanity for their tastes.

  11. I should have known based in the headline this was Seattle.

    My brother lives in the University district. Before they built the train from downtown to the Uni district, buses were frequent and dropped me off two blocks from his house. After the built the train, they scrapped those bus routes, and the train is less frequent, and stops over a mile from his house. It’s far less convenient, buy TRAINS!

    1. But, not buy

  12. No it will work out. They forgot the multiplier effect. They’re going to have a huge surplus.

  13. The traffic tie-ups of buses combined w the expense & inflexibility of railroads. What’s not to love?

  14. Yes-progs love mass transit projects because they serve as a monument to their urban socialist values, but the true reason I think is that they provide lots of union jobs both for building and operating them. The politicians really could care less if nobody ever rides it, in fact, they prefer that they don’t because it will put too much of a demand on the employees and the riders might start noticing that the public transit system seriously sucks (see Washington Metro Transit Authority).

  15. The article doesn’t mention that the head of SDOT is Scott Kubly, best known in his former job in the transportation department of Washington, D.C. as the “Streetcar Czar”.
    Because, you know, the ignorant citizens of D.C. just didn’t “get” the streetcars, but the wonderful progressive citizens of Seattle will.
    Ridership is down; revenues are down. That means you double down!

  16. “Transit-crazy Portland”

    Seattle has higher transit use than Portland by every metric I’m aware of. Not *this* much higher, but still.

  17. Another question: how bad (useless/expensive) do street cars/big transit have to get before the media–local And national — take seriously critical looks at them. Light transit is for white suburbanites who won’t ride buses, which are infinitely more efficient and flexible. Few billion-dollar transit lines serve poor or minority neighborhoods. It’s not by accident. Also the number of rides reported by transit agencies are no less bogus than the economic numbers reported each year by the commies in the 1970s. Rides by the way are rides, not people, so those daily numbers need to be divided by at least two — unless Seattle progs only take one-way trips. Big Transit and all the little transits are socialist rackets that benefit unions, managers and construction companies and their political pals, make car-hating liberal “journalists” wet their pants and screw taxpayers in other places for the funding. It’s been thus since the 1960s and no one in politics seems to care or notice. Maybe Trump can pick on big transit and bring some attention to its crimes.

  18. I’m not a fan of streetcars either. I’m a cyclist, and those tracks in the middle of the lane are a literal death trap should my tires get caught in them. Also, they don’t go anywhere. My bicycle makes a streetcar pointless.

    However I don’t get why you all seem so opposed to mass transit in its entirety. I can guarantee you that nothing empowers the poor better then the ability to get from the low income housing area (outskirts of the city) to where the jobs are (inner city). Without mass transit, losing your car is akin to a death sentence. May as well get a tent and live under a overpass immediately, y’know, to get a jump on things.

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