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What Does It Cost?


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What Does It Cost?

We will take a detailed look at costs in our three case studies, which make up the next section of this paper. In general, the answer to the question, “What does it cost?,” is the same answer J.P. Morgan gave when a reporter asked him, “Mr. Morgan, what is the stock market going to do?” The great financier replied, “It will fluctuate.”

Costs of streetcar lines vary widely, because the characteristics of streetcar lines vary widely. In fact, it can be difficult to obtain the construction cost of a streetcar line, because building the line is often part of a larger project that includes other elements.

San Francisco’s new F line provides a good example. This is a double-track streetcar line, built to Light Rail standards, which now carries almost 20,000 people per day (all in Vintage cars, we would note). The construction cost was about $30 million per mile, which is high even for Light Rail. But much of that money went for visual enhancements that have nothing to do with running streetcars, including extensive use of granite and marble and even planting palm trees along the right-of-way. A city that wanted just the streetcar line without the Carmen Miranda-style décor could build it for substantially less.8

At the other end of the scale is the excellent and highly innovative two-mile streetcar line recently opened in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The total cost was just $4 million, or $2 million per mile, including five restored PCC streetcars.

Some other examples include:

  • Portland, Oregon, the only line using modern streetcars. The 4.6 mile loop line was constructed for $12.4 million per mile, including seven new streetcars, built in the Czech Republic.

  • Tampa, Florida, a 2.3 mile line built for $13.7 million per mile including eight Heritage streetcars. The cars themselves, replicas of 1920’s Birney streetcars, cost $600,000 each (compared to up to $3 million for a modern Light Rail Vehicle).

  • Little Rock, Arkansas, a 2.1 mile line built for $7.1 million per mile, including three streetcars.9

  • San Pedro, California, a 1.5 mile line that recreates the old Pacific Electric “Red Cars” for $4 million per mile, including three streetcars, one Vintage and two Heritage.10

The costs of Heritage and Vintage streetcars vary as much as construction costs of streetcar lines. Heritage streetcars cost between $200,000 and $800,000, depending on type and features (e.g., air conditioning). One of the best sources of Vintage streetcars is Milan, Italy, which is gradually selling off its vast fleet of 1920s-built Peter Witt cars, a type that was widely used in the U.S. These cars go for $25,000–$35,000 each, and have been maintained so faithfully that they can go into service the day they arrive. Other Vintage cars vary greatly in price, depending largely on condition; some last served as chicken coops.

Since many Vintage and Heritage streetcar lines make use of volunteer labor, operating costs can be very low. Perhaps the best guide to operating costs for a major streetcar system that hauls lots of people and uses only paid labor—transit company employees—is our old favorite, New Orleans. An APTA analysis, using data from the 1996 National Transit Database, compared 20 Light Rail systems’ operating costs, including those of New Orleans streetcar lines (St. Charles Avenue and the Waterfront line).11 Operating costs were measured in four ways, and New Orleans ranked as follows (20th is lowest in operating cost):

  • Operating expense per passenger mile: 16th

  • Operating cost per vehicle mile: 17th

  • Operating cost per vehicle hour: 18th

  • Operating cost per passenger trip: 20th

An interesting wrinkle on operating costs comes from Tampa, Florida. There, the organization that will operate the Heritage streetcars has raised an endowment of almost $7 million, the interest from which will cover part of the operating costs.

In closing the discussion of costs—and stressing again that they vary widely—let us offer a minor Philippic. The greatest threat to the future of rail transit is not Wendell Cox and the rest of the anti-transit troubadors.12 The greatest threat to America’s rail renaissance is escalating costs, costs that go far beyond what is required to offer good service. We know Light Rail can be built and built well for $20 million per mile, because some systems do it; the latest extension of Dallas’ DART Light Rail system came in at just over $18 million per mile. St. Louis and Baltimore did it, too. Why, then, do we see more and more Light Rail systems asking for $40 million, $60 million, and in one case more than $100 million per mile? The answer, too often, appears to be overbuilding, gold plating, and the pernicious practice of placating NIMBYs with tunneling, which should only be used when geographic obstacles make it unavoidable.

We see signs of the same disease appearing in streetcar lines. Museums build streetcar lines and operate them for a pittance. So can, and should, public authorities. San Francisco's F line is a great success, but why should a poor streetcar be billed for recreating the Taj Mahal?

The authors of this paper both recall vividly an incident all too typical in overbuilding. When Cleveland’s fine old Shaker Rapid line was rebuilt, the cost was more than $100 million, and the result was slower trains running on less frequent schedules. When someone asked the local U.S. Representative about the outrage, the reply was, “Why not? It’s free money,” meaning Federal funds. Bah! Humbug! Where’s our old friend Mr. Scrooge when the taxpayer needs him?

Currently, the Federal Transit Administration's process for giving new rail proposals a “recommended” or “not recommended” rating is based too heavily on ridership forecasts. We strongly suggest it should also include a base line “should cost” figure of not more than $20 million per mile for Light Rail and $10 million per mile for streetcars (a similar “should-cost” figure should be set for urban highway construction). Exceptions should be granted, but only when circumstances such as the need to tunnel through a mountain or other unavoidable local conditions clearly justify them.

Some rail advocates may see this as treason. In fact, we are trying to save rail transit from itself, to prevent Light Rail and streetcars from doing what Heavy Rail did and pricing themselves out of the market.

And just in case you have forgotten, please remember that we are conservatives. We believe that the right place for a taxpayer’s dollar is in his own pocket, not the pocket of some fat cat politician or bloated government agency. Off with their heads!

Having gotten that off our chests, let us now proceed to see what three different cities, using three quite different approaches, have done to give their citizens the many benefits of streetcar service.




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