I Just Don't Understand the Appeal of Short Street Car Lines in Low-Density Towns

More street car craziness.  I love the phrase "modern street car".  Like an up-to-date stagecoach.

Despite mounting construction costs and uncertainty over federal funds, Tempe is still seeking to be the Valley's first city with a modern streetcar system traveling through its downtown.


Valley Metro executives Steve Banta and Wulf Grote reviewed the project with the Tempe City Council this month.

The new alignment has lengthened the route from 2.6 miles to 3 miles and increased costs. The cost range is now $175 million to $200 million depending on the type of vehicle technology used.

First, there is no way it comes in for these numbers, but even accepting the mid-point of their estimates this is $62.5 million a mile or $11,837 per foot.  Of course there is also the operating cost, which will certainly lose money since there is no way people are going to pay much for a maximum 3 mile ride.  My prediction is that they will sell the project promising that there will be a fare that helps cover costs but they will drop the fare quickly once implemented  (because no one will ride this thing unless it is free).  And and don't forget the cost of the loss of an entire lane of roadway each way to the trains.

Just consider how much less 4 buses running in a 3-mile circle would cost, and they would only consume a tiny fraction of the existing road capacity, rather than taking up an entire lane just for themselves.  This is just a huge upper-middle class subsidy, a special favor to rich people who think buses are too low class to ride but are OK being seen on a train.  Madness.

My best guess is that these kinds of projects have become prestige projects for government officials.  This is the way they show off to each other and act as a portfolio for them to seek larger jobs in bigger cities.


  1. Tom Murin:

    You hit the nail right on the head. Light rail is cool. Heck, I ride one here in NJ frequently. You probably could shuttle people around in limos for less than most light rail systems.

  2. Matthew Slyfield:

    They could hand out a free Prius to every expected rider and they would still be saving money over what light rail costs.

  3. NL7:

    A slow and short mode of transportation is the selling point. The idea is that it moves in a retail or tourist area, adding some sort of retro ambiance. It's not about commuting or about low-cost transportation. It's supposed to make a retail area more scenic, as the heritage trolley lines in downtown San Francisco do. But note that SF, which is deeply identified with trolleys, has largely moved its public transport to buses, subway, and light rail; the SF trolleys are mostly confined to a few narrow routes in tourist-y areas. And even in that market space, the tourists will typically pay more money to ride a double-decker bus and get a formal tour; so the trolley doesn't even corner the tourists in SF, its spiritual homeland.

    St. Louis is doing a trolley, but it mostly goes from Forest Park to the Loop shopping area. It doesn't go to business districts in Downtown, Midtown, or any major suburban business district. It moves shoppers and tourists from a restaurant and shopping district to a tourism destination a couple miles away. It's pretty transparently an attempt to add quaint-looking trolleys to the Loop, even though the peak-time driving in the Loop is hardly convenient as it is. Of course, it will connect the Loop to the light rail Metrolink stops nearby; but buses can already provide that service for less money. In fact, for the cost of the trolley, they could probably just provide free bus service for the same 2+ mile stretch.

  4. Sam L.:

    Oh, come now! You know, we know: There's money (MONEY) to be made and graft to be had, and cars and the people who drive them to be inconvenienced and hated.

  5. Don:

    San Antonio was recently saved from street cars by two events:

    1. Our mayor (Julian Castro) being sucked into Washington in hopes of becoming the next Henry Cisneros... or even Billary's running-mate (good riddance! although, I pity the rest of the country if that little Napoleon actually achieves what he wants).
    2. The Police and Fire Unions being ticked off at the city for negotiating hard to limit pay/benefits/new-hires to make room in the budget.

    This city had street cars in the late 1800's, and they went under in the 1920's. The tracks were in place until the about 1980, when the city spent tens of millions to remove them and fix the streets. Apparently, even though we've already had them and watched them fail (back when they were primarily competing with horse-drawn wagons!), we now need them because over other big town has them.

    I never thought I'd owe thanks to a couple of unions and President Obama for saving the city money!

  6. johncunningham:

    For Lefties, trolleys are religious totems. Lefties hate cars, and hate America. Trolleys make them think of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s, and they just have transports of religious ,mania at the thought of trolleys and light rail. their ultimate goal is to have everyone living in apartment blocks, taking trolleys or walking to work, and spending leisure time at Party meetings, yoga, or bike riding.

  7. randian:

    "And and don't forget the cost of the loss of an entire lane of roadway each way to the trains"

    I suspect that's considered a bonus by light rail fans, who very often hate cars. It's the same reason CA freeways haven't been expanded for 30 years leading to their under capacity.

  8. mlhouse:

    I think the way to get rid of these wasteful spending projects that are only designed to create political points and crony contracts is to eliminate the tax exemptions on municipal debt.

  9. sjutte350:

    The problem with the leftist mentality has always been the inability to understand that some people don't want to live their lives the way they live theirs.

    A leftist that happily lives in a small apartment in a highly urban area, and does not own a car, will be the first to not only question why anyone would ever want to live in the suburbs and own a car, but also attempt to legislate in a manner that punishes people for doing so, and coerces them to move into the city and into a small apartment (or into their way of life in other ways). They claim that they are open minded, and advocates of "live and let live," but like so many things about leftists, they are only "live and let live" if you're living in exactly the manner that they proscribe. Just as they are "freedom of speech" as long as you don't say anything they disagree with.

    Which means that they aren't "live and let live" at all.

    They want to make choices for everyone else, based on their own desires and proclivities. They see the idea of public mass transit, and see how much better it is than diffuse, private transportation (to their mind, and to their view) and cannot fathom why anyone would ever, EVER have a good reason to disagree.

    Until they figure out how to make their trolley cars pull my trailers, though, I'm going to need some reinvestment in public roads and infrastructure that ISN'T trolley cars related.

  10. HenryBowman419:

    Tempe must be seriously flush with money to attempt such exorbitant expenditures. Who is getting paid off?

  11. Matthew Dale Papke:

    exactly it's cheaper to buy the residents a car

    but they don't want us to have cars, they want us to give up our independence.