We may be entering the world of the Jetsons, with driverless cars and all forms of futuristic travel coming to reality. But some cities are going back to the future of transit with streetcars. Some claim they help cities boost economies and connect neighborhoods.. but as Joce Sterman reports, others say these are Steetcars Named.. Disaster.
Invented in 1888, streetcars were a cutting edge mode of transportation. More than a century, later, they're back in a big way. You could say we're in the middle of a streetcar renaissance, with nostalgia driving its development. This is downtown Atlanta, where a sleek blue streetcar runs a 3 mile loop in the middle of a traffic lane.
Joce: So when you see it coming around the corner, what do you think?
Benita Dodd: I think what a waste of money, what a waste of taxpayer dollars, what a waste of a potential transit solution.
Benita Dodd is with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. She has dubbed it a Streetcar Named Disaster.
Benita Dodd: It’s yesteryear’s technology, it’s yesteryear’s transit.
Installing the streetcar in Atlanta cost nearly $100 million. The money came from federal and local grants, and included nearly $25 million from Atlanta's taxpayers. Dodd says when the city started charging a dollar fare, ridership went down nearly 70 percent in 5 months.
Joce: If it’s so easy to tell that this is in essence a failure in your opinion, why not put them on board and say look, where are the people?
Benita Dodd: Are you telling me that you expect elected officials to admit failure? They have the bottomless wallet of taxpayers to reach into, they can continue funding this to infinity.
David Williams: It’s a vanity project for politicians and bureaucrats. It’s not a transportation project.
David Williams, with Taxpayers Protection Alliance, has been studying the new wave and waste from streetcar projects all over the country. David Williams: There’s streetcar envy. Once city, we’ll see another city do a street car and go, oh that looks beautiful, let’s do that. And unfortunately after millions of dollars are spent, they find out it’s a waste of money.
For many, the road is paved with complications. In Seattle, the streetcar project's estimated budget has doubled to nearly 300 million dollars, including funds to retrofit tracks because the new cars are too big to fit. Last year, mold was found in the ventilation system of Cincinnati's streetcar, which has struggled with mechanical problems and dipping ridership. And in Oklahoma City, which was touting success, when the streetcar started charging fares in February, ridership dropped 50 percent.
Joce: all of your research, you haven't seen a city that you can say they at least built this on budget. They built it on time and it works.
David Williams: We haven't seen any city where a streetcar has really added to the transportation infrastructure of a city.
So why the green light for so many of these projects? They're often touted as a way to revitalize underserved corridors, as Washington DC's mayor Muriel Bowser recently proclaimed during a celebration of the city streetcar's 3rd anniversary.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser: We said it would spur economic development, and it has done exactly that.
A recent study of Seattle and Portland streetcars cautions, "the presence of the streetcar does not guarantee development."
David Williams: Businesses don’t follow streetcars. Streetcars follow businesses. So this is not something that’s going to create a bunch of wealth in a neighborhood. It just doesn’t happen.
The DC Streetcar took 9 years to build, at a price tag of $200 million. According to the Federal Transit Administration, each weekday, 767,000 people take DC's metro. 14,000 ride city buses. The streetcar, only about 3,400 passengers.
Man: I can say that it seems like a really dynamite way for everyone in this area to move around.
Woman: I mean, they are useful. I work here and live not too far from here so they can be helpful, just getting back and forth.
Man: The only way I can think of to improve their efficiency would be to give them a dedicated lane. But it kind of seems like the ship has sailed on that.
Streetcar projects sail on, as both DC and Atlanta have considered expanding their systems. By Dodd's estimate, Atlanta taxpayers will be strapped with the costs of the streetcar for decades, with no fix in sight.
Joce: How can they fix things?
Benita Dodd: Give up. And say to anyone who is even thinking about a streetcar that it doesn’t work. Spend your dollars on something wiser.
The transit authority that owns Atlanta's streetcar told us it's evaluating ridership and trends to make improvements. In DC, the Department of Transportation says the streetcar continues to exceed expectations with businesses in this area crediting the system for tremendous development.
Statement from Jeff Marootian, Director, DDOT (District Department of Transportation):
The DC Streetcar has served more than 3 million passengers since its launch in February 2016 and under Mayor Bowser’s leadership now provides more hours of service on a weekly basis than Metrorail. The system continues to exceed DDOT’s ridership expectations averaging nearly 100,000 passengers per month.The H Street corridor, where the streetcar is located, is thriving. The local business association, H Street Main Street, credits the system for the tremendous development taking place. Mayor Bowser believes investments in multi-modal transportation like the DC Streetcar builds on the District’s reputation as a world class city.
Statement from Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority Spokesperson:
MARTA assumed ownership of the Streetcar from the City of Atlanta on July 1, 2018. In the months since, we have continued to evaluate ridership and revenue trends to identify ways to improve. Given Atlanta’s rapid growth, the Streetcar is part of a long-term investment to improve mobility downtown and provide a world-class experience for transit riders.