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Streetcars and trolleys seem to evoke romantic notions, but they are a gigantic waste of resources. They are costly to build relative to alternatives by about an order of magnitude. After construction, the revenue they produce generally pays only a fraction of ongoing operating costs, contributing nothing to the original capital costs. It’s a loser all the way around. The “economic development” mantra is a fallacy. Relative to what alternative? Assertions of “environmental benefits” are even more bogus, as if pouring resources valued in the millions down the hole to build a new civic toy did not have negative environmental implications. Waste is waste.

Here is a recent article in The Atlantic that covers the poor performance of many new streetcar and trolley systems. They defend the rail concept, provided that it is dedicated and not competing with auto, bike, bus and pedestrian traffic for lanes. This problem has been encountered by a number streetcar systems, including one in Washington, DCCoyote Blog has some additional thoughts on the DC line and the urbanist streetcar obsession in general:

What we see over and over again is that by consuming 10-100x more resources per passenger, rail systems starve other parts of the transit system of money and eventually lead to less, rather than more, total ridership (even in Portland, by the way).

A trolley project is underway in St. Louis that is typical of other systems in terms of waste. It would link a popular district called the University City Loop with Forest Park. Nostalgic images of Judy Garland riding the trolley to the World’s Fair in the park must dance in the heads of supporters. Clang, Clang, Clang! Here is a short piece on the Delmar Trolley:

The total construction cost will reach close to $45 million — almost $20 million per mile of track. … taxpayers will finance most of the project’s construction and operational costs. … The plan’s proponents have not presented any kind of cost-benefit analysis to the public.

Ah, but a $25 million federal grant was approved for the project back in 2012, and that’s just a free lunch for locals, right? How many local planners around the country think in those terms? Short answer: too many!