Detroit, fresh out of bankruptcy, wants to waste $137 million on a streetcar project that will cost $45 million per mile to implement.

Detroit is not the only city to recently hop on the nostalgia bandwagon. For example, USA Today reports Atlanta, other cities see a streetcar renaissance.

ATLANTA – Once upon a time this city was crisscrossed by electric streetcars. At the peak of streetcar travel in the mid-1920s, some 800 streetcars covering 200 miles of track carried 97 million passenger trips a year. The story was the same around much of the nation: More than 800 other cities also had streetcars.

By the end of the 1940s, streetcars were virtually gone from Atlanta and before long, from the American landscape.

Now, streetcars are coming back to Peachtree Street — and to many other American streets for that matter.

Tucson’s $196 million Sun Link Streetcar Project, recently named the Public Works Project of the Year by the American Public Works Association, will operate on a 3.9-mile route between downtown and the University of Arizona when it begins service in late July.

In late summer or early fall, Washington, D.C., will open its $135 million, 2.4-mile H Street streetcar line. It’s expected to provide more than a million rides in the first year and help revitalize a once-thriving retail district in the nation’s capital.

Construction began in April 2012 on Seattle’s First Hill Streetcar, a 2.5-mile, $134 million line expected to begin service in the fall. The streetcar will run between Occidental Avenue in Pioneer Square and Denny Way in Capitol Hill, serving 10 stations along South Jackson Street, 14th Avenue South, Yesler Way and Broadway.

Streetcar projects are in various stages of design or development in more than a dozen other cities, including Dallas, which plans to open a line from Union Station downtown to Oak Cliff in early 2015; Salt Lake City, where Mayor Ralph Becker’s administration is pushing a plan for a streetcar in the central business district downtown, and Kansas City, Mo., which announced last month that it had selected a vendor to operate and maintain its planned two-mile downtown streetcar line.

St. Louis Streetcars

Also consider St. Louis is not alone in resurgence of streetcars.

In 2002, the Tampa region opened its TECO Line, on which streetcars cruise a 2.7-mile path — past the Florida Aquarium, cruise terminals and the Tampa Bay Times Forum — between downtown Tampa and historic Ybor City.

St. Louis, waiting to move forward with its own trolley concept, is far from the only city with plans on paper or wheels already on rails.

A heavy infusion of federal dollars is fueling the efforts. St. Louis received a $24.99 million grant in 2010 for the Loop Trolley, to run from the University City Library to the Missouri History Museum in Forest Park.

But the resurgence faces growing pains. Questions dogged the Loop Trolley’s early management, and a pending federal lawsuit seeks to stop the project. In Cincinnati, the city is considering halting construction.

And some critics point to markets such as Tampa to suggest that once completed, new lines aren’t exactly teeming with passengers.

“There is no evidence that ridership is very significant or that you are going to attract very many riders,” said Randal O’Toole, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. He asked whether cities are “just building Disneyland rides to make yuppies happy.”

O’Toole questioned the wisdom of plowing so much government money into “obsolete transportation systems.” The modern-day version of the urban streetcar, he added, costs significantly more than buses to operate per mile and doesn’t even reach the speeds of their long-ago predecessors.

Detroit’s Nostalgic Desire

Bloomberg reports Detroit’s Desire Is Named Streetcar in Transport Revival.

Electric streetcars may roll Detroit’s streets again after 60 years in an attempt to use mass transit to resuscitate the bankrupt auto capital.

Seventeen corporate and philanthropic donors will pay about two-thirds of $160 million to build and run a 3.3 mile (5.3 kilometer) line from downtown north to the New Center district. Groundbreaking is July 28, a 2016 opening is planned and, while streetcars won’t erase Detroit’s symbiotic relationship with the internal combustion engine, backers say they’ll enliven an area that’s attracting residents and jobs.

To some, a streetcar conjures not a revivifying force, but the folly of the People Mover, an elevated train built in 1987 that loops 2.9 miles around downtown. It was left with lower-than-expected ridership after plans flopped for a larger, regional rail system.
Another Burden

Streetcars are “a terrible idea” that will benefit property owners and not low-income Detroiters who don’t live near the Woodward Avenue corridor, said George Galster, professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University.

He said there’s no guarantee that the cost of operating the streetcar won’t fall on the city, which a year ago filed the largest U.S. municipal bankruptcy, an $18 billion case.

“All the city of Detroit needs is another expensive boondoggle,” Galster said.

M-1 Rail was awarded a $25 million federal grant, and it’s asked for another $12 million. The project will proceed with or without more government money, Cullen said in a June 18 statement. The project allocates $20 million to operate the line for 10 years or until it is turned over to the regional transit authority.

Streetcar Named Imprudent

Design World gets the last word with Streetcar Named Imprudent.

City politicians are funding a streetcar project traversing a mere three miles and slated to cost $137 million, or a little over $45 million per mile, not counting the inevitable cost overruns.

Detroit isn’t the only city rolling out a streetcar project. At least 16 other U.S. cities have trams in the works and many more have publicly stated their streetcar dreams. But Detroit’s project is mysterious. Its promoters seem oblivious to advances in automotive technology, showcased just down the street from them at the NAIAS, that could easily make streetcars and similar forms of mass transit obsolete. And it increasingly looks as though obsolescence could strike just as many streetcar projects now on the drawing boards are ready for their first passengers.

Tour the displays at NAIAS and you get an idea why: Driverless, connected vehicles could well form the basis for an energy efficient way of moving people around. Consider how a commuter might head home from work a few years from now. An empty car will roll up as he or she leaves the office. Time in the car will be spent doing Facebook posts or watching TV rather than driving. That’s because the car will contain no steering wheel. The journey home will be faster than what’s possible today though there will be more cars on the road. And the car will deliver its occupants to their doorstep, not to a tram station. With that accomplished, the vehicle will head off to wait for other riders.

The hardware is already in place to make this vision of driverless commuting a reality. The equipment needed for a car with no driver looks a lot like the equipment used for parking-assist systems found in high-end vehicles today. It basically consists of electric power steering and brakes, a computer, and a variety of sensors. The part of the puzzle that still needs development is the software. But the required programming is rapidly being perfected. Cars in Google’s Self-Driving Car project, for example, have already logged nearly 700,000 autonomous miles. Google claims it should have remaining software issues fixed by 2020.

Meanwhile, Toyota has been testing driverless vehicle technology on roads in Ann Arbor, Mich. for the past two years. Also in Ann Arbor, the University of Mich.’s Transportation Research Institute has equipped 2,800 cars with wireless technology for communicating with each other and with traffic lights. It plans to instrument 9,000 more this way in 2015 and eventually expand to 20,000 vehicles. The goal is safer travel, fewer traffic delays, and a better understanding of how to automate vehicles.

Unfortunately, the main attraction of streetcar projects seems to be federal subsidies. Municipalities asking for these funds generally justify them by citing benefits such as better mobility and economic stimulus for the local economy. Trouble is, these scenarios usually assume streetcars will compete with vehicle technology pretty much the way it is today, not the way it is likely to evolve as automation increasingly eliminates drivers.

The reality is that trams and trains make sense only in areas characterized by high population density—think New York City, San Francisco, Atlanta, or a similar megalopolis. A survey of the Detroit landscape might bring to mind several phrases to describe the view, but “high population density” would not be one of them. As connected car technology progresses, let’s hope that even the dullest politicians will be able to see that streetcar projects are likely to be losing propositions.

Political Desire to Waste Money

Streetcars make no economic sense, and they haven’t since 1940. And with driverless cars five years away, Detroit ought to be looking forward, not back.

Buggy whips would actually make more sense. No one could possibly waste over $100 million on them.

Then again, never underestimate politicians’ desire and ability to waste as much money as possible on useless pet projects.

For more on driverless vehicles, please see Driverless Cars and Trucks: Who Wants One? How Many Jobs Will Vanish?

Mike “Mish” Shedlock