How The Kansas City Star Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Streetcar
A recent Kansas City Star editorial trumpets the success of the downtown streetcar and supports planning new routes, even though it hasn’t been completed. The article accuses the opposition to new streetcar planning of wasting time. However, why should Kansas City spend more money planning to expand the streetcar when 1) streetcars do not improve transit; 2) there is no evidence that streetcars drive development; and 3) the original line has yet to open, much less prove its usefulness?
Streetcars will not improve mobility for public transit users in Kansas City. They travel at about the same speed as current city buses, 7-12 mph. Although a streetcar’s capacity is higher than buses, each space on a streetcar costs three times a space in the new green energy buses that Kansas City is planning to purchase. That number doesn’t include the costs of streetcar infrastructure, which will exceed $1 million per mile. In addition, streetcar lines are inflexible, meaning they cannot respond to changing customer demands or shifting demographic patterns.
Most proponents of the streetcar are aware that they make no improvements in terms of actually providing mobility, and never present a strong argument to the contrary. While most transportation systems are designed to move people to different parts of a city, a streetcar’s purpose is to move money to a single, preferred section of the city. The great weaknesses of the system — high fixed costs and minimal flexibility — become supposed strengths as investment moves to streetcar corridors.
While it may be true that giving special tax breaks and pouring investment into specific sections of a city can increase local development (albeit at the expense of other sections of the city and other taxpayers), there is no evidence that streetcars increase development, aside from anecdote. In fact, the streetcar’s own grant application openly states that downtown development has already exceeded $5 billion since 2002 without a streetcar. If Kansas City can achieve development without an expensive streetcar system, why build it in the first place?
It is entertaining to see a charge of waste from those who would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a transit system that will lose money and not increase mobility. Perhaps if streetcar proponents adequately considered the wastefulness of their own activities, they would have no opponents to denigrate.