An Open Letter To Streetcar Supporters
At the recent meeting of the Kansas City Save the Trolley Trail, supporters of an expanded streetcar system dismissed assertions from the Show-Me Institute, which are backed by research, that construction of fixed rail does not drive economic development. This is important because it appears that economic development is the raison d’être for the streetcar. One Kansas City City Councilmember told the Kansas City Business Journal:
“The stated goal of this project is economic development. That’s the dominant goal,” [Russ] Johnson said. “The dominant goal is not to have a lot of people ride it. The dominant goal is to develop the city.”
During remarks at the meeting, supporters, including Kansas City Mayor Sly James, presented as evidence of economic development the construction that has already taken place downtown. However, this employs a logical fallacy — post hoc ergo propter hoc. Municipalities often claim credit for development simply because it occurred after their policies were enacted, but it is disingenuous.
Below is an incomplete list of studies that demonstrate that economic development is not a result of fixed rail. We encourage everyone to read these, and we encourage streetcar supporters to provide contrary evidence that stands up to scrutiny.
- “The Great Streetcar Conspiracy,” Cato Institute, June 2012. Randal O’Toole has written extensively about the topic. If one questions this research because it comes from the libertarian Cato Institute, there are plenty of other sources.
- The Atlantic Cities published an article which makes clear that evidence for economic development due to streetcars is lacking. The author writes:
But while the Portland streetcar was the anchor or at least the featured element of this growth, it wasn’t responsible for this boom by itself. Rather, it was part of a broader development plan in which zoning, public-private investment, street upgrades, and other renewal efforts also played considerable roles.
- A 2010 study by the Federal Transit Administration concluded there was little information on the matter:
The literature regarding empirical measurement of actual changes in economic activity, such as changes in retail sales, visitors, or job growth, is almost nonexistent for streetcars. Indeed, this lack of empirical data was cited by many of the streetcar system survey respondents described in this report.
The same report also addressed the notion that streetcars attract the creative class:
Although occasionally the literature forecasting economic benefits for proposed streetcar systems posits that streetcars will attract more “creatives” to the area, this idea cannot be substantiated.
- Even the folks in Portland, whose work Kansas City streetcar proponents often cite, admit that results were dependent upon many programs, not just the streetcar. And even then, Portland’s ridership revenue is far less than they expected, making the effort a “money pit.”
- One attendee at the meeting referenced Cincinnati’s rail efforts, which, as one gentleman in attendance pointed out, has become a financial mess that voters rejected.
- A 1997 Georgia State University study of Atlanta’s trail transit system concluded
Taken together with earlier evidence that the social costs of rapid transit are higher than those for buses, the results suggest that it may be difficult to justify rapid rail investment on the basis of a benefit-cost analysis. In the absence of local economic development around stations, the benefits of rail are limited to those that might occur at the regional level. Future work should seek to quantify these benefits.
- A 2004 report from the Federal Reserve Bank in St. Louis also concluded:
. . . the increase in property values and economic development are subsidized benefits and may not be greater than the subsidy costs. Both citizens and local officials should have an understanding of the costs of light-rail transit relative to the potential benefits. Given the size of costs relative to the benefits, the creation of light-rail transit systems or the expansion of existing systems in American cities may be difficult to justify.
Indeed, building commercial-grade rail lines through 100-plus-year-old neighborhoods is difficult to justify. Study after study indicates no support for the city’s “dominant goal” of economic development. If streetcar boosters are aware of research that supports the claim that streetcars themselves — and not the tax-subsidized construction that goes with them — results in economic growth, we are eager to learn of it. Presumably, everyone else cited here would welcome seeing the research as well.