Evaluating the Kansas City Streetcar
The Kansas City Streetcar opened to glowing and effusive praise from local media, some of it embarrassingly fawning. After all the media hoopla, supporters were eager to push for a $250 million streetcar expansion. Then came week three.
While the streetcar had problems in the first few days of ridership, none garnered as much media attention as its derailment on May 23. Two days later, service was halted due to electrical concerns. On May 26 the streetcar was hit by a car at an intersection, halting service. Even supporters admit it was a bad week.
What are we to make of it? What is a reasonable expectation of downtime for a streetcar system? According to the 2014 National Transit Database, streetcars run about 95 percent of their scheduled vehicle miles. That sounds impressive until you realize that it is the lowest performance percentage of any rail transit. Nationally, systems such as commuter rail, heavy rail, and light rail run at 105.2%, 97.3% and 98.9% of scheduled vehicle miles, respectively.
All totaled, metro buses run 102.8 percent of scheduled vehicle miles. In Kansas City, the KCATA runs 99.8 percent for both metro buses and bus rapid transit such as the MAX lines.
The difference between 95 percent for street cars and 102.8 percent for buses may seem small enough, until you consider the costs of each. My colleague Joe Miller wrote of the rejected 2014 streetcar expansion that Kansas City could buy 100 additional buses for the same cost of expanding the streetcar system 7.6 miles.
As Kansas Citians consider efforts to expand the streetcar line, hard data like transit costs and performance need to take precedence over feel-good puff pieces. That’s the only way to promote good public policy.