Don’t Forget the Streetcar is Bad Policy
The $500 million Kansas City streetcar expansion plan is back in the news. With the August 5th election on the streetcar’s proposed transportation development district drawing near, media outlets have exploded with anecdotes on the development potential of the streetcar and stories on the city’s (possibly illegal?) public information campaign. But whether the city’s plan to provide door-to-door information on the streetcar directly ahead of the election is legal or not, no one should forget the incredible waste and dubious benefits of a streetcar system.
- Incredible waste: months ago, we pointed out that Kansas City could buy and operate 100 buses serving 130 miles of routes for the same price as the Kansas City streetcar expansion plan. While critics might claim that buses cannot be compared with streetcars (they can), the basic math is unchallenged. Streetcars, which provide only limited service improvement over buses, are many times more expensive and incredibly restricted in their range.
- Dubious benefits: Streetcar supporters must have a hard time keeping a straight face when they claim that streetcars have any transportation benefit. Instead they rely on the argument that these projects bring billions in development. The evidence on this proposition is anecdotal at best, as cities with streetcars have heavily subsided surrounding development. Kansas City is already pushing ahead in this tradition, with anecdotes about new developments that are not so believable on closer inspection, and a raft of subsidies at the ready.
- Everyone will be paying: Even though supporters freely admit that a streetcar is a development scheme limited to a small section of Kansas City, everyone else still gets to pay for it. After all, building a half billion dollar streetcar line can be financially difficult. The proposed transportation development district’s 1% sales tax and new property taxes will cover less than half of the streetcar’s total cost. The rest will come from the federal government, Kansas City residents outside the TDD, and if the proposed 0.75% statewide transportation sales tax passes, the whole state.
Streetcar supporters often make groundless statements about illusive millennials and streetcar economics, but they do make perfect sense when they say that now is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity with the streetcar project.” That’s because once the shine is off the new rails and promises of citywide transformation are unfulfilled, the streetcar will be seen for what it is: just another transit system. Another transit system that is as slow as a bus, but ten times the price. Perhaps that explains the rush to get as much money as possible, as quickly as possible.