In the competition for urban transit funding, light rail and streetcars are winning and buses remain runners up.
Last week the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) celebrated the opening of the $196.5 million Sun Link Streetcar line in Tucson, Ariz., paid for in part by a $63 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant – a legacy of the 2009 stimulus act, and $19.7 million in other Department of Transportation money.
Although more capital intensive than bus systems, light rail and street cars dominate the list of 53 mass transit projects being funded or under consideration in the FTA’s New Starts program.
Of the 53 projects, 30 of them were light rail or street car projects, and only 18 were “bus rapid transit” (BRT) – that is, buses running in a dedicated lane which is closed to other traffic. The remainder were old-fashioned heavy rail projects.
“It’s hard to find a clear benefit or difference between streetcar and bus, from any economic or a performance perspective at a certain level of service,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington think tank.
If a bus runs on city streets in normal traffic and makes regular stops, and a street car likewise runs in normal traffic and makes stops, he said, “there’s a huge difference in expense, but there’s no difference in performance. The street car is way more expensive to put in and capital is more expensive, but the performance is basically the same.”
In a BRT system where the bus has its own lane, the transit agency needs to acquire right of way and the economics and performance of BRT and streetcars “tend to merge and be closer to each other as you get to higher performance levels,” Schank said.
A city planner might think “that a streetcar fosters more permanent economic development. I’ve not seen any data to demonstrate this, but as an economic development tool, it is perceived as more powerful because streetcars are seen as more permanent, more fun to ride, more luxurious, more high end.”
In a report in April, the Congressional Research Service said “it is possible that (economic) development spurred by streetcar lines is merely shifted from other parts of the urban area” to the streetcar corridor and that’s there’s no additional development overall. It said, “there is little empirical research on this question for streetcars specifically.”
The CRS report said it is hard to single out a streetcar as the the prime cause of development in a corridor because “development along streetcar lines has sometimes benefited from other subsidies.”
If the goal is simply to add more capacity to meet a growing population, then the CRS noted, “regular bus service improvements are likely to be the least costly of all measures to increase transit capacity.”
But Schank said one compelling case for streetcars especially in a high-density corridor with lots of travelers is that because it has one operator, “you can potentially attach a number of vehicles to that one operator. Your operating cost could be lower than in a bus system where at best you’re going to have one articulated bus as the longest vehicle you can have.”
In the case of the long-delayed debut of the H Street streetcar in the nation’s capitol, Schank said, “one might ask whether a streetcar for one particular corridor is really the top priority” when the city has streets that need to be repaired and many bus routes that could be improved.
The Container covers the transportation community in Washington.
Tom Curry (@TCurry_Himself) writes for The Container. He has been a national affairs reporter and editor for nearly two decades, having covered elections, Supreme Court nominations, fiscal policy and the health care debate.