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Streetcar Economics

29 Jun

In recent years, rail transport has been picked up once again as a desirable transportation choice by a country fed up with high gas prices and spending most of their lives commuting across the suburban wasteland. Mass transit saw astounding ridership numbers during pre-recession $4 per gallon gasoline prices, and during the tough economic times to follow those numbers have remained steady as commuters look to trim their household transportation budgets, even with gas dipping back below $3. The need for streetcars in many cities has emerged as a way to promote economic growth and downtown revitalization while providing more transit options. Even some conservative editorialists, usually against public transit expenditures, are expounding on the need for streetcars to return life and vitality to city streets.

Lower CO2 Emissions

Source: Seven Rules for Sustainable Cities, by Patrick M. Condon.

The most obvious benefit of streetcars over automobiles and buses is that they run on electricity, which can be generated from clean, renewable sources. Even streetcars that run on electricity generated by coal burning power plants use that energy more efficiently than cars or buses utilize the energy stored in gasoline. In the world of ever decreasing oil supplies, this makes streetcars a more resilient transportation system that can operate on any energy source, transmitted through the medium of electric power.

Lower Cost Per Trip

Source: Seven Rules for Sustainable Cities, by Patrick M. Condon.

Maintaining a family “fleet” of vehicles is not cost effective, especially in the present reality of ever-increasing gas prices and ever-scarcer oil. Travel by diesel bus is even cheaper than a hybrid automobile, and streetcars reduce that cost further. Streetcars are based on the simple technology of electric traction, and are built with parts that can last decades and require little maintenance. Streetcars have a cheaper lifetime cost because they lack tires, oils, fluids, and fragile parts that need constant replacement.

Streetcars as Urban Investment

Source: Street Smart: Streetcars and Cities in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Gloria Ohland and Shelley Poticha, Reconnecting America

By far the most important reason cities around the United States are looking at implementing streetcar systems is their ability to spur development and densification. Portland, Oregon was the first system built in recent years that has produced major real estate investment in the areas it serves, and it is the model upon which systems in Tampa and Little Rock were based. The most astounding example is Kenosha, Wisconsin. Due to its very low construction cost of $4 million, the $150 million in lakefront development the line created was the largest percentage of return on investment seen in any streetcar system construction to date.

Track Cost per Mile

Source: heritagetrolley.org

The cost of building streetcar systems has varied widely from city to city, and is affected by several factors, including land values, style of infrastructure used (light rail or true streetcar) and the extent of additional street improvements that get folded into streetcar proposals.

Currently, Kenosha has the distinction of being the cheapest system constructed to date, providing an example of what is possible for a small city of 90,000 to accomplish with rail transit solutions.  Kenosha managed to keep costs down by using restored secondhand vintage cars, doing a minimal amount of modifications to the streetscape, and using true light-duty streetcar infrastructure.

Source: Federal Highway Administration

$4 million per mile may still seem too expensive for Springfield taxpayers, but when compared with the cost per mile of lane additions and new highways to meet growing traffic, streetcars begin to emerge as a very sensible option.

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Springfield Streetcar: The Future of the Past

10 Jun

Spingfield, Missouri was once home to an extensive streetcar network that in 1929 covered the entire city with access to public transportation. Park Central Square was a beehive of activity, with streetcar lines from four directions meeting in a grand circular junction of rails and wires. In 1936, the Springfield Traction Company announced that the beloved streetcars would be replaced by gasoline powered buses, because it seemed “the modern thing to do.” After the final “streetcar parade” in August of 1937, the streetcars, like so many others across the country, faded into history. Succumbing to the forces of improved roads and increased private automobile ownership, the streetcars that created the American city on their characteristic patterns of development went from being the most modern transportation system in the world to nothing but a quaint memory in the hearts of romantics.

Today, streetcars are being proven in city after city across the country as a successful means of spurring development in downtown areas, from Portland, Oregon to Tampa, Florida. And while some streetcar systems can be expensive, building an effective streetcar link is far cheaper than many in local governments around the area may realize. Kenosha, Wisconsin spent $6 million on a streetcar loop that covered their entire downtown district, and in return got $150 million worth of downtown, brownfield, and lakefront development. Streetcar tracks bring development, and that is what downtown Springfield needs. With the recent report that the Expo Center will need $53 million in private investment in the surrounding area to make it truly competitive, and an additional $24 to $55 million in public subsidies, the comparatively low costs of streetcar development become eye-opening.

Springfield Streetcar will be developing a plan for implementing streetcars in downtown Springfield, Missouri, hoping to generate interest among citizens, businesses, and government in the benefits of rail-based public transportation in the areas of tourism, economics, and sustainability.

Join us and come ride the streetcar!