Monday, March 26, 2012

While Congress Dithers, The Streetcar’s The Thing

Given the reluctance of Congress as a body to pass any long term reauthorization of federal funding for public transit, and the desire of tea party Congressmen to repeal all federal money for mass transit – “let the poor folks walk” seems to be one of their popular rallying cries – most of the new urban mass transit construction going on these days is for short run streetcar lines.  Atlanta, Cincinatti, Dallas, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, and Washington D.C. are all beginning or continuing with construction of short run street car lines, at project costs ranging from $18.5 million per mile in Salt Lake to $77.0 million per mile in Los Angeles.

Why street cars? The obvious answer is that the municipalities already own the streets, and therefore right of way acquisition cost is always zero for these projects. Add the obvious lack of any requirement for elevating the tracks or tunnelling them underneath the urban landscape, and if you have to spend 100% of your own money, why, the streetcar is the way to go. While a few streetcar projects have received federal cash from the mass transit portion of the Highway Trust Fund, or from TIGER grants under the Obama stimulus legislation, many are fully funded by state and local governments. If you have a short urban commute and don’t want to drive yourself, you may soon be riding a streetcar.

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