An interesting column appeared last month in the Winston-Salem Journal entitled “About that Desire for Streetcars.” Winston-Salem (famous for being the headquarters of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco) is moving forward with a contentious $179 million boondoggle to build a streetcar line through downtown. And apparently New Orleans’ streetcar system is being cited as an exemplar.
The column, which was written by the aptly-named John Railey, takes the form of a parody of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“What we really need is a real streetcar line, like the one we had in New Orleans,” says the thickly satirized protagonist. “Such a streetcar line would be worth any cost. It’s just silly that some critics say we should first spruce up and expand the city bus lines. Silly taxpayers, being so pettily pessimistic about the streetcar line prospect.”
The piece is hardly subtle, but in its own ham-fisted way it speaks to the reasons why rail transit projects are so often ill-founded. Instead of considering cost-effectiveness, proponents seem to go out of their way to ignore costs while trumping up highly questionable benefits.
Even worse, what is cost-effective is often difficult to discern because transit agencies routinely under-estimate the capital costs.
Case in point: This past week New Orleans residents were treated to the wonderful story of exactly how awful the cost overruns were for the Loyola streetcar line, also known as the “streetcar to nowhere.” WWL-TV’s David Hammer broke the news that the line cost over $60 million to construct, or a third higher than the original estimates made in 2010. The Regional Transit Authority (RTA) was forced to dip into a pot of local bond and reserve money earmarked for future expansions.
The sad truth is that New Orleans got off easy. Rail projects tend to go obscenely over-budget. The original numbers are always rosy; the final numbers are usually appalling.
This pill would be easier to swallow if the Loyola line weren’t merely useless, but actually counterproductive. The line was built almost exclusively to show off for the Superbowl. It simply goes along a short section of street in downtown that would be better served (and was previously served) by longer bus lines.
RTA trumpets the fact that the Loyola line has not only met, but exceeded its original ridership expectations. The problem is that those numbers weren’t very optimistic to begin with, and they failed to take account of overall ridership.
WWL-TV’s report notes that the Loyola line cut off two bus lines – the Freret bus and the Martin Luther King bus – forcing riders to transfer to the streetcar for the brief section of Loyola through downtown. And those bus lines have lost 40% and 28% of their respective ridership, ostensibly because of the added hassle of an forced transfer to the streetcar.
The bottom line is that RTA guaranteed decent ridership figures for the Loyola line by decimating the convenience and functionality of two separate bus lines. Consequently, there are fewer riders in the entire RTA network today because of the Loyola line. It’s a drag on the system.
Again, New Orleans is hardly the first city to experience this phenomenon, and judging by Winston-Salem’s plans, it probably won’t be the last.
According to a report from the Wendell Cox Consultancy from 2000: “Most light rail riders (60 percent) are former bus riders. Often these riders have been forced to transfer because their bus routes have been truncated at light rail stations.”
The report further concluded that: “More affluent express bus service customers can also experience longer trip times as a result of a forced transfer to light rail,” and “[t]his can drive such passengers away[.]”
What Cox’s report describes is exactly what has happened with the Loyola streetcar line. Those people who could avoid the bottleneck have done so, which is why the Freret and Martin Luther King bus lines have seen ridership plummet. Those who tolerate the forced transfer to the streetcar are most likely those who have no reasonable alternative. They live with it because they have to.
I fully appreciate the iconic status of the streetcar in New Orleans. It is intimately connected to the cultural fabric, much as the historic cable car is in San Francisco. However, the chief purpose of transit is to provide for general mobility, and the Loyola streetcar is defeating that. A project that came with an unexpectedly large price tag is actually making us worse off.
That’s ridiculous, and regrettably for all us, it’s not satire. New Orleans’ streetcars risk becoming less of a beloved cultural icon and more a symbol of waste and ill-planning. That’s one narrative I’d like to see stopped dead in its tracks.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.