Economy & Business

Bill de Blasio, the Monorail Man

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
New York’s streetcar project is unlikely to prove worthwhile.

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio’s got trouble. In an interview with the New York Daily News, his deputy mayor, Alicia Glen, spilled the beans on the perilous future of the Brooklyn-to-Queens streetcar de Blasio’s been promising since February of 2016. “Assuming that it does not pay for itself,” Glen told the News, “then we have to decide whether or not this is the right use of capital money for a transportation project.”

By “pay for itself,” Glen doesn’t mean “by fares.” Indeed, experts have agreed that the 16-mile BQX won’t make much money on fares, if the city charges riders at all. John Orcutt, policy director at the research nonprofit Transit Center, told the News that the project will cost $2.5 billion just to build, and even more per year to maintain — “and it’s going to have such low ridership.” Part of the proposed route — which runs north to south between the northern borough of Queens and the southern borough of Brooklyn (Manhattan is across the East River to the west) — is already serviced by an MTA bus, which receives fewer than 1,000 riders per day, low for the MTA. The route doesn’t reach LaGuardia Airport or even the bus terminal that connects Queens to LaGuardia, despite coming within a few miles of both. As an added bonus, one blogger discovered that the entirety of the route runs directly through city- and FEMA-designated flood zones.

Instead, the city hopes the BQX will “pay for itself” by boosting property values along the route, leading to higher property-tax revenue. In her comments to the News, Glen was referencing studies the city has commissioned to verify that this expectation is grounded in reality.

De Blasio expressed his anger at the News article in a Trumpian fashion on his weekly radio show, but eventually he admitted that the project will need federal funding to proceed, contrary to his previous promises. Abandoning the project before it starts, whether for want of federal money or as the result of an unfavorable affordability report, might save him the political embarrassment the BQX is likely to deliver.

Progressive politicians such as de Blasio have sung and danced their way through countless U.S. cities selling these mass-transit panaceas as life-improving cure-alls to transit headaches, to cities that feel stuck in the past, or even to blighted districts. Subways? Too complicated! Buses? Too ’50s! Yet the schemes often spiral out of control in the planning stages (D.C.’s 2.2-mile streetcar line was delayed for more than a decade and cost taxpayers $200 million), and even if they succeed at their stated purpose, they wind up a financial burden of the state.

Of course, government projects aren’t supposed to make money, but they aren’t exactly supposed to bleed the city’s budget dry, either. And they must at least deliver some widespread benefit to the city. That’s the question de Blasio and his administration should’ve asked of the BQX: Its purpose of revitalizing the area along its route is right there in the funding plan, but it runs through an area that largely isn’t in need of revitalization — longtime residents have long been complaining about the rapid gentrification that’s accompanied the rebound in the area — suggesting the massive cost won’t be justified.

The BQX isn’t an anomaly. The vast majority of public — and private — streetcars in the U.S. have proven to be neither affordable nor desired. Consider Atlanta’s: By the first full year of service, 2015, the over-budget streetcar had racked up a $100 million cost to taxpayers — $47.7 million from a TIGER grant and the rest from the city of Atlanta and Atlanta-area commissions and departments. That year, Atlanta’s streetcar gave 880,000 rides, but the following year, after the Federal Transit Administration began charging just $1 a ticket for rides, ridership plummeted to 371,000.

Built to help ferry the city’s 50 million visitors per year around the major tourist stops downtown, the Atlanta streetcar failed to deliver for a number of reasons. First, it’s no faster to ride the streetcar than it is to walk (a common problem). Second, a growing number of equipment failures and safety issues have made it an unreliable means of transportation. For example, the streetcar was shut down from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. on the day of the 2018 college-football championship and noon to 11 p.m. on the following day.

Desperate to justify the failing streetcar, the Atlanta Downtown Improvement District argued the project helped facilitate $2.5 billion in investments to the city, including half a billion before the streetcar even opened. But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the ADID was exaggerating a bit: The sites of many of the projects were chosen well before the streetcar route was made public.

Tampa politicians have tried to spin the city’s failing streetcar in a similar way. At a cost to the city of Tampa and the area regional transit authority of $56 million for 2.4 miles, the TESCO car has lost almost half of its ridership over twelve years of operation. Originally designed to be part of a wider regional transit system, like Washington, D.C.’s, the initial failure led Tampa officials to transition the car into a service benefiting tourists and, of course, redevelopment of a blighted area. According to a report in Florida State University’s Journal of Public Transportation, the shift “is not yet completely settled.” As it was designed with local transit in mind, converting it to serve tourists is complicated and may be an insurmountable hurdle, given “the very different needs and concerns” of the two groups.

The report notes an estimated $1 billion in investment along the streetcar’s line as evidence of at least a mild success. Yet the investment comes not in the blighted Channelside district, which the streetcar passes through, but the already well-traveled Ybor City and downtown areas, the extremes of the line. The report concludes that the major benefit the streetcar seems to offer the city is “transportainment.” That is, the streetcar has now become a staple of the skyline. To remove it now would be to remove something essential from the city’s identity. This, it seems, has made it worth the cost.

Scant evidence exists to defend the streetcar’s potential, and it suffers not just from failures of implementation but also from failures of concept.

For a streetcar to be considered “successful” at its stated purpose — that is, to meet its advertised ridership numbers — it almost always must be free and therefore wildly costly to the city. Consider Kansas City, which boasts one of the best-performing streetcars in the U.S. Opened in May 2016, it has consistently received more than 5,500 riders per day, nearly double the estimated 2,700. A number of factors contribute to Kansas City’s success, but most important, the area along its route was already well-trafficked, and its city center is small. Where cities such as Atlanta and Tampa are suburb-heavy, Kansas City is compact. The Atlanta metro area has 5.7 million residents against 472,000 downtown residents, while Kansas City has 2.1 million metro residents and 481,000 downtown residents, for example. (New York City is compact, yes, but already has a thriving mass-transit system.) Further, it didn’t exist to boost development in a blighted area, but to service an already developed area.

Of course, the economic effects have yet to be determined, as the car is still two months shy of its two-year anniversary. Did it increase traffic downtown, or decrease car and walking traffic? Did it boost local business? Can the increased tax revenues make the Kansas City streetcar affordable?

The same questions weigh down the BQX plan, and force New Yorkers to ask their mayor, “Why?” Scant evidence exists to defend the streetcar’s potential, and it suffers not just from failures of implementation but also from failures of concept. It just doesn’t work. For some reason, de Blasio believes his plan, which offers little more than a transit and tax headache to the people of the eastern boroughs, will be the one to solve the streetcar problem. “Sure, they’re expensive. Sure, they’re difficult to run. Sure, they’ve had a terrible record of revitalization. Sure, they’ve almost never been a success. But this one,” he seems to be telling New Yorkers, “this one will work.”

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