Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Charlotte Streetcar's Costly (and Bogus) Success

Monday's Politico had a blurb about the Charlotte Strretcar that reiterated the old canard that it was actually a good idea.

From Politico...

In July of 2013 — after Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx had left his mayoral seat in Charlotte to be a Cabinet official for the Obama administration — the secretary returned to his home town to help christen a streetcar he’d fought hard to get going, arguing that the investment wasn’t “a project to nowhere.” Writing this month for POLITICO Magazine’s “What Works” series, Charlotte Magazine Executive Editor Michael Graff explains that no step before or since the streetcar’s approval “has been without controversy. Supporters, mostly Democrats, lovingly call it a 'streetcar,’ and they’ll tell you it’s a valuable instrument that now transports 47,000 riders a month — about double expectations. Opponents, mostly Republicans, condescendingly call it a ‘trolley,’ and they’ll tell you that it cost $37 million just for this phase with $100 million more to come for extensions in the next decade.”
The problem with that?

Charlotte already had a mass transit option which arguably was providing the bulk of this service before the streetcar was built.  It is called the Gold Rush Red Line.

Prior to the streetcar opening, the Gold Rush Red Line ran the full distance from Presbyterian Hospital to Johnson C Smith university.  According to this late 2012 document from Charlotte Center City Partners, it carried 65,000 riders per month.

When the streetcar opened in 2015, the Gold Rush cut its route roughly in half because the east end of the route was now serviced by the streetcar.  A few months later, the streetcar was trumpeted as a huge success carrying 47,000 passengers per month.

The problem is that since the new streetcar covered roughly 1/2 the same territory as the old full Gold Rush line, it stands to reason that a big chunk of the streetcar riders were actually former Gold Rush riders.

Using that same ratio of 1/2 and accounting for some growth since 2012, roughly 32k-35k of the streetcar's ridership was likely just canibalized from the old Gold Rush line.  That means the streetcar is really just prividing just 12k - 15k "new" rides per month.

When you factor in that people go both to and from a place that translates into just 6k - 7.5k new round trips per month.  Then if you figure most people using this for work ride daily that is roughly 25 trips per month - translating to just 240-300 new individuals riding the streetcar regularly per month who weren't already using the old Gold Rush.  (The number could be lower because some people may make more than on trip per day.)

The cost of the current streetcar was $37m.  That translates into $123k - $154k per new person using the streetcar who was not already using the Gold Rush.

The real kick in the teeth to all this is that the folks in the Charlotte government center think this is great, and they want to spend $150m more to extend the streetcar - all while forcing LKN residents to  pay for a toll road and massive infrastructure improvements that benefit the city as much or more than anyone else.

Charlotte is willing to fight for money to benefit just a few hundred while being willing to condemn 10s of thousands to the misery of tolls for 50 years on I77 through its control of the CRTPO.

That is not right and it needs to change.

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