Would Streetcars be Cheaper Than Buses on Columbia Pike?

If you follow the streetcar debates in places like arlnow.com and the 22204 email list, one of the common arguments by streetcar backers is that streetcars are cheaper than buses.  In a recent forum, they cited to this blog post to support the view.  While Beyond DC is an interesting site worth reading, unfortunately, the post at issue is a recitation of the author’s beliefs with an anecdotal reference, and does not objectively consider the issue.

This post is designed to be a consideration of whether the streetcar+bus plan on Columbia Pike as endorsed by the County Board would be more or less expensive for taxpayers than other alternatives also considered by the County.  It does not set out to address whether “streetcars are cheaper than buses” in any other situation.

A couple more caveats: many streetcar backers also point to the economic development allegedly caused by their construction.  It’s an interesting topic, but with the aim of isolating one issue, this post will not consider those claims.  A related caveat: this blog acknowledges that a citizen can both agree that the trolley is more expensive and support it over other options.  Solving the pro-trolley vs. anti-trolley argument is not the post’s (or this blog’s) purpose.  Today, let’s focus solely on whether the County’s current (streetcars + buses) plan would be cheaper than the (bus-only) alternatives under consideration.

With that in mind, we turn to the best data sets available for this endeavor: (1) the analysis from April 2006, which analyzed the alternatives for the County Board members about to vote on the future of public transportation on the Pike and (2) a recently prepared analysis by the staff of the Columbia Pike Transit Initiative for a public presentation in February 2012.  First, the 2006 numbers:

The above chart reveals that when the streetcar+bus plan was first formally endorsed by the board, the cost estimates did not suggest that the endorsed plan was cheaper than all of the bus-based alternatives.  While it’s true that the (endorsed) Modified Streetcar plan is shown as cheaper in the above chart than BRT, it’s a shorter line with a third of the vehicles of the BRT plan.  Even with that in mind, in 2006 the “endorsed plan” was only around $3 million less than BRT, which is less than 3% of the total cost estimates.

What about the more recent cost estimates?

Screenshot from Columbia Pike Transit Initiative Presentation in February 2012

While the future operating costs are supposedly comparable, it is clear that this most recent data proves that the capital expenses for the Board’s streetcar plan are approximately two-hundred million dollars more than the “next best” plan of articulated buses by the time construction would be completed.

Thus, the analysis prepared for the County government has never argued that the board-endorsed Columbia Pike Streetcar+Bus plan would be cheaper than comparable bus  alternatives.  Now it’s possible that the staff preparing the analysis is simply incompetent and failed to consider the various factors like the useful life of a streetcar.  But that seems pretty unlikely.

Keeping focus on the County board’s endorsed streetcar+bus plan, it’s important to remind readers that the County’s preferred alternative for a Columbia Pike streetcar would not replace the majority of buses or bus routes that currently service the Columbia Pike corridor.  That is, the construction project would rip up Columbia Pike, lay rails, and operate streetcars that would not eliminate the need for most of the public transit vehicles because 2/3rds of Pike Ride bus users do not go to Pentagon City.  (In fact, the February 2012 presentation suggests that the current vehicles running the 16G and 16H routes would be added to the other 16 lines (“Deploys additional buses on existing routes” on p. 21).  That is, the Board’s plan would not reduce the number of buses on the Pike at all.)

With respect to operating costs, another issue that remains murky about the planned streetcar is how it would interact with Arlington’s annual appropriation to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.  That is, every year, Arlington, along with various other jurisdictions, chips in for WMATA’s budget.  In effect, if Arlington/Fairfax plan to run the streetcar system as a separate regional system, it’s both likely to be duplicitous of cost and result in a sort of bailout to Metro unless Arlington is able to also reduce its annual commitment to Metro’s operating budget to offset the costs of running the streetcar system.  To be clear, this is conjecture, but it is fully possible that the operating costs of the streetcar – not just the construction costs – will be borne by County taxpayers, with no “offset” from the annual contributions to WMATA.

In many ways, it would be satisfying to conclude this post saying that Beyond DC’s post and other “trolley is cheaper” claimants are simply wrong.  But wrong isn’t the right word:  the claim is a misguided attempt to create a general rule to apply to a wide variety of complex, specific situations.  But when it comes to Pike Trolley, when one hears “Streetcars are cheaper,” the best course of action is a healthy dose of skepticism.  Based on the County’s own data, the evidence suggests that the County’s current plan for a streetcar would be significantly more expensive than the bus-based options on the table.

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3 Responses to Would Streetcars be Cheaper Than Buses on Columbia Pike?

  1. Pingback: Taxpayer’s Return on Investment of Pike Transit Alternatives | Pike Spotter

  2. Pingback: The True Cost of the Columbia Pike Trolley: Priceless

  3. Pingback: Q and A on Articulated/Bendy Buses on Columbia Pike | Pike Spotter

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