Friday, May 17, 2013

Has There Ever Been a Streetcar Feasibility Study That Found Streetcars Unfeasible?

I ask this as a serious question: Does a streetcar study exist that concludes that a streetcar is unfeasible? Check out the studies that show up from a Google search (link). Without spending too much time looking at all of them, I don't see one that offers a critical assessment of streetcars. In fact, if you read them and believe what is written you must conclude that cities are insane and loony and ignoring their fiduciary responsibility not to immediately build as many streetcar lines as possible. Yet cities don't build like crazy--not even Rock Hill, South Carolina, which seems to accept a minimum return on investment of $14 for each $1 spent.

Obviously feasibility studies will take place after projects pass an initial discussion, so there should be some bias toward positive assessments. But it is unreasonable to expect that all feasibility studies will conclude that streetcars are a good investment. If all projects are feasible there really isn't any good reason to keep doing these studies. I do wonder if we would be better off without any type of feasibility justification as currently practiced. Streetcar projects, like many transport projects and other types of economic development investment, are justified on political grounds rather than economic grounds.

Consider stadium deals for pro sports teams. These deals have long been discredited as poor investment by the public, yet they remain popular even when a feasibility study makes clear they are a bad deal. Example: Santa Clara Feasibility Study for a new 49ers Stadium presented these two key takeaways:

  • No benefit from NFL events.
    • All profits stay with 49ers
  • "hidden costs" add up:
    • City loses $111 million
And here is the website for Santa Clara's brand new NFL stadium! It opens next year. (Most feasibility studies for new stadiums in the Bay Area supported new construction. For example, here.)

So I wonder if any streetcar feasibility studies have been negative, and as an extension, I wonder why we continue to expect these types of studies that either confirm biases or are ignored. It seems like a lot of excess effort with nothing to show for it.

UPDATE: Alon Levy notes that the Red Hook Streetcar  Feasibility Study guided against the project. I'll admit I didn't review that one as I was more focused on smaller cities. A more accurate question is do any streetcar feasibility studies exist outside of New York City that find streetcars unfeasible.
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