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Hoffman: The dreams that streetcars are made of

Hoffman: The dreams that streetcars are made of

Wayne Hoffman
July 19, 2009

The plan to spend $50 million on a streetcar circulator in Downtown Boise is built on Ray Kinsella-like beliefs that posit that more than 500,000 riders a year will use the rail system and the economy will flourish as a result. I don't buy it, and I can no more understand the nostalgic desire to rekindle a 1920s streetcar in Boise as I can visualize the need for the government to invest in pay phones or town criers. And really, I can't stand it when people start taking public policy advice from the disembodied voices in a Kevin Costner movie. That's what's happening now.

Supporters of the streetcar view it as an economic development tool that would help the city out of recession. Preliminary plans call for the streetcar to run on a fixed east-west route that would convey passengers on a loop from 16th Street to Broadway Avenue. This, says consulting firm URS, will lure as many as half a million passengers a year. If true, that would mean Boise would have more people on its streetcar route than Seattle (450,000 riders), Tampa (440,000) or Little Rock (200,000). It would also mean that the streetcar would acquire, by 2012, more than one-third of the total number of passengers now riding the entire Ada-Canyon valley bus service. It all seems too implausible.

To finance the project, the city is counting on $25 million from the federal government's bucket-o-bucks stimulus funds with another $25 million (or more) potentially coming from a combination of local property owners, urban renewal revenue and city taxpayers (exact details haven't been worked out).

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter's communication director, Adam Park, said Wednesday the potential is too good to pass up.

"You have to focus on it as an economic development tool, to bring Boise into recovery," said Park. "If we build it ..."

Ah, let's stop there. We know the rest.

Park believes the URS ridership estimates are reasonable - maybe even conservative, especially if the city were to lower the wait time between streetcars from 15 minutes to 10 minutes. Longer wait times compel people to want to walk instead of take public transit. Little Rock uses a 25-minute wait, which Park says, in addition to charging a fare, compromises ridership. Of course, pushing down the wait time would mean a more expensive system with annual operating costs topping $1 million.

"To look only at ridership is unfair," Park said, also postulating that the streetcar will yield more development in the city's Downtown core, resulting in less need to stretch the city's resources to the outskirts of town. I think that's a bit presumptuous. Even if development does come to Downtown, why would that result in development stopping elsewhere?

Park and other city officials also like to point out that the late Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, was a strong supporter of streetcars.

Even the strongest streetcar supporter has to acknowledge that for Boise, there are too many factors that haven't been considered, discussed or debated. No one has addressed the fact that these projects have a spotty track record when it comes to budgeting. Nationwide, many rail systems have finished wildly over budget. Minneapolis completed a rail line five years ago that came in 49 percent above projections. A northern New Jersey line completed in 2001 was 78 percent above expectations. Boise officials are hopeful that recessionary construction costs would make this project immune from such troubles. But a failing like those in other cities would cause Boise's $50 million project to balloon into a $75 million to $90 million one.

That would be a disaster.

And while city leaders talk up the economic development potential, these projects come with another price tag that hasn't been addressed. In 2005, Phoenix business owners complained that a light rail project in that city's downtown cost as much as 40 percent of their clientele. All that dust and digging and jackhammering apparently doesn't attract as many customers as one might think. Today, the Phoenix system is among the many nationwide experiencing large drops in its ridership; the 20-mile system has lost 12 percent of its passengers in seven months.

But all of this debate about a Boise streetcar could be laid to rest if the city would follow the recommendations of a 2005 Downtown transportation study, of which the city was a sponsor. That study recommended a more gradual approach to moving traffic in Boise.

"In the first phase, a high-frequency shuttle service along each route with a brand-distinguished service is recommended," the study suggested. "As the shuttle program begins, a feasibility study of a Downtown circulator should be conducted" with the streetcar being developed only if the demand is proven in the initial study. None of this has taken place.

And that makes the groundwork for this multimillion project less detailed than Kinsella's business plan, which involved him hearing strange voices, plowing under his corn field and forgoing seeds for the farm. You'd expect a city's approach to a streetcar to be a bit more comprehensive and thought out than that.

Wayne Hoffman is the executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit, non-partisan think tank. E-mail him at [email protected].

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