Editorial: Throw streetcars under the bus

As the city of Anaheim moves full speed ahead with plans to build a $318 million streetcar line, the City Council ought to take a hard look at Tampa, Fla., which built a similar system 10 years ago.


Tampa's 2.7-mile streetcar line has consistently operated in the red elected since welcoming its first riders in 2002. That's because passenger fares don't provide even half the light-rail line's annual operating budget.

Anaheim's propsed streetcar system would consist of 10 vehicles that would travel a 3.2-mile route in about 18 minutes. The streetcars would look similar to this European streetcar, according to city officials.

Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who voted against the streetcar when he was a councilman, would like to shut the money-loser down. But city officials fear if they scrapped the streetcars, the federal government almost certainly would expect to recoup at least part of the $55 million it has sunk into the system.

Anaheim is convinced it will succeed where Tampa has not. It believes that construction of its proposed 3.2-mile streetcar line will come in at or below projected cost; that ridership will meet or exceed projected estimates; and that the city ultimately will not have to rely upon general fund revenue to cover operating expenses.

The city could have hedged its bet by opting for "enhanced" bus service that would traverse the same 3.2 mile route as the proposed streetcar system but would only cost one-fifth as much as the streetcar.

However, a 3-2 council majority opted for the streetcar, reasoning that a fixed guideway system would be more visible to prospective riders, particularly to city visitors unfamiliar with the streetcar. "The visibility of tracks in the street and substantial stations are likely to attract greater ridership," said a report from Department of Public Works staff.

Even so, that would not justify laying out $318 million for a bright and shiny new streetcar system that is far less cost-effective than enhanced bus service, as borne out by an analysis recently authored by Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the libertarian Cato Institute.

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