Atlanta's new streetcar system. (Lauren Holley / Courtesy Central Atlanta Progress)
Atlanta's new streetcar system. (Lauren Holley / Courtesy Central Atlanta Progress)
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What's This?

I am a big fan of streetcars and their potential to have transformative effects on neighborhoods and cities as a whole. I am so much of a fan and believer that I have written several post on why I think they can and will work in Louisville and I also started the Louisvillians for Modern Mass Transit Facebook page to promote the idea.

However, even with all of the evidence that suggest that streetcars are in fact a great driver of economic development, urban development, and mobility there is still a lot of resistance. The main criticism seems to be that it’s too expensive. If you look at what Cincinnati is spending for its new streetcar line, I can see why that is the biggest criticism. Cincinnati’s Over-The-Rhine/Downtown streetcar loop will cost around $102 million and will cover approximately 3.6 miles. That’s just to build it. That price doesn’t include the estimated $2–2.5 million expense to operate the streetcar system each year.

The idea for a Market Street Streetcar Line runs roughly six miles along the Louisville thoroughfare. (Map courtesy Google)
The idea for a Market Street Streetcar Line runs roughly six miles along the Louisville thoroughfare. (Map courtesy Google)

 

The Market Street streetcar line idea for Louisville costs almost double that figure, but covers nearly double the distance. It would stretch over six miles long—from one end of Market Street to the other. In theory, it could cost Louisville around $180 million or more for a line that long. In theory. However, there is a smarter way. There is a better way.

We could build a full Market Street streetcar line for a fraction of the cost that other cities have spent. But first, lets do some back-of-the-napkin numbers on how much a new streetcar system might cost. To lay brand new track you are looking at an average cost of $2 million per mile. The catenary lines—the overhead wires that power most modern streetcars—cost about $3 million per mile. The streetcars themselves average $6 million per car. I don’t have an average to build the trolley barns and other maintenance facilities because those vary widely depending location and other factors. If we use Cincinnati as an example, we can easily see why their system cost $102 million. With 3.6 miles of track (I’ll round up to 4 to make the math easier), on average, the project would total $8 million just for the track. Then you add another $12 million for catenary, and $36 million for the six cars that they ordered. You’re already up to $56 million and that doesn’t include the trolley barn and other maintenance facilities. That price also doesn’t include extras you may add to spruce up the visual appeal of your stations, etc.

Streetcar tracks on Shelby Street. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)
Streetcar tracks on Shelby Street. (Branden Klayko / Broken Sidewalk)

Now that you have a pretty good idea of the baseline cost of putting in a streetcar system, here is how we can do it cheaper. The first way is to reduce the cost of laying track. We do that by reusing the existing track. Louisville once had one of the most advanced streetcar systems in the United States. Much of that track is still buried beneath about an inch or two of asphalt. Over the years a lot of the old track has been dug up or it was torn out. Much of the track under Broadway was torn out and used for the war effort in the ’40s. However, most of the track under Market Street is still there. When Dallas first started their streetcar line (granted it wasn’t the City of Dallas, but a local non profit organization that got the ball rolling first) they used the old track whenever possible. From talking to officials in Dallas it cost them on average $79,000 a mile to use existing track. With almost all of the track still intact under Market Street, that would be a tremendous savings. That would bring the total cost to repair and fix the rail for the six-mile Market Street line to $474,000. Let’s round up to $500,000 and add another $1 million to repair sections of the line. That’s an estimate of $1.5 million for the track.

A modern streetcar system in Seattle's Lake Union neighborhood. (Swire / Flickr)
A modern streetcar system in Seattle’s Lake Union neighborhood. (Swire / Flickr)

 

We have the track, but what about the streetcars themselves? Here we have several options. We can buy new cars or we can get used cars. The City of Toronto is about to surplus all of its existing streetcars because they are buying new ones. Most of the Toronto’s streetcars (know as CLRV) were built in the early ’80s. They are also not as wide as the track we have in Louisville. We have had preliminary discussions with officials in Toronto and believe we can get ten cars for around $10,000 to $30,000. We would then have to ship them to another company to have them retrofitted to make them handicap accessible, add air conditioning, Wifi, and otherwise refurbish them. The estimated cost per car would be $60,000. We estimate that it would take ten cars to run a good streetcar line. If we average the price of the cars (when fully refurbished) to $100,000. We are looking at $1 million for all 10 cars. If we use the Toronto CLRVs we would also need the catenary at a cost of about $18 million. That would bring the total cost of the Market Street line to around $20.5 million. What also makes the Market Street line so attractive is that both of the original trolley barns are still there. We wouldn’t have to build from scratch.

Diagram of a wireless streetcar system. (Courtesy TIG/m)
Diagram of a wireless streetcar system. (Courtesy TIG/m)

 

That would be option one, but there is another option where we use existing track, but with brand new streetcars. This would be much more expensive, but still a lot cheaper than what other cities have done. The cost for the line and new streetcars would be the same, except we would use brand-new hydrogen powered modern streetcars. These hydrogen powered streetcars don’t use catenary so that would eliminate $18 million, but the price per car would be around $6–7 million. According to TIG/m, the company that makes the streetcars, they design an almost 100 percent “green” system. The total price of this system (not factoring in the hydrogen generators and various solar arrays) would be $61.5 million. That’s pricey, but still cheaper than other streetcar systems and may have a much lower operating cost over time because the streetcar system itself would be generating much of its own power.

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Haven Harrington, III

Haven Harrington, III

Haven is a writer, sports talk show host, concerned citizen, and community leader. He lives in the Russell neighborhood.
Haven Harrington, III

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10 COMMENTS

  1. Interestingly, I think the ZeroBus is actually a surprisingly effective middle ground. It is running 6 of the current circulation on Market per charge and 100% electric (excerpt for those weird times where old diesels still fill in time on the circulation). I think that now rather than argue for street cars on the Market route it might be time to start arguing more about expanding its service: A) the route needs to expand to at least Shipping Port if not Portland proper, and B) there needs to be greater nights and weekend coverage. (A) should be self-explanatory. As a NuLu-resident, I’d like to see Sunday service. Also, I think that the ZeroBus schedules NEED to adjust to Yum Center and Slugger Field schedules. It should be the case that people can count on the ZeroBus after games/concerts/events. Let people spread parking out across the breadth of the ZeroBus routes and you’d see decreased pressure on the immediate areas and increased usage of neighboring businesses (eat in NuLu, ZeroBus to Yum Center and back)… I think the ZeroBus has gotten us to a big enough compromise that it is time to talk these bigger service issues rather than continue to rehash the arguments of our lost street cars…

  2. Great article by Mr. Harrington. Not sure that ZeroBus is such a great compromise, Worldmaker. Given the cost, shouldn’t a larger number of locals be better served, rather than just the tourists and the small segment circulating within the tiny footprint downtown? In a car-centered community such as ours, many tend to think of public transportation as somewhat of a novelty attraction for tourists or a convenience for downtown workers and residents. But given the scarcity of public dollars, should every cent be spent to benefit the largest, rather than accommodate a small, select number? Cities all over the country are recognizing the vitality that street car systems bring to ENTIRE community–rather than just small segment. It is ironic that in Louisville, which once had one of the best systems in the country and widespread economic vitality to go with it, we still avoid making wise investments that benefit the whole–in favor of projects that may render large returns within a narrow scope. We agree there are much bigger service issues. That is evident by the economic starvation of neighborhoods west and south of downtown–which is the result of abandoning ideas that served well in the past and are enjoying a comeback all over the country.

  3. The key thing is for streetcars to not get stuck behind random automobiles. In short, they need their own lane in most places. (It can be shared with buses or anything else scheduled, just not with random private autos.)

    Getting stuck behind random Model Ts is why the streetcar system declined in the 1920s. Don’t repeat the same mistake.

  4. Street cars address two decisive points for people who will pay the toll and climb aboard:

    1. romance: I was in New Orleans the beginning of May during JazzFest and the Canal Street and St Charles streetcar lines were running at full capacity. People like to participate in the nostalgia that evokes history and compliments the MUSEUMS and OLD ARCHITECTURE that also draw people by the thousands. Louisville actually had a french quarter in Portland that was razed for interstate pollute-ways.
    Now we have still some charm running the Market Street corridor east to west.

    2. route exploration. A fixed rail trolly line gives tourists the confidence to get on one place figuring that wherever they go they can turn around and ride back if they get lost. We confidently rode into unknown parts of the Garden District using the Charles Street line as a life line.

    I think the zero bus is great ! Its one of the most rational decisions I’ve seen anyone in this government or agencies take. Huge Kudos to TARC for that decision to buy and expand Zero Bus !!!
    The numbers predicted by Mr Harrington are likely too low—but. They are pocket change compared to the $ 10 billion in bond financed boondogle debt we’ll be paying for the rest of our lives for the bridges fiasco.
    A trolly line could be built and expanded for a small percentage of that money.

    The trolley line on Market street and one running north south like the T2 plan would remove hundreds of cars from the most congested pollute-ways in high CO2 areas while likely not amounting to more than 2% of traffic reduction across the county. The hungry gas resellers and “nobody walks away” guys needn’t lose sleep.

  5. Streetcars are certainly a romantic approach to public transportation but they are just that and not something that’s practical. With a few exceptions any type of public transportation that depends on rails and a fixed route are a bad idea. They can’t respond to changing needs or emergencies effectively and if one breaks down the entire system comes to a grinding halt! Obviously there are some examples where streetcars and/or subways work very well but those systems are huge and have ways to bypass problem areas, something that wouldn’t exist in any systems that are being proposed for Louisville.

    The upfront costs are also ridiculously high for the benefit that will be received. How many people would actually use the market Street route on a regular basis? I’m guessing the number would be quite low. If you add the startup costs and the annual operating costs together there is no business in existence that would make the investment! It just makes no economic sense.

    If you want another example just look at Walt Disney World. Instead of expanding their monorail system to transfer the ever-growing number of visitors they are now using a huge fleet of buses. The buses have much more flexibility and are cheaper to purchase and operate. Why does anybody think that the economics for Louisville to go to streetcars makes any sense?

    We need to quit having these fantasies and start looking at realities!

  6. I think it could be demonstrated that a Market Street Trolley is a cost effective investment. As I stated and you don’t dispute, the romance factor translates into ridership and revenue. It coordinates and supports investments in the Museums, sports and entertainment districts adding to their revenue and removing carbon polluting cars from already congested roadways. The car crush in front of Yum Center and the bumper to bumper traffic is an everyday thing in the Downtown District.

    Its not either/or for fixed rail trolley versus bus. Zero bus spews little or no ultra-fine particulate and alternatives for battery operated trolly and recharge lower localized particulate. Why is it realistic to remove million of dollars of health care effects from the equation ? Stand and face ultrafine particulate emissions and tell me we aren’t paying many more millions and shortening lives by living in an ocean of combustion products. That part of the equation can’t be taken off the books and hidden away as so many car and bus advocates do.

    Every day the pollute-ways pack up and people sit in lines of cars waiting for one to be dragged off the concrete. Why would you speculate that trolly cars would malfunction and lock up the entire system? Again, what this proposal envisions is something that would probably claim less than five percent of the horrible millions of polluting cars in the KIPDA District but makes the entertainment and waterfront district far more accessible for comparatively little cost. You presented exactly zero comparative numbers of investment in concrete roadways versus recovering buried trolly tracks.

  7. It’s the fixed nature of streetcars and light rail that makes them a catalyst for investment along their routes. When you have a fixed line businesses know that the line won’t change. Therefore, they can make investments around the route because they know its going to be there. The fixed nature of light rail and streetcars allows you to change the zoning laws to benefit fixed rail transit systems. Most cities have introduced Transit Oriented Design, which is designed to bring about the density to boost the use of rail transit. Almost every city that has built a fixed rail transit system has seen ridership above what was projected and more investment along the route than what was projected. Buses are much more flexible and can change at any time. Hence, you don’t see any real investments around bus routes. Even if they are busy, because they may not be there a couple of years from now.

    The upfront cost are very expensive for a new fixed rail system are expensive. That’s why I think the Market St. streetcar lines makes sense. There is a reason that cities like Norfolk Va, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Atlanta, and others are investing in streetcars and light rail. The Market St. streetcar should be the first leg, then we should either revises T2 or do Porter Steven’s 4th street route.

  8. I see Jerry Abramson is in Washington this morning fronting for Obama’s crocodile tears over economic disparity. The Democrats have become such experts at hiding their spinelessness behind glossy programs that announce new initiatives and new task groups that are supposed to address income and material wealth disparity in the country. As the Harvard study on poor black upward mobility reported last week Jefferson County ranks 594th out of 2,478 counties in the nation for poor upward mobility. Thats a D- for a county that Jerry Abramson put his stamp on–dedicating our lives to paying for concrete overpasses and underused stadiums. “Abramson previously served as the longest serving Mayor of Louisville, serving as the only three-term mayor of the old city of Louisville (1986-1999) and two terms as the first mayor of the consolidated city-county of Louisville Metro (2003-2011).” If at the end of that we get a D- for upward mobility does it strike anyone as sort of funny that Jerry is Obama’s poor people policy front man? See NYTimes:

    “Mr. Obama will discuss the implications of being poor in America with Robert D. Putnam, a Harvard professor; Arthur C. Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute; and E. J. Dionne Jr. of the Brookings Institution.

    In an email before the panel discussion, Jerry Abramson, a senior White House official and a former mayor of Louisville, Ky., wrote that Mr. Obama believes the economic despair and the racial tensions in many communities are linked, and must be confronted together.”

    One of the first baby steps would be a low cost transit connection from and through the lowest income zip codes to the highest zip codes in Jefferson county to begin connecting the jobless with opportunity in a way they don’t have to pay $ 400 /month for a car.

  9. When you have a fixed line businesses know the trolley will keep running? Why do people think that? This post mentions reusing the tracks the city stopped running trolleys on…just about every big city in the country has miles of disused tracks too. What keeps the city from trashing this line in ten or fifteen years when they don’t have the cash to buy new trolleys or rehab the old ones? Is it going to cover the 2.5 mil or whatever it will cost to run? In a budget crisis in five years what keeps the city from canceling trolley service and selling off the old trolleys to raise cash?

    If you’re thinking you’ll get development, ask yourselves first if the development you want is legal under current zoning/regulations.

  10. Jarrett,

    I come to this blog quite late in the game, but I applaud your evenhandedness regarding the streetcars vs. buses debate. I agree that without right-of-way enhancements, any mode of transportation (short of using drones) will be bound to the typical 15-20 MPH speeds found in many large American city streets during rush hour. That is why heavy rail transit (subways) are far superior to any other form of urban transportation, but the cost (now $2 billion per mile) make any new construction impractical. So admitting that streetcars will not make urban transportation faster is, as you say, an in convenient truth.

    So while you are stuck in traffic, where would you rather be: in a bus or streetcar? The streetcar provides a quieter, exhaust-free environment, isolated by tracks from the jostling roadways that are rife with potholes and poor maintenance. Try conversing with a friend, reading a book or listening to your iPhone on a bus and streetcar and tell me which one provides a more rewarding experience. I could go on about how streetcars enliven and bind to the communities they serve, but that can be left to another blog.

    Ron Levine
    The City Conservancy
    Philadelphia
    cityconservancy@aol.com

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