The $102 million Kansas City streetcar is supposed to be a great success. Projected to carry 2,900 people per weekday in its first year, it actually attracted 6,800 people per weekday in its first few months of operation. In fact, the cars are supposedly so crowded that the city is ordering two more cars.
On the other hand, the city so far hasn’t dared to charge fares. When Atlanta began charging fares, ridership fell more than 50 percent. It is hard to claim success with a straight face when you are giving something away. In addition, the ridership projections did not count event-related riders, while actual ridership numbers include a “large event-related market.”
The streetcars go through downtown Kansas City, an area that was already gentrifying with $6 billion worth of new development before the decision was made to build the streetcar line. Despite claims that the streetcar stimulated this development, the reality is that the streetcar goes through the heart of an urban redevelopment area that has benefited from tax-increment financing.
The cars themselves are made by a Spanish company and assembled in the United States to meet buy-America requirements. They are 77 feet long, nearly twice the length of a standard bus, but have only 34 hard plastic seats, compared with 40 seats on standard buses and more than 80 on double-decker buses. Kansas City is paying $11.9 million for two more cars, which would be enough to buy nearly 30 buses with plush seats, on-board wifi, and other amenities, or at least 15 double-decker buses.
Although the city was excited about carrying 6,800 weekday riders in the first few months, ridership has been declining. As of May, weekday ridership in 2017 had fallen below 5,300. It’s possible that ridership will be higher in the summer than the winter, but maybe they didn’t need to buy more streetcars after all.
The real measure of success is not, “did we meet our ridership projections?” Instead, it is, “Is this the most cost-effective way we could achieve our goals?” When the city was planning the project, it admitted that buses could have provided better (because more frequent) service for a fifth of the capital cost and no greater operating cost.
The analysis claimed, without any real justification, that streetcars would attract twice as many riders as buses. The streetcars were expected to attract more riders because they were supposed to generate more economic development. I haven’t done a detailed analysis, but I doubt that any new developments were built solely because of the streetcar, and any influence the streetcar had at all merely affected the location of the development, not whether it took place.
The streetcar supposedly has more of an effect on development because a “fixed rail system creates ‘permanence’ that spurs investment.” Have the people who believe this read their transit histories? In 1910, more than 1,000 American cities had streetcar lines, including every city of more than 15,000 people. By 1972, all but six of those cities had scrapped their streetcars. Meanwhile, by 1930, almost all of those cities had buses. Today, they still do. Buses have lasted longer than streetcars in most cities which makes them more permanent than rails.
If the goal is to spend someone else’s money without oversight, the Kansas City streetcar is a great success. If the goal is to cost-effectively move people, it is an utter failure. If the goal is economic development, then the city doesn’t understand how economic development works.
The Kansas City streetcar was partially funded with a federal TIGER grant. The Trump administration wants to stop using TIGER or other federal money for local projects such as this one. That will probably help persuade Kansas City not to extend its streetcar route.