Will the Tucson modern streetcar be a money pit?

sunlink_2As costs for Tucson’s “modern streetcar” mount, one wonders what the City administration was thinking to even start the project. Were they thinking “green?” To spur downtown development, they could have established a fleet of dedicated buses, perhaps with a special paint job. The current buses are fueled mainly with natural gas. The”modern streetcars” will be run mainly by coal-generated electricity. How green is that? A dedicated bus fleet would not have required the extensive infrastructure changes.

I think that Tucson’s “modern streetcar” is an eco-fad that will never pay for itself. The operation of the light rail system in Phoenix may portend some unintended consequences for the streetcar. Warren Meyer has a post on his Coyote Blog which shows that between 2009 and 2012, riders of the Phoenix light rail system increased by about 8 million. For the same time period, however, the city bus system lost about 8 million riders.

That implies that the $1.4 billion Phoenix system is just cannibalizing the bus system without getting more people out of their cars. Meyer writes that “Capital costs equate to something like $75,000 per daily round trip rider — If we had simply bought every daily rider a Prius, we would have saved a billion dollars.”

If the Tucson modern streetcar ever actually becomes operational, will it, too, just cannibalize the bus system without getting people out of their cars? Will the result be that Tucson spends almost $200 million in capital costs and $4.4 million annually in operating costs, just to transfer some bus riders to a much more expensive form of public transportation?

I don’t know what the streetcar fare will be, but let’s assume it will be the same as a bus day pass: $3.50. Under that condition it will take 1.25 million riders annually (or 3,424 riders per day over the 3.9 mile route) just to break even on the operating costs. How likely is that? To put that in perspective, Sun Tran claims a total system-wide bus usage of just under 20 million passengers in FY2012. It will take an additional 57 million streetcar riders over the life of the project to recover the capital costs.

Tucson was supposed to receive the first streetcars in October, 2010, then in January, 2013, then March, 2013, and now? Now, the best guess in August, 2013. This past Sunday we learned from the Arizona Daily Star that “Tucson is paying a consultant more than $4 million to monitor construction of its streetcars in Oregon – and repeated delays at the factory are expected to push that figure even higher.” This project should really be called “The Streetcar Named Fiasco.”