Enquirer’s Opinionati: Should We Have Tested the Streetcar Line With Buses?

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The Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky has recently unveiled new decorated buses (referred to by the Enquirer as ‘trolleys’) to run on the Southbank Shuttle Route. The Opinionati Blog, written by the editorial staff of the Enquirer, has asked the question whether or not Cincinnati should have implemented service with decorated buses to run the streetcar line before investing in the permanent infrastructure of the streetcar.  The reasons why this experiment would be unfruitful are detailed below in this post by Brad Thomas.

Question: Should Cincinnati have explored similar “trolley” projects before investing heavily in a permanent line?

Answer: No. The harm from a decorated bus experiment would be threefold—direct costs, opportunity costs, and lack of probative value.

The direct cost would be the costs of acquiring and operating the buses.  In order for the bus experiment to be as accurate as possible, the buses would have to have a similar capacity and frequency to the streetcars.  I think we can all agree if the city were only running one bus along the route, it wouldn’t come anywhere close to approximating streetcar system. Similarly adding a few automobile ferries next to the Brent Spence Bridge wouldn’t accurately simulate adding additional lanes.

A single streetcar carries around 170 passengers.  According to TANK these new decorated buses hold 30 people.  The City plans on purchasing 7 streetcars.  A decorated bus fleet with a similar capacity would number 39.6 (having a high capacity service will be incredibly important after major events like Reds and Bengals games).  If you take into account maintenance and the need for spare vehicles, you could probably provide a similar level of service with 36 buses.  Each bus costs $170,000, so 24 buses would cost $6,120,000.00.

Operating the buses would cost money as well.  Driver’s salaries are the largest operating expense in any transit system and METRO is no exception.  Personnel costs represent 2/3rds of METRO’s  Operating Budget  (One of the benefits of the streetcar is that a single driver’s salary is spread over 170 passengers instead of 30).

To estimate the operating cost per bus I divided METRO’s total budget ($94.5 million, less the $6.4 million it spends on Access) over the number of buses it operates (391) to come up with a per bus per year operating cost of $225,063.93.  These decorated buses are smaller and presumably more fuel efficient so fuel costs (approximately 13% of METRO’s non-Access budget) will be reduced by 1/3 (an additional $12,378.52 per bus).  The buses will be newer as well which would result in fewer maintenance costs, so for the sake of argument, let’s assume the cost per bus per year is $200,000.00. Based on this projection 36 buses would result in a yearly operating cost of $7,200,000.00.

Running this system for a few years as suggested would be a very expensive test.  Three years would cost $27,720,000.00 in capital and operating costs.

But there are also opportunity costs as well.  The City estimates “Costs can be conservatively estimated to escalate $5.1 million each year beyond 2010.”  Delaying the streetcar three years would cost $15.3 million in inflationary costs.  With many construction companies in need of work and lower material prices, now is the time to build.   The other opportunity cost would be the delay of benefits to City that would come from having a streetcar.  I will not attempt to quantify them in this posting, but it is something of which to be aware.

Combining the direct and opportunity costs leads to a cost of the three year trial of over $43 million.  The next question: would this trial produce accurate results?  My belief is it would not.

The Streetcar will produce two main types of benefits—ridership benefits and economic development benefits.  The bus experiment will not accurately predict either type of benefit

Ridership on the bus experiment will be lower than it would be on a streetcar.  Route legibility of a bus route is worse than a streetcar.  Unlike a bus, someone unfamiliar with a streetcar route can see the tracks and know where the line goes.  People are more likely to get on public transit when they know where it is going.

Additionally the bus experiment assumes transit riders exhibit “mode-neutrality” when in reality they do not.  Mode-neutrality presumes that a transit rider will exhibit no preference for rail over buses.  This is not the case.  Many visitors to New York or Chicago will take the subway or the “L” but will not ride a bus to get around. For an example closer to home, think about the airport.  If you had to choose one or the other, would you rather take the train to Concourse B or the shuttle bus connection to Concourse C

Finally you will not receive the same economic development benefits with the bus experiment as you would with a streetcar.  The reason the streetcar encourages economic development is because it is a permanent infrastructure investment.  The tracks are laid in the ground and will not move.  People know that in 20 years the streetcar will still be running that route and make long term investments, like buying a house or opening a business, based on that fact.

By contrast, the bus experiment is not only temporary it is explicitly temporary.  Anyone who could wait to make an investment along the line likely would wait until the final decision on the streetcar could be made.  If an entrepreneur wanted to locate a new business along the streetcar line because it would attract more customers and make it easier to get to the store, she would likely wait until the decision had been made on whether or not to actually build the streetcar before making the investment. Fewer people will buy house or open a business along a bus route that will stop running in a few years and may or may not lead to a streetcar than would invest along an announced and funded streetcar line. Imagine if new exit was built off of I-75 that would be closed in two years if it didn’t receive enough usage, business owners would be reluctant to locate there for fear of their access being cut off.  The same would be true of a temporary bus experiment.

Because there will be lower ridership, less economic development, and considerable costs, conducting a bus experiment along the streetcar line would be imprudent and the results of such experiment would not accurately predict the success of the streetcar.

7 thoughts on “Enquirer’s Opinionati: Should We Have Tested the Streetcar Line With Buses?

    Travis said:
    July 19, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Leave it to the Enquirer to ask a question which was answered on this blog about a year ago.

    t-storm said:
    July 20, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    I know I asked this exact question right around mpmf.

    I guess my problem is that the people who need to be shown that this can be a good system still wouldn’t use the “test” busses. And when it failed they’d claim victory.

    […] Thomas at CincyStreetcar Blog wrote a detailed response to the question that compared the direct costs of purchasing and operating a fleet of buses along […]

    John Schneider said:
    July 22, 2010 at 8:38 am

    This is a really excellent analysis. It’s as factual as it could be. It could not be more clearly written. No objective reader would refute its methodology or its conclusions.

    But sadly, what I’ve learned throughout the four years the streetcar has been in the news is that facts don’t matter much, especially to the suburban writers who bombard the Enquirer with letters in opposition to the streetcar.

    I think the reason the bus (really, a truck) trolley appeals to some of these writers is that these vehicles are, by definition, impermanent. And to many of these writers, the city is no longer worth investing in. That’s their principal objection. They see a disposable city that they seem to know little about anymore, seldom travel to, and could care less about.

    Facts seem to matter less in politics these days. The world is what we imagine it to be.

    I recently came across this article from the Boston Globe that explains a lot of what’s going on.


    Quimbob said:
    July 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    wow – excellent article John.
    It explains why political motivators are always promoting their constituency as victims. Keeps ’em agitated.
    Thanks for posting that.

    irawanto said:
    August 8, 2010 at 10:22 pm

    ok, i’m love it 🙂

    […] Thomas at the Cincy Streetcar Blog explains why that’s a bad idea. That’s $175,400 less money Ogden will have available to build their permanent streetcar […]

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