The Great Streetcar Debate (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road or Your Father’s Magic Carpet Made of Steel)

Reading Saturday’s op-ed in the Star Tribune written by Senator David Osmek and Representative Linda Runbeck, I resisted the temptation to read this as a partisan anti-transit rant by suburban republican legislators (and this is not the first time I’ve responded to an editorial by Senator Osmek). I daresay that my urban colleagues who write for and read are as concerned about the cost-effectiveness of transportation improvements (although even we don’t agree). Transportation is expensive no matter how you look at it, and as Osmek and Runbeck say, “we need to assess our real transportation and transit needs, while remaining accountable to the taxpayers of today and tomorrow.” I for one couldn’t agree more. However, equally important is the context in which transportation operates and how many benefit, not just cost per mile to build and operate. So let’s have this conversation.

Portland Streetcar

Senator Osmek’s and Representative Runbeck’s first argument pertains to cost-effectiveness. Taken in a vacuum, a gravel road in the country is one of the cheapest transportation improvements. A gravel road is very low cost per mile to build and maintain, for sure, but it assumes a pretty low density, probably a rural setting with farms or large homesteads. The other end of the spectrum is a streetcar or subway system that costs a large sum per mile to construct and operate, but ideally serves a LOT of people. In other words, cost per mile for construction and even operations is a largely irrelevant statistic.

With regard to operations, Osmek and Runbeck infer that light rail is “deficit-ridden.” And our state’s roads are not? Tell me this, what state, county or even rural gravel road has ANY kind of direct fare recovery at all? Light rail riders pay directly for approximately 40% of the cost to operate the Blue Line, whereas roads are free for the direct user, completely subsidized, if you will, by indirect sources such as license tab fees, state and federal gas taxes. Thus, one can make the argument that our transit lines actually rely less on indirect subsidy because of farebox recovery. So what is more “deficit-ridden,” the Blue Line in Minneapolis or the highways and stroads of Circle Pines and Mound? By this line of reasoning, no transportation improvement ever pays for itself.

Osmek and Runbeck are concerned about efficiency. They argue, streetcars are less efficient because they have lower capacity than buses. This is patently agrees. This is largely because streetcars have fewer seats but more standing room for more capacity overall. So let’s put this to rest.

The other argument they make is BRT is adaptable, faster and goes where people want, as opposed to where the government chooses to build a line. First off, done right, a BRT line is actually pretty inflexible. The premier example of BRT in Curitiba is not unlike the Blue Line in the sense that stations and route are pretty fixed – this is one reason BRT in Curitiba is successful (the other reasons are the system links places people want to go and the system is easy to use). Deferring to BRT because it is more cost-effective is disingenuous at best. Furthermore, the government typically chooses where successful transportation systems go. I don’t see Osmek complaining about I-394 and Highway 12 making access easier to Mound or Runbeck complaining about I-35W coming to Circle Pines – both projects of a heavy-handed government.

What about speed and service? That depends. Mound has 1,885 per square mile, Circle Pines has 2,602. The Whittier neighborhood, where the first streetcar will run, has more than 19,000 people per square mile. In other words, ten times more people might benefit from this transportation improvement in Whittier. The streetcar in Portland succeeds not because a few people need to get somewhere at a high speed, but because a lot of people need to get a mile away pretty quickly, and the streetcar achieves this. The geographical context of transportation and how many people it can serve matters as much as raw speed.

Are 19,000 people enough to justify significant costs per mile? has explored the cost-effectiveness of streetcars versus buses, and it is a worthy argument. Rather, we should look at the cost per mile per potential user, or some such metric. Certainly spending more than the cost of a gravel road doesn’t make sense in many rural areas, and it’s safe to say the population density doesn’t support a streetcar line in Mound or Circle Pines (would Osmek and Runbeck accept it if the money was granted? We accepted the Stillwater Bridge, didn’t we?). But a streetcar serving 19,000 people with service to downtown, rail connections to the airport, University and St. Paul, and good bus connections might actually make sense.

This gets to the economic development question. Any transportation improvement, rail or road, can result in increased value for adjacent property owners. Building a freeway along a farm field doesn’t do much, but spend extra on an offramp and suddenly that farmer can sell a prime acre or two for a truck stop. Build a streetcar line connecting to a major downtown with links to the airport, etc. and you can rent a LOT of apartments. But from this perspective, isn’t if fair that the farmer helps PAY for that offramp? And shouldn’t that apartment owner help pay for the streetcar? I think the answer is yes. It’s called value capture, they did it in Portland, and Minneapolis is trying a tortured version of it to help pay for the streetcar. (Yes, land owners in the City of Houlton, Wisconsin should be paying a significant share of the new Stillwater bridge.)

Mound and Circle Pines have decidedly infrequent transit service, and a development pattern that isn’t supportive of getting around without a car (if I didn’t own a car, I wouldn’t consider living in either city). So from the perspective of “subsidizing” transit (but somehow not roads), by not providing transit service (thereby requiring more people to own a vehicle and pay more to operate it over greater distances), are we not hindering their transportation? And by doing so, aren’t we actually promoting a policy that takes more money from households’ pockets, thereby reducing economic development? That doesn’t sound like freedom to me, nor good policy.

I’m disappointed they didn’t bring forth tangible solutions, but Osmek and Runbeck’s question is a good one. What is the cost-effective way to move people and what are the benefits? I suspect Osmek and Runbeck should be careful for what they ask, for I fear a proper holistic cost-effectiveness analysis that takes in to account land use would leave Mound and Circle Pines with very little transportation funding.

That said, the Minnesota Legislature needs to find creative solutions to provide more economic benefit to citizens to get around, and the current system of funding isn’t enough nor properly calibrated. Those who benefit should help pay the cost of transportation improvements. Before we have this discussion, we should all visit the Strongtowns website and understand how our growth pattern is making us financially insolvent (hint: Chuck Marohn isn’t an urban liberal elite). Maybe the streetcar isn’t the right answer for Nicollet, but neither are gravel roads in Mound and Circle Pines. Either way, transportation solutions depend to a great extent on geography and density of those served, so let’s not dismiss either too quickly.

This was crossposted at Joe Urban.

Sam Newberg

About Sam Newberg

Sam Newberg, a.k.a. Joe Urban, is an urbanist, real estate consultant and writer. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two kids, and his website is