The WasteWatcher: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Ding, Ding, Ding - Arlington, Virginia Hops Off the Trolley

The WasteWatcher is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.


Good for Arlington, Virginia for pulling the plug on its wasteful trolley project.

May the action of a few sages in Arlington become a beacon of light to other municipalities, which may be experiencing the intense pressure of the "smart growth," mass transit zealots, but really don't want to bleed scarce tax dollars on projects that never move masses of people anywhere.

That northern Virginia trolley/streetcar project was slated to cost $550 million all in, but these novelty projects are no different from any other transportation project in that they rarely come in on budget or on schedule.

One of the nails in the Arlington project coffin might have been the ill-conceived, ridiculous "super stop" that was unveiled in Arlington March, 2014...a bus and trolley stop that cost $1 million.

Residents of the relatively wealthy DC suburb were appropriately outraged and may have started to do the math on the costs associated with 24 more such stops, plus the streetcar/trolley itself.   City officials all over the nation are dealing with similar cost-benefit considerations and are being lured/hounded/worked over by (depending upon your point of view) an alliance of green urban planners, big developers, affordable housing advocates, etc. to spend billions of dollars on them.

Interestingly, in left-leaning Arlington, the recent election to the Arlington County Board of Republican-running-as-an-Independent John Vihstadt by a wide-margin was the death knell for the streetcar.  Vihstadt ran on an explicitly anti-trolley/streetcar platform and won by a wide margin.  According to The Washington Post:

"Residents of the affluent suburb seem increasingly fed up with spending on what some call “vanity projects” and the perception that voters have little influence over them. And public officials are taking notice."

In the Washington D.C. area, there are other transit projects like this going on, including the $2.45 billion, 16-mile light rail Purple Line in Montgomery County, Maryland and the H Street Trolley in northeast DC, which was recently named the "worst transit project in America" by Matthew Yglesias at Vox, a liberal news and opinion blog (Yglesias doesn't seem to have a problem with other light rail projects, just streetcars, which don't have dedicated lanes and tend to increase congestion, and siphon money from other more worthy mass transit projects, something along those fixed lines).

So many of the light rail and streetcar/trolley projects are poorly thought out, controversial, their raisons d'etre are often based upon questionable ridership stats and tortured estimates of future economic benefits (usually provided by the proponents and often difficult to verify).  The pols who have the authority to green light the projects are often captive of special interests and perhaps captivated by the potential for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and the inevitable naming of buildings, etc.  But, at least in Arlington, voters finally grew weary of the disconnect and rebuked their imperious elected officials.  And there's also this:

"Financing for the streetcar project remains uncertain. County officials were turned down for some federal funding last year because U.S. transportation officials said the project probably would cost $60 million to $150 million more than the $250 million the county was estimating at the time."

In a great post on The Federalist, reporter Georgi Boorman highlights the fact that even that green Mecca, Seattle, Washington, is having second thoughts on the wisdom of streetcars and trolleys:

Some locals know that Central Link, Seattle’s first light rail line, was North America’s most expensive light rail at over $100,000 per yard when it opened in 2009. It serves less than 3 percent of total commuters, as only 3 to 4 percent of Seattle commuters get to work through mass transit. Apparently flush with cash in 2014, the City of Seattle will now shell out $10 million to study new streetcar lines. Yes, to study them. Mike Lindbolm of the Seattle Times writes, “At least four routes would be examined…all once served by streetcar tracks before the citywide system was abandoned in 1941.” Yes, abandoned. Did we ever stop to think that perhaps there was a reason for that? Like, say, the much niftier invention of trolley buses,  since as it turns out the invention of the wheel was all it’s cracked up to be?

"Nevertheless, almost a decade after the initial plan to build the South Lake Union Streetcar (also called the SLU Trolley and affectionately titled S.L.U.T. by critics), it accounts for just 1 percent of the region’s passenger boardings and is heavily dependent on its sugar daddy, the City of Seattle.  In 2005 at the time the project was announced, opposing Councilman Steinbrueck, referencing the necessary accompaniment of new sidewalks, re-paved streets, and streetlights, called the S.L.U.T. a “luxury.”  John Fox of the Seattle Displacement Coalition offered the most telling critique: “[It’s] not that there shouldn't be a streetcar, but that it’s more of a real-estate toy that shouldn't be propped up by more vital services around the city.”

Cities might be waking to the inherent dumbness of spending tens of millions of dollars (whether it's local, state, or federal money) on these streetcar and trolley projects.  So, unlike trolleys and streetcars, public opinion on the wisdom of funding these projects might finally be...turning.



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