A funny thing happened on the way to a downtown Los Angeles streetcar. According to the Los Angeles Times, the initial cost estimate of $125M excluded the costs of utility relocation, which could total $166M in additional costs, and $295M in operating costs over 30 years. That’s quite a bit compared to the $62.5M voters authorized when approving a community facilities district last November.
Few transit experts have met a streetcar they’ve liked. This doesn’t mean the projects aren’t justified – they can be superb economic development catalysts when complemented with smart land use strategies and targeted incentives. However, streetcars are rarely the most effective option for mobility, and any accessibility benefits are generally brought about by smart land use strategies rather than the streetcar itself. Downtown’s streetcar proposal was a significant cornerstone of the Bringing Back Broadway Initiative, a larger strategy to overhaul the downtown boulevard.
Most mobility benefits can be accomplished more cost-effectively with a bus than a streetcar. Having researched how users, planners, and policymakers perceive transit, I’m quite aware that many people prefer rail to buses, even when buses provide an identical service. I’m also aware that bus service avoids the environmental impacts of rail construction, which can be a significant portion of the project’s total impact, and that electric-propulsion (even using LADWP power) is far cleaner than natural gas or diesel. As such, I’ve gained an admiration for the trolleybus as a transit mode.