Utility Relocation Costs Not a Death Sentence for Downtown LA Circulator

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.

A modern trolleybus in France, from Wikimedia Commons.

The trolleybus is a rubber-tire, street-running electric bus that, like a streetcar, draws power from an overhead catenary wire.  Unlike a streetcar, the trolleybus doesn’t require rails, which considerably reduces capital costs and the need for utility relocations.  Modern trolleybuses are sleek and utilize the latest in modern technology, such as supercapacitors.  As opposed to flux capacitors which are fabled to turn back time (an apparent goal of many streetcar projects), supercapacitors allow trolleybuses to go off the wire for short distances, enabling greater flexibility for route deviations and vehicle storage.

Trolleybuses offer several advantages over streetcars. First is avoiding the installation of rails, and associated costs of utility relocation. Rubber-tire buses can also climb steeper grades than can steel-wheel streetcars. In fact, this is one of the reasons that Seattle and San Francisco use trolleybuses on some of their steeper hills.  Whereas planners modified the proposed streetcar route to avoid steep grades, the trolleybus can revert to the original, optimal route.

Furthermore, a trolleybus can avoid accidents, police incidents, and disabled vehicles by going around them, whereas a streetcar must wait for obstructions to clear. Any savings in infrastructure costs versus a streetcar can be applied to the acquisition and operation of additional trolleybuses – meaning improved service frequencies within a given budget.

However, trolleybuses are also perceived to have one key disadvantage: they’re not rail. If the absence of rails in the ground is a deal-breaker, then Broadway may be “back” before the streetcar opens. Luckily, it appears that nothing in the ordinance that established the Mello-Roos Community Facilities District or the ballot language precludes the City from pursuing a trolleybus option in hope of a 2015 opening within the expected budget.

After all, $622.8M over 30 years (the high estimate of capital and operations cost) could buy a lot of paint for bike lanes that extend far beyond downtown.


  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this very reasonable take on the streetcar. The arguments in favor never made much sense to me (probably partly because I used to live in Boston, where the “permanence of rail” was demonstrated by rails that had not been used in 20 years, but were still in the street).

    Downtown is already undergoing a boom. It is hard to see how Broadway won’t keep coming back regardless of whether the streetcar is built. For the money the streetcar would cost, you could probably electrify a lot of the downtown DASH routes… circulator routes that already exist.

  • AJ

    Sigh. This post has two major shortcomings:

    1. The streetcar will not have $200M in utility costs. Period. LADOT/BOE/DPW have arbitrarily thrown 100 years of utility maintenance into this project because they don’t really know what they’re doing right now and are treating this project like other light rail projects that they’re more familiar with. The primary difference between streetcars and light rail is that you DO NOT have to move major utilities because of track slab construction. No streetcar has been constructed with more than $25 million in utility costs. So despite the media hype, this is a non-issue and the cost will likely be on par with the initial estimate once they decouple the streetcar and the replacement of 100 year old water mains.

    2. If you’re going to argue against the streetcar, do it on the basis of mobility, not technology. Replacing the streetcar with a trolley bus fails to address the key mobility issues with the streetcar’s route (the circuitous loop, the couplet that dilutes its service area, the duplication of the Red Line, etc.). What you’re suggesting is replacing one questionable and costly transportation project with another questionable and slightly less costly transportation project, without any real innovation.

  • Anonymous

    When are the wonks going to realize there’s a difference between buses and trolleys? Are you people on the GM payroll?

  • Trolleybuses have significant infrastructure costs due to the catenary and power stations. Plus where will the yard for these be (keeping in mind wires will need to be strung to and from the yard)? Those costs have been an obstacle whenever trolleybuses have been advocated (a la the proposal that died in the mid-90s for an extensive network in LA County).

    AJ is right that the estimates in the staff report are placeholders until the various agencies refine them.

    You’ll notice trolleybuses have mostly sustained due to the one key advantage of being very good on steep grades, as Juan mentions (and as I can testify to having ridden one in Seattle some years ago). Dayton Ohio is the one U.S. city with trolleybuses where that isn’t a factor and about once a decade a public discussion occurs about whether the cost of maintaining the catenary etc. is such as to counterbalance a desire to keep running them. I should imagine when it becomes necessary to acquire replacement equipment that discussion will occur again.


    BTW, I am no gung-ho proponent of the streetcar. I have seen it as more for the economic and tourism benefit than mobility. But I hear the Portland streetcar is actually a mobility improvement. Of course its route now goes through a college campus so that may be an attribute the LA route won’t duplicate.


    I certainly think a robust dialogue is in order. There is some concern the projected ridership for the streetcar is a tad overstated and our prospects to get a small starts grant may suffer under technical analysis by the feds. We need to be sure the project is grounded in numbers that can hold up or this project may indeed end up in limbo.

  • Alexander

    Great points, Juan.

    Personally, I’m in support of trolleybuses – you can read my recent article on Streetsblog:

    However, for Broadway specifically it would Not be a good option.

    Trolleybuses could be implemented in L.A. on many urban corridors, but Broadway should still get a streetcar, as a part of the whole “Bringing Back Broadway” project. This would be a better option from all perspectives: technologically, aesthetically, and as a cost-effective solution.

  • MarkB

    The huge utility cost didn’t make sense to me because the way streetcar track is laid doesn’t involve a depth that interferes with utilities. Traffic signal loop detectors and ped phase button wiring? Sure, but how much could that cost? The expensive utilities are all deeper underground and won’t be touched. (I say that not having seen engineering diagrams)

  • Anonymous

    I wonder if improvements in electric battery technologies will make the trolleybus obsolete within the timeframe of the contruction of this project, especially given relatively short routes. If a Tesla can do 200 miles on a charge, why couldn’t a bus with huge battery make it across downtown LA and back?

  • Anonymous

    When this streetcar goes into operation there will be pressure to reduce the amount of local Measure R funds that goes towards pedestrian and bicycling improvements. The city council has set a hierarchy of priority for using local Measure R funds with paying off bonds coming in first, then the operation of this streetcar and below that the 5% set-aside for pedestrians and the 5% for bicycling.

    This streetcar is a duplication of services that Metro and LADOT already provide. That area has the Dash provided by LADOT and the Rapid and local stop buses from Metro.

    The city should not have agreed to fund the operation of this streetcar. If a area wants to have a streetcar to improve their property values, then fine, they should fund the capital improvements AND operational costs.

    Essentially the city is funding what will be a Disneyland type ride on a streetcar–much like the trolley cars in San Francisco–that does not provide a improvement in transit service.

  • First, as AJ said below, the utility costs that were reported a few days ago are just not happening. They’re estimates that take into account the full cost of every potential conflict with the rail placement, many of which will not be conflicts at all, others which can be prevented by slight shifts in alignment, and most of the remaining conflicts will cost much less than the maximum estimates for those conflicts as engineering is actually done and finds optimal/efficient solutions.

    And the whole issue of water pipe replacement should be considered entirely separately–these are pipes that need to be replaced anyway, and to pretend that the streetcar is the cause of utility costs related to the water system is a joke. If anything, the streetcar should be lauded for forcing the issue of replacing a water pipe that’s WELL past its useful life.

    One more thing I’d like to know is what the return on the additional $1 billion in development, 9,300 new jobs, and $24 million per year ($720 million over 30 years) in tourism is. If that same level of development, employment, and spending wouldn’t be achieved by trolleybuses, that difference should be factored in.

    And on behalf of the people who actually live downtown, I think much quieter streetcars would be preferred over noisy buses. I don’t think noise complaints are reason to nix buses in general, but downtowns have them starting, stopping, and driving through almost constantly, and I think there’s something to be said for limiting that where we can. Minor point, but worth mentioning.

  • Wanderer

    Recognizing that there’s a lot more to transit planning than picking a mode, the trolleybus argument intrigues me. Trolley bus proponents, why do you think U.S. transit agencies haven’t picked up on it?

    The Portland streetcar, the original line, is sui generis. It goes from a large university through Downtown Portland, through a dense residential district where thousands of new units have been built to the city’s strongest neighborhood commercial district, on a short, non-circuitous route. It was extended to reach a major waterfront transit-oriented development and the access point for a health sciences college. It would be roughly as if UCLA, South Park, Bunker Hill, and Silver Lake could be connected on one short line.

    The real test for the Portland streetcar will be the performance of its new extension, which goes into much more difficult terrain for transit.

  • Anonymous

    I love electric trolleybuses as an improvement over fossil-fueled buses, but they’re not a substitute for streetcars. For example, Seattle and San Francisco have extensive trolleybus networks and are also expanding streetcar lines.

  • Juan Matute

    I do as well, but I’m mindful of the upstream environmental impacts of concrete and steel (primarily CO2). Nothing is a free lunch environmentally or economically, and if a trolleybus provides the same mobility benefits as a streetcar, it’s likely the superior environmental choice. Now that doesn’t mean that the trolleybus “feels” the same as the streetcar. It just means that it has less of an effect on the buildup of CO2.

    In fact, researchers have found that many people prefer rail modes over rubber tire modes, even when they offer equivalent service attributes. It’s quite possible that some people who would ride a streetcar would refuse to ride the trolleybus and that the two won’t provide equivalent mobility services. It’s also quite possible that fewer development projects will get built near a trolleybus than a streetcar because the trolleybus is seen as second class. Adapting California to a lower-carbon lifestyle will require changes in perception and behavior in addition to new technologies. Addressing the perception gap between rubber tire and steel wheel transit vehicles is one of the greatest opportunities. After all, if we get rubber tire vehicles out of traffic through use of permanent, temporary, or dynamic transit-only lanes, and offer off-vehicle fare payment, these vehicles could provide a rail-like service throughout the County at a fraction of the cost and environmental impact of rail.

    Yes, longer rail vehicles can move more people through a given space and time than shorter rubber tired vehicles. However, building transit ridership in corridors is a key component of building a financial and political case for grade-separated rail in the future. If Los Angeles County wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2050, then we can’t wait until the completion of the Measure R rail program to create a county-wide network of high quality transit routes (which need not be powered by overhead catenary).

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Shouldn’t electric trolleybuses be much quieter than streetcars? Steel on steel has loud squealing whenever it goes around a curve, while rubber on asphalt is pretty quiet. They’re both electric, so there’s no motor sounds.

  • Anonymous

    Juan – your analysis takes an extensive view of the costs associated with both streetcars and electric buses, but I don’t we the same analysis for ridership projection and potential development/sales tax revenue in both situations. I think many if us can agree that electric bus will be cheaper, but will it bring the development and surrounding sales tax dollars that a streetcar will? I see a significantly greater potential in sales tax revenues with streetcars, whereas a bus will have a marginal affect. Are you looking at both sides of the spectrum with a cost and revenue return on streetcars v. electric buses?

  • Anonymous

    The streetcar would also need substations, catenary, and yard facilities as well, so that’s really awash. FWIW, Boston still has some trolleybus routes that don’t have limitations like steep grades.

  • Juan Matute

    The issue I’m presenting isn’t if there’s a difference in ridership and investment between the two modes (even when they provide equal service), it’s that we must address why there may be a difference. A sustainable future isn’t going to come without addressing a few paradigms, and addressing the bus-vs-rail paradigm has some of the greatest potential sustainability gains.

  • Jerard Wright

    To me the biggest question mark that I’ve had with this streetcar from day one is essential to the operation of these vehicles and that is, Where is/are potential site(s) for the maintenance and storage of these streetcars?

    The Convention Center used to be the site of our former Yellow Cars, so where is the site for this new route and design and how much of that is reflected in this budget increase? I don’t see any $$$ reflected here.

    I ask this because a lot of the zoning along the proposed route is mostly Commercial and Residential or new converted residential and most modern streetcar facilities are considered light industrial (LI) so how will this LI zone mesh without too much legal chaos which further drives the cost of this project?

  • Juan Matute

    From their analysis:

    Over the 25-year study period, cumulative sales tax and parking revenues of $1.5 million and cumulative hotel tax revenues of $1.0 million will accrue to the City’s General Fund.

  • Juan Matute

    This map has the storage facility locations (http://media.metro.net/projects_studies/historic-streetcar/images/initial_study_2013_0103.pdf#page=7). The cost of the facilities was excluded from the initial alternatives analysis ($11.93M) but the cost of land was excluded.

  • Juan Matute

    1. The alternatives analysis study showed a total capital cost of $106.761M, with $8.929 in utility relocation costs (http://media.metro.net/projects_studies/historic-streetcar/images/Streetcar_Report_2011_0113.pdf#page=149 – See Alternative #7). Can you site the staff report that has more information on utility relocation costs?

    2. I’ll let the reader come to his/her own conclusion about whether the overhead catenary and electric propulsion are even necessary if more mobility options could be accomplished with a reinvigorated DASH service that not only connects South Park and Broadway with the Civic Center, but also with the Arts District and other up-and-coming areas of downtown that could justify the same economic development boost that streetcar proponents seek.

  • I hadn’t noticed loud noises from the streetcars in Seattle when I lived there. I think speed has a lot to do with it, as well as design of course.

  • davistrain

    San Francisco has one advantage in using trolley buses (as well as streetcars and light rail)–the City owns a hydro-electric plant as part of the Hetch Hetchy water and power system, so all the transport powered by overhead wires is run without using fossil fuels. Even the big motors that power the cable car system are energized by falling water, not burning fuel.

  • El Sharto

    There is another problem with the street trolley aside from the fact that its basically an expensive shuttle from city hall to city hall’s boss AEG Live. The fact that Measure R funds – nearly half a BILLION that were supposed to go only to infrastructure will be ROBBED and transferred to operating money and worse yet to the LADOT. I witnessed the vote first hand one day while at a transportation committee meeting for an unrelated issue. The decision was to put it to City Council (if they havent already) to vote to modify language that would enable LADOT to suck that 365 million from measure R funding and give it over to union paid pension spiking LADOT employees. Why wouldnt this be operated by MTA and their union pampered pension spiking employees? I do not know… but I’m really bummed to see this money go to paying fat cat city workers just to operate this boondoggle rather than actual concrete infrastructure.

  • Myrtonos

    I’m not sure that trolleybuses and battery powered buses are a valid comparison. Trolleybuses collect mains electricity directly while in service. Battery electric buses collect it while stationary and out of service and store it in a battery for use while moving.

    Sounds a bit like Silicon Valley propaganda.


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