10.9.06

CLANG, CLANG, CLANG GO MORE TROLLEYS. The Economist hails the tram. (Via Live from the Third Rail.)

Many of the original streetcars and interurbans were projects financed by the power companies. There's a new source of subsidy unlikely to be enthralled by a trolley mania.

Light rail is hugely expensive. The federal government can cover 80% of the cost, but it is so deluged with applications that 50% is more typical. On the local level, higher taxes are always a hard sell—and several municipal governments are often involved, which complicates matters. A much-advertised benefit of light rail is that it sparks economic development around stations. At first, though, as is happening in Houston now, householders can delay projects out of fear that their property will fall victim to the bulldozers.

Cost overruns have already caused trouble in Seattle, which had to budget in an extra $1 billion several years ago. The city's financial storm has calmed, and Sound Transit expects to complete a light-rail link to the airport by 2009. Now, though, planners across America must worry about a huge jump in the price of construction materials. Concrete for tunnels, barriers and supports costs around 11% more than last year. Prices of steel, cement and copper wiring have gone up too.

Buses are cheaper, and can make use of the road network (that is, when the government is funding expansion of the road network.) But the city bus, and its intercity cousin, are canonical inferior goods.

Can cities get by with buses, which are far cheaper than rail? Sadly, few people want to ride on buses unless they have to. In many American cities they are the transport of the poor, the drunk and the illegal. They are slow and often smelly, and come at unpredictable intervals. And when they stop, they may block traffic.

But petrol prices are having an effect. Buses have seen some astonishing growth, especially in smaller cities, notes William Millar, the president of [the American Public Transit Association].

I'm not persuaded, however, that the wireless internet access on the streetcar light rail vehicle the article touts will be enough to take away its disadvantage in making multi-purpose trips. (That disadvantage can be mitigated but not eliminated by better connections and generous transfer privileges. "Punch mine a little long as I have a lot to buy down by Schuster's.")

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