Some Streetcar Fact Checking

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A streetcar awaits a green light in Vancouver. Photo by Page Graham.

In a recent op-ed in the San Antonio Express-News, Randal O’Toole asserted that, on a per passenger-mile basis, a sport utility vehicle (SUV) is more energy efficient and emits less greenhouse gases than a streetcar.  After doing some fact checking, I’d say without hesitation that O’Toole is wrong.

Greenhouse gases attributable to electric vehicles depend on the local sources of electric power.  For example, O’Toole “cherry picks” some light rail lines – he avoids Portland, Tacoma, and Seattle which rely on hydro-electric power – to claim that a theoretical streetcar emits more greenhouse gas emissions than an SUV on a passenger-mile basis.

Unfortunately, he conveniently ignores that fact that a light rail vehicle is not the same as streetcar.  A light rail vehicle consumes more energy than a streetcar because it is heavier and faster.

If you actually look at streetcars (not light rail) powered by CPS Energy’s clean (and getting cleaner) power sources, O’Toole’s assessment is flawed.  On a per passenger-mile basis, a streetcar in San Antonio will, in fact, be more energy efficient and produce less greenhouse gas emissions than an SUV, or a bus for that matter.

Further, O’Toole’s SUV is powered by increasingly expensive, largely imported, and limited oil, as opposed to relatively clean and increasingly renewable CPS Energy electric power which would be used to propel a streetcar.

O’Toole’s emissions assessment doesn’t even address ozone, San Antonio’s top air pollution issueThe American Lung Association gave Bexar County air a grade of “F” because of ozone.  It is clear why he left it out: a passenger-mile on O’Toole’s SUV will produce five time the ozone-generating emissions of a passenger-mile on a San Antonio streetcar.  If the SUV operates in the same stop-and-go conditions that the streetcar will operate in the central business district, the SUV emissions will be even worse.

O’Toole also fails to mention that mobile air toxics, e.g., benzene, that impact nearby pedestrians, cyclists, employees, students, and residents are not an issue with electric vehicles (like a streetcar), but they are for his SUV. Air toxins from fossil-fuel-powered motor vehicles are the reason that at least six states protect children’s health by prohibiting the construction of schools near busy roads.

If the streetcar stimulates more compact development – and it probably will – then the pollution reduction benefits of the streetcar will be even greater.

VIA released a statement Tuesday, outlining its concerns with the streetcar petition:

“We have our concerns, though, that some of the backers of the petition drive to alter the San Antonio City charter are misrepresenting the purpose and effect of the petition. We think they are misinforming the public regarding the modern streetcar project, but we will continue to share the facts and provide accurate information on the streetcar project, and we will stay focused on making sure the transportation needs of this great city are met.”

It is clear that O’Toole – founder and president of the American Dream Coalition,  Heartland Institute report author, Cato Institute senior fellow, Heritage Foundation visiting fellow, etc. – doesn’t like streetcars.  However, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once noted, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

*Featured/top image: A streetcar awaits a green light in Toronto. Photo by Page Graham.

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Sabér Study: Streetcar System Will Generate Billions

Toronto: The City that Saved its Streetcar Tracks

Street Fight Over Streetcars

Clearing the Air at Streetcar Town Hall Meeting

Billionaire Outsiders Take Special Interest in VIA Streetcar Plan

15 thoughts on “Some Streetcar Fact Checking

  1. Why is this article referencing only a small part of Randall O’ Toole’s “OPINION PIECE”? I don’t believe it matters how much the two differ in the release of greenhouse gases. As long as VIA’s streetcar system is built with the most up-to-date standards possible then it is a nonissue.

    In any case, this article is detracting from the intent of the referencing article that the Streetcar system is basically a political tool used to enhance the political and socioeconomic lives of proponents and the residents in the surrounding area – within the 25 years of course.

    It’s too far off and too costly so let’s get our minds out of the Streetcar debate and focus on real economic development. Sure, the streetcar bet is a long game of “If we build it they will come” but we can play a different game of incentivizing downtown renewal with suburban connections that includes better VIA connections and more economic hubs like the Medical Center, the Pearl and Brooks.

    If we’re going to spend federal funds then we should do so in a way that connects city hubs rather than the whole city or part of the city. The LSTAR could be a way to do that.

  2. Another debunking of Americans For Prosperity’s “grassroots” anti-streetcar side

    • Why would we vote on it? Do we vote on every distinct expenditure? A small minority of citizens who ironically likely live in the excessively government subsidized suburbs do not get to have votes just because they disagree with an expenditure. There is a representative system of government in place and the citizens of San Antonio have made their voices heard by electing council people and county commissioners who support the street car project. It would be anti-democratic to allow a small minority of the population to force a vote on a project through the influence of a misinformation campaign.

      If we’re going to vote on street car, then I want to have a vote on every outlay of funds to build/maintain roads, utilities, and infrastructure to low density suburbs that I never utilize. The city and county spend far less on me as an inner city resident. Why should my tax dollars be subsidizing some infrastructure welfare recipient out in the burbs?

      • My exact sentiment Texhorn. Citizens do not get a vote on road infrastructure growth. It happens, whether it is beneficial or not. A growing body of literatures argues that low-density, single use development does not create the value needed to support the expansion of infrastructure and services, and that poor decisions on transportation (auto-dominant transportation) and land-use (low-density, single use) is the root source of local and state fiscal challenges.

        There seems to be this widespread belief that transportation should not be subsidized, ignoring the fact the roads are nearly 100% subsidized, and any attempt to un-subsidize them (toll roads) leads to an outcry of injustice. Yet, the idea that alternative modes of transit, whether it’s bus, rail, walking, or cycling, is subsidized meets vocal opposition as either a waste of money or unjust because voters didn’t get to vote on it. I would love the opportunity to vote on road projects. I promise you I would not support the $30 million wasted on Redland Rd expansion, the $30 million wasted on Hausman Rd expansion, or the $1 billion dollars being dumped into Loop 1604. And, if you look at the MPO master plan, it includes expansion of Highway 46 as the next great loop.

        This argument basically summarizes as “I don’t live downtown, I don’t go downtown, but I want to tell people who do how to travel, and I want you to make every trip the same way I do, by car.” When you look at who is funding the campaign against rail, it’s not surprising that is largely funded by those with an interest in auto dependence and sprawl. Red McCombs, the Koch brothers, and developers. Their interests and my interests conflict. Throw in a little support from police and fire unions as they try to find leverage to protect their own interests and you have a committed group of individuals who are making a great fight on dishonest intentions. Let’s face it, although the fire union wants you to believe the choice is being made between street cars and fire trucks, the truth is their real interest is not more fire trucks, but free healthcare.

        If we are going to demand public vote for every subsidized transportation investment, then let’s do it right and open road projects to public vote as well.

  3. As long as it’s affordable people will ride on the streetcars instead of driving all their family in their SUV. It has to be a win for the family.

  4. to me this just sounds like who ever put the idea up just need something on paper to say look what he brought to the table and accomplished…it doesn’t even help the city we live in a small town that you can pretty much walk to …what is wrong with the trollys ? we need to be a town of reviving what we have…our funds are being placed in the wrong places and yet cutting back from the best places…tired of the wrong impression this town gets…faux pas has run amok and people are loving it…wow… regardless of how the benefits have been for other cities this town is just another wasted extravagance..but I guess we gotta push to have another brand new…look what we did too …aye

  5. IMO we need to have a long term talk about where we go as a city, just how many citizens do we have the water for is one question. I’m not sure we can have unlimited grows developer say we will have. And if we begin to question those numbers what then about the need vs the price…. would BRT be a better compromise. I say we talk first then vote.

    • The power grid was put in well before 1984, and since it was first built, has been continuously expanded in geographic coverage and capacity. That will continue.

  6. Thanks Bill for your work. Just looking at cost per mile figures of public infrastructure costs that advance our Texas communities: a. Austin’s LIGHT RAIL plan is 60 million dollars per mile at 9.5 miles; b. San Antonio’s STREET CAR is 47 million dollars per mile at 5.9 miles; and c. the San Pedro Creek ‘beautification’ project is 116 million dollars per mile at 1.5 miles total……..Why isn’t the anti street car group against the San Pedro creek project as it benefits only the property owners along that stretch? Just saying…..

  7. The paper you cite uses data from a wide variety of not-necessarily compatible sources to compare streetcars with other vehicles. Let’s look at raw data.

    According to the 2012 National Transit Database, the Little Rock streetcar uses 26,000 BTUs per passenger mile. Tampa and Memphis use more than 10,000. Portland and Tacoma used under 5,000, but Tacoma’s is free and Portland’s was free over most of its route (it collected an average of 4 cents per passenger mile). If they weren’t free, they’d get fewer riders and a higher energy cost per passenger mile.

    According to the most recent edition of the Transportation Energy Data Book, the average SUV uses 6,900 BTUs per vehicle mile. Average SUV occupancy is about 1.7 per vehicle, so that’s about 4,100 BTUs per vehicle mile. That’s less than Tacoma’s streetcar, and probably will be less than Portland’s now that Portland is charging a fare over its entire route.

    Last I heard, VIA planned to charge a dollar a ride for its streetcar, so its energy per passenger mile will probably be more like Tampa’s or Memphis’s than Tacoma’s or Portland’s.

    Texas gets more than 80 percent of its electricity from burning fossil fuels, so high BTUs per passenger mile will translate to high emissions of both ozone and CO2. Energy is fungible, so even if VIA bought electricity from “clean” sources, that would be so much less clean energy available to other Texans, who would then have to use “dirty” electricity.

  8. OK. So you take a bus. Remove the rubber tires. Replace with steel wheels so it can only ride in a fixed track. Now build a bunch of ugly overhead wires all up and down the streets of downtown. Get taxpayers to fork over $300 million for this.

    Now tell me why anyone who won’t ride a bus will suddenly feel compelled to choose this form of transportation.

    If you want a rail system, let’s build a real rail system that takes people from where they live to where they need to go faster than they can get there in a car or bus.

    The proposed system, with it’s truncated routes and no connections to park-and-rides or residential areas will be nothing more than a more expensive way to move tourists around.

    The fact that we waste even more money on road systems does not make the streetcar idea any more solid.

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