A Slow Track To Nowhere

June 20, 2013 Current Commentary Comments Off
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empty streetcar tracks in Tampa
photo by Doug Kerr

Fort Lauderdale residents who like carousels are in luck. Soon they will have a new way to go in circles without getting much of anywhere.

The Wave is a planned streetcar system for downtown, allegedly modeled on the Portland Streetcar system that began operation in 2001. The proposal for Fort Lauderdale is a 2.7-mile loop with 10 stops. Though the precise locations of the stops have not been finalized, they will likely include several apartment complexes, downtown government buildings and Broward General Medical Center. The stops will not include major existing shopping centers, the dozens of major stores along U.S. 1 (known locally as Federal Highway), or beach access. It’s only Fort Lauderdale. Why would anyone want to go to the beach?

The Downtown Development Authority hopes that if they build it, shops and restaurants (and eventually shoppers and diners) will come. But it is not at all clear that the Wave, as proposed, will get many people out of their cars. Drivers are more likely to be sitting behind the 13 mile-per-hour streetcars sharing their traffic lanes.

Unlike the rubber-wheeled Sun Trolley buses, which run a route similar to that of the proposed streetcars, streetcars can’t be rerouted if needs are misjudged in the first place or if they change in the future. The DDA is trying to frame this lack of flexibility as a feature rather than a drawback. Business investors, say the boosters, will find the permanence and predictability of streetcars attractive. Of course, if the promised shops, restaurants and other destinations fail to appear, the Wave will loop through the same neighborhoods, permanently and predictably and mostly empty. God forbid the government offices it would serve ever need to move.

There are some fundamental differences between Florida and the Pacific Northwest, the most obvious of which is the climate. For about half the year, Fort Lauderdale offers broiling heat or pouring rain, neither of which is conducive to waiting up to 7.5 minutes (at peak times) for the next streetcar. We also have the occasional severe thunderstorm, and the even more occasional hurricane. The streetcars’ overhead wires would supposedly be “hurricane hardened.” If such wires existed, Florida Power and Light would install them, and we would not all own emergency generators. We are further assured that the overhead streetcar lines will be repaired if they suffer damage – rather than the alternative of leaving them damaged and unusable, I suppose.

Portland’s streetcar system also connects to a broader public transit network that includes a regional light rail system. We have regional rail in Florida too, but none of it runs to or through downtown Fort Lauderdale. The railway tracks that run through downtown carry only freight trains. And all those rails run north-south, while most of the commuting in Fort Lauderdale comes from the Broward County suburbs, eastbound in the morning and westbound in the evening. So what route did they draw up for the Wave?

North-south, parallel to the existing conventional rails that are mostly useless for passenger purposes. The Wave’s cheerleaders assure us that, someday, there will be a variety of extensions and connections to bring some utility to this new hardware.

So why streetcars for Fort Lauderdale? For one, when there’s federal money, why not use it? That, at least, seems to be the theory. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a bundle of financial aid for transportation projects last year, including an $18 million grant to help kick-start the Wave. In addition, the project is currently in the process of applying for just under $50 million from the Transportation Department’s Small Starts program. The estimated initial cost for the program is $142.59 million total. Keep in mind that such initial estimates are almost always severely low-balled.

Even at the planned budget, additional funds will have to come from Fort Lauderdale’s city government, Broward County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Florida Department of Transportation – and me. About $20 million of the Wave’s projected startup costs is projected to come from a special assessment, affecting over 5,800 homes and rental units, according to the Sun Sentinel. One of those properties is my apartment. The flier I received along with my notice of the assessment assured me that “Those who own property near the Wave will benefit substantially from its existence, even if they don’t ride it.” And if we don’t, well, that permanence and predictability we discussed earlier will come in to play. I will have to pay the planned assessment for 25 years – at least.

I have written before about trains to nowhere, in projects both local and national. Public transportation can be valuable, of course, but it is always worth critically examining what the demand truly is, and what the costs over the long haul will truly be.

Michael Mayo, a columnist for the Sun Sentinel, was critical of the Wave proposal back in March. “[W]hy start here? If we’re looking to bake a transit cake, shouldn’t this project be the frosting at the end, not the batter at the beginning?” Until the Wave connects to other useful modes of transit, and stops where people want to go, it’s an unlikely place to start. It happens to be where the “free” federal dollars are, however, so it is where we are starting.

Now that the decision to build the Wave has already been made, residents subject to the special assessment have been invited to meetings to offer our irrelevant comments and get our questions answered. Presumably, those questions are not meant to include: “Why do we need streetcars at all?”


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