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Streetcar projects across the country struggle, cost taxpayers millions

Atlanta's streetcar runs past Centennial Olympic Park (Photo: Alex Brauer, Sinclair Broadcast Group)
Atlanta's streetcar runs past Centennial Olympic Park (Photo: Alex Brauer, Sinclair Broadcast Group)
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ATLANTA (SBG) — You could say we’re in the middle of a streetcar renaissance, with the old-fashioned transportation getting a modern reboot in many cities across the country. But critics say they’re nothing more than vanity projects that waste your tax money.

In downtown Atlanta, a sleek, blue streetcar runs a nearly three-mile loop, circling past Olympic Park and a giant Ferris wheel with panoramic views of the city. But when Benita Dodd sees it, she thinks, "What a waste of money."

Dodd, the vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, calls it a streetcar named disaster. In an interview for a piece done with our partner, Full Measure, she called streetcars yesteryear’s technology and transit. Still, streetcar projects are moving forward, at modern cost.

Atlanta’s streetcar cost nearly $100 million, paid for in large part by taxpayers. And while initially free, once people had to hand over $1 to hop on board, ridership dropped by more than 50-percent. But that didn’t stop plans to expand it.

"They have the bottomless wallet of taxpayers to reach into. They can continue funding this to infinity," Benita Dodd with Georgia Public Policy Foundation explained.

As cities across the country get on board with streetcars, David Williams, with Taxpayers Protection Alliance, has been counting how much it costs them. He said, "There’s streetcar envy. Once city, we’ll see another city do a streetcar and go, 'Oh that looks beautiful. Let’s do that.' And unfortunately, after millions of dollars are spent, they find out it’s a waste of money."

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into Seattle’s streetcar, which reports show loses money. That city's system made headlines when the city ordered cars that didn’t fit on the tracks. In St. Louis earlier this year, the operator of the city's streetcar had to ask for nearly $750,000 just to keep the system running. And in Cincinnati, the $150 million streetcar was plagued by mechanical problems, mold and lower than expected ridership.

Still some cities, including Kansas City and the nation's capital, tout success. In Washington, D.C., where the streetcar took nine years and $200 million to build, Mayor Muriel Bowser celebrated how the system helped revitalize an underserved corridor. At a celebration, she said, “We said it would spur economic development, and it has done exactly that." But Full Measure's reporting showed there's hardly a connection between streetcars and development. For more on that click here.

Riders of DC's free streetcar still consider it a valuable public transportation alternative, with one rider telling us, "The only way I can think of to improve their efficiency would be to give them a dedicated lane. But it kind of seems like the ship has sailed on that."

And streetcar projects sail on across the country despite critics like Benita Dodd, who says cities shouldn't bother.

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"Give up. And say to anyone who is even thinking about a streetcar that it doesn’t work," Dodd said. "Spend your dollars on something wiser. Spend your transit money on something better that serves a transit need for the public."

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