Friday, September 18, 2009

A Streetcar Named Misfire

A wise man once said that "a town with money is a little like the mule with a spinning wheel. No one knows how he got it and danged if he knows how to use it."

As part of the Great Stimulus Swindle of 2009 (TM), the City of Milwaukee received $64 Million earmarked for a rail system that it doesn't need. Today the City unveiled its plans. The plan is aimed at "east side commuters" (read: carting a minuscule number of affluent condo-dwellers to their white collar jobs downtown).

How minuscule? The proposed lines provide coverage to census tracts 110, 113, 132, 141, 143, 144, 145, 152, and 153. The population of this area during the 2000 census was 14,479. Overall the downtown population has grown around 1.3 per year. So16,264 is a good estimate of population of the proposed service area. In any event, screw good estimates. Let's assume for the sake of argument that the population exploded to 20,000.

So how many of those 20,000 are commuters? Well, in the 2000 census, around 70% of residents of the 53212 zip code were over the age of 16 and of those, 62% were in the labor force. If those numbers hold true, that means there are around 8738 commuters (again, remember this is based upon an artificially high population of 20,000).

Okay, so assuming that there are 8738 commuters, how many of them are likely riders? Traditionally, less than 10% of Milwaukee commuters take public transportation. "Ah ha!" you say. "But that's because Milwaukee only has buses and nobody wants to ride some crummy old bus, but everyone will want to ride a 'streetcar' because it is a bus on rails!" you continue.

So for the sake of argument let's assume that Milwaukee matches Chicago at 25% commuter ridership. That still means that only 2184 city commuters will ride the trolley.

At $64 Million the City plans to spend $29,304 per rider. As a point of reference, the MSRP on a new Prius is $24,270. The City could buy every one of its future trolley riders a new Prius and still have $5,000 per rider left over for something frivolous like education or something.

And that's overestimating the population of the service area and the likely ridership percentage. If you use the more likely numbers, the total ridership sinks down to 708 riders. In that case the cost per rider is $90,395!

I recognize that the City got a $64 Million "windfall" from the federal government to build a rail system, but we have to do better than this.

But to take a step back, why does the City need a rail system? Rail is really nice in cities that have major traffic congestion and parking scarcity. Milwaukee doesn't have those problems. In fact, Milwaukee is ranked as the third best city in the country for commuting.

So why do we need rail? It is a "necessary investment to keep Milwaukee economically competitive with other cities that have or are building rail lines." That's right: we have to keep up with Shelbyville.

We definitely want to stay "economically competitive." How can we can possibly be economically competitive if our condo-dwellers ride buses on tires instead of buses on rails.

It's quite simple really:
  • Phase 1: Build streetcars
  • Phase 2: ?
  • Phase 3: Profit


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