Can a Streetcar cost less than a Faux Trolley?

March 24, 2011 186 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Bob Mann, the resident transit consultant and ferroequinologist, examines the difference in the two systems and demonstrates that in a short number of years the faux trolley actually costs us more than a streetcar.

The following article demonstrates a vast gulf between the trolley and faux trolley camps. One could call this "Clueless in Ogden," the sadest part is our own JTA has recently suggested that the "Riverside Trolley" will do three things:

1. Demonstrate the need/demand for a real streetcar  

2. Build "Trolley" ridership for a future streetcar

3. Create infrastructure stations, stops and streetscapes for a real streetcar.

The faux trolley, commonly known as the PCT or Potato Chip Truck.

The trolley, also known as a streetcar.

The following article reprinted from the New York Museum of Transportation "Headend" newsletter expresses concern over the faux - lie perpetuated by many across the country.


Some time back in these pages we offered a review of what a "trolley" is. We associate the word most often with electric streetcars and interurbans, and as we pointed out the term actually derives from the way the electric power for such vehicles is drawn by means of a spring-loaded pole bearing on an overhead wire. In our museum publicity efforts we even promote the fact that NYMT operates the "only trolley ride in New York State", and we do so with the knowledge that the only other competitor, light rail in nearby Buffalo, has cars equipped with a form of pantograph for overhead power pick-up that are thus not truly "trolley" cars.

With all that said, though, we might be fighting a losing battle in the public education department. We refer here to the rising popularity of those buses dolled up to vaguely resemble a streetcar. We’ve all seen them. They come in small "party" versions and in the large economy size that can fill in on a regular bus route. They're decorated in a style that looks like the designer got his or her inspiration from watching Mr. Rogers or "Meet Me in St. Louis", all multi-colored sheet metal and varnished wood, with a "cow catcher" just below the bike rack.

Worst of all, most members of the general public are far removed in time from the era when streetcars were commonplace in cities throughout the country. So, they have no real experience to refer to, and blithely assume that a "trolley" is that gaudy bus coming down the road. We don't know whether to laugh or pity these uninformed souls. In fact, they seem to be having such fun, we almost hate to burst their bubble.

Unless the particular metro area discussing streetcar verses PCT faux trolley has a tool such as, which at least gives us a chance to educate the political leadership and local media, most cities and reporters remain clueless... read on.

OGDEN -- The city plans to introduce two trolley-style buses to serve downtown in a yearlong $175,400 experiment to determine ridership for a possible permanent streetcar system.

The buses should begin operating within two months and will transport passengers six days a week, said Mayor Matthew Godfrey.

"It will help link all of downtown together," he said.....

Both trolley replicas would remain in operation for at least a year to collect ridership data for a proposed $160 million streetcar system extending along a busy corridor from the Intermodal Hub to Weber State University and McKay-Dee Hospital, both on Harrison Boulevard.

Introduction of the trolley replicas will help gauge whether a streetcar system would be successful, said Greg Scott, a transportation planner for the Wasatch Front Regional Council.

"It's a good realistic way to have wheels on the ground to see if it will fly."

Full article:

However, Brad Thomas at the Cincy Streetcar Blog explains why Ogden's plan may fail.

Ogden using $175,400 experiment to determine streetcar system need

The city plans to introduce two trolley-style buses to serve downtown in a yearlong $175,400 experiment to determine ridership for a possible permanent streetcar system.

Operational costs, including the hiring of two drivers, fuel purchases and marketing, would total about $116,500.

Brad Thomas at the Cincy Streetcar Blog explains why that’s a bad idea. That’s $175,400 less money Ogden will have available to build their permanent streetcar system, and odds are the buses won’t be an accurate predictor of future streetcar ridership anyway. My prediction: the temporary trolley buses will be deemed a failure, and Ogden’s streetcar project will flounder, which is exactly what Cincinnati’s naysayers hoped would happen with our own streetcar project when they proposed trolley bus look-alikes. (And a quick browse of the comments section of the Standard-Examiner article proves that isn’t the only newspaper site with a comments section dominated by knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers.)

Meanwhile, Tucson, Arizona's nearly 20 year old faux trolley experience suggests the challenges of using a faux trolley to gage the success of a real streetcar.

Starting on April 17, 1993, Tucson unwittingly began a test of whether riders prefer genuine streetcars or rubber-tired ersatz trolleys. So far the electric choice seems to be well ahead. During May, the first full month of operation, three times as many riders paid four times as much to ride half as far in the newly restored rail line than they would have paid to ride a modern “trolley” bus.

A ride on the historic line costs one dollar while the SunTran shuttle bus fare is twenty-five cents. The trolley line is only one mile in length while the bus route is about two miles and connects more activity centers including downtown Tucson and the convention center. Further discouraging riders, the streetcar only runs three days a week while the bus runs six days.

Although the streetcar duplicates the university end of the bus route, operating hours are such that Saturday daytime is the only period during the week that the two modes directly compete. Current streetcar hours are Friday, 6 P.M. to midnight; Saturday, 10A.M. to midnight; and Sunday, noon to 6 P.M. The dressed-up buses operate Monday through Saturday, daytime only.

Full article:

Tampa TECO Streetcar

So what will the new mayor of Jacksonville want to do? Oh I know, cut taxes and cut transit services, and generally propel us backward somewhere between neanderthalensis and the Jurassic Period.  So just how much COULD a "JTA style PCT Trolley Thing" save us over "expensive investments in fixed rail." Glad you asked.


The harm from our clinking, clanking, clattering collection of faux trolleys will be threefold — direct costs, opportunity costs, and lack of probative value.

The direct cost has been the costs of acquiring and operating the PCT buses.  In order for the PCT experiment to be as accurate as possible, the buses have to have a similar capacity and frequency to the streetcars. Like that will ever happen on JTA.

A single Birney (Tampa-Little Rock) streetcar can carry around 90 passengers.  The average PCT will carry 30 people.  Imagine that we could easily start a riverside streetcar line with 7 rail cars. Our fleet of PCT'S will have to number 21 to have the same seating capacity as the 7 Birney type streetcars.  Imagine the crowds that pack Everbank Field, the baseball grounds, arena, Landing, Art Walk, Riverwalk, or the TU Center, and on a line that extends from the Sports District to Park and King in Riverside, 7 streetcars doing the work of 21 buses. If JTA goes ahead with hybrid engines on the PCT'S the sticker price is a tad over $625,000 dollars a copy. A brand new heritage Birney Streetcar will run about $1,200,000 each. So for 21 PCT buses?  CHA CHING! $13,125,000 dollars worth of "savings." The 7 streetcars?  $8,400,000 pretty close to half as much. Savings?


Since two thirds of mass transit costs are in "onboard personnel" drivers, motormen, engineers, conductors, etc... Break down the cost of 21 drivers, + two shifts (minimum) and you'll get 42 bus drivers, and we're not counting substitute drivers. Over on the TRACTION LINE for the same purposes we need 14 motormen... BIG SAVINGS JACKSONVILLE...HUGE. Keep on trackin' Juice fans.

Guesstimating that about one third of JTA'S budget is for mass transit, with 180 vehicles, one can assume that the average cost of operating a JTA bus is $185,000 dollars per year. This was calculated dividing JTA'S budget into thirds and dividing by the number of buses operated. Imagine blowing $3,885,000 annually for a fake. So let's say the cursed PCT'S run to the FTA maximum of 12 years, we'd drop $46,620,000 for a plastic "imitation trolley." Oh the savings just keep mounting. Meanwhile in Tampa, the TECO streetcar line operates 11 streetcars cars for 2,600,000 a year or about $236,000 annually per car. It would take 33 faux trolley buses to equal the same carrying capacity. In the same 12 year period one could expect JTA would spend $18,000,000 for real streetcars. Fleet Savings? $28,620,000 (It's that flushing sound a bus makes)

Wait! There's more! If we keep doing the Jacksonville Jig, sticking our heads in the sand while the world races past, the cost of money will go up. A similar system in another major city is estimated to escalate $5.1 million a year in price, so well save another $15.3 million in inflation alone. The other opportunity cost would be the delay of benefits to the city that would come from having a streetcar.  I will not attempt to quantify them in this posting, but it is something of which to be aware.

Combining the direct and opportunity costs leads to a cost of the twelve year PCT operation of over $48,645,000 million.  

The Streetcar will produce two main types of benefits — ridership benefits and economic development benefits.  The PCT will not.

Ridership on the PCT bus will be lower than it would be on a streetcar.  Route legibility of a bus route is worse than a streetcar.  Unlike a bus, someone unfamiliar with a streetcar route can see the tracks and know where the line goes.  People like to know where they are going and national statistical data on streetcar verses bus ridership bear this out.

Additionally to think our PCT can approach the performance of a streetcar assumes transit riders exhibit “mode-neutrality” when in reality they do not.  Mode-neutrality presumes that a transit rider will exhibit no preference for rail over buses.  This is not the case.  Many visitors to New York or Chicago will take the subway or the “EL” but will not ride a bus to get around.

Transit oriented development, as seen on a rainy day from the inside of a Tampa TECO Streetcar.

Finally, you will not receive the same economic development benefits with the bus as we would with a streetcar.  The reason the streetcar encourages economic development is because it is a permanent infrastructure investment. The tracks are laid in the ground and will not move.  People know that in 20 years the streetcar will still be running that route and make long term investments, like buying a house or opening a business, based on that fact.

By contrast, the very best bus route is not only temporary, it is explicitly temporary, even the highly vaunted BRT appears as a highway. Anyone who could wait to make an investment along the line likely would wait until the final decision on the streetcar could be made. If an entrepreneur wanted to locate a new business along the streetcar line because it would attract more customers and make it easier to get to the store, she would likely wait until the decision had been made on whether or not to actually build the streetcar before making the investment. Fewer people will buy a house or open a business along a bus route that will stop running in a few years and may or may not lead to a streetcar than would invest along an announced and funded streetcar line.

SOURCE: Taken, edited and recalculated to represent the Jacksonville Riverside "Trolley."

So at the end of 12 years of running the JTA PCT TROLLEY what do we have? A deserted road and a need to replace 21 buses, but if we built streetcar, we would own a transit system.

Article by Bob Mann