Last month, the Department of Transportation announced that it will fork over an $18 million TIGER grant for the first phase of Fort Lauderdale's proposed Wave Streetcar. The plan, which city officials have been molding since 2004, features a ten-station, 2.7-mile trolley-like system intended to shuttle folks around downtown.
Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Alcee Hastings have praised the federal windfall, saying it will create jobs, promote sustainability, and make getting around downtown less horrible. But will a few shiny new street cars and information kiosks cut through a deeply ingrained driving culture and reinvent transportation?
Randal O'Toole, a scholar with libertarian think-tank the Cato Institute, says absolutely not. "I like to call it faith-based transportation planning," he tells New Times. "They don't consider reality. All the planners consider is what they wish people would do."
A report recently written by O'Toole called "The Great Streetcar Conspiracy" argues that streetcars, monorails, light rails, and whatever else you want to call them are an elaborate ruse concocted by engineering firms, contractors, and elected officials to bilk billions in tax dollars.
O'Toole argues that those who support these types of projects focus on two alleged benefits: that streetcars spur local economic development and that they provide service that's superior to buses. The economic development benefits, he says, are a hoax based around misleading figures often cited from Portland's rail project, which don't account for the "hundreds of millions of dollars of infrastructure subsidies, tax breaks, and other incentives to build in the streetcar corridor."
It's not that O'Toole is flat-out opposed to public transportation as a whole. His beef is mainly with city rail projects that carry exorbitant price tags and can't be modified after completion.
"Buses are so much better than trains in every situation except Manhattan... Buses can carry and move more people faster and for less money," he says. "Because buses can diverge routes from main corridors, they can serve a lot of different neighborhoods. With trains, it's really expensive to build rails, so they build one track and expect everyone to get off at a stop, then take a bus to their destination."
According to the Wave Streetcar project's website, the streetcar will link areas like the Riverfront with the Publix on SE Sixth Street and the North Broward Hospital District. Construction could begin in 2014 and carry a total price tag of $140 million. The developers argue that "knowing that a route will remain the same forever... allows investment to occur" in the area.
It should be noted that the Wave Streetcar's website also contains numerous references to Portland's project, which it touts as a success. However, O'Toole's report shows that public transit carried 9.8 percent of commuters in Portland when it consisted only of buses. After adding the light rails, 7.1 percent of commuters used Portland's transit services.
"Do Fort Lauderdale officials know that they'll have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get the level of redevelopment they think will come from the streetcar?" O'Toole asks. "Or are they just building it because the federal government agreed to pay X percent and they don't want to lose that federal funding?"