Last week the Los Angeles City Council approved a nearly $600-million financial plan to build and operate a streetcar on a nearly four-mile loop in downtown. Yet despite the cascade of public dollars being pledged to the project, there’s still considerable skepticism over whether the streetcar will — or even should — be built.
The streetcar was first pitched more than a decade ago by the Community Redevelopment Agency and business leaders as a way to entice more investors downtown, but there’s little need to woo them now. Downtown is teeming with construction crews as developers refurbish historic buildings and erect new ones.
The project was also supposed to cost $125 million, half of which would be funded by a tax assessment approved by downtown property owners in 2012. The other half would come from federal transportation grants.
Today the price tag is $296 million. Some $200 million of that would be paid from the Measure M increase in local sales taxes — but the money won’t be available until 2053. (The council voted to ask Metro to provide the funding sooner, which is sure to spark a fight with the backers of numerous other projects vying to accelerate their funding.) And the city has voted to spend an additional $295 million in county sales tax revenue for operations and maintenance for the next 30 years.
In short, city leaders have committed nearly half a billion dollars to build what amounts to a glorified bus. Is this really the best use of precious, limited transportation funding?
The streetcar would cover a 3.8-mile loop between Staples Center and the Civic Center. It wouldn’t connect to the booming Arts District or to Disney Hall unless the city comes up with the money for an extension. It wouldn’t have a dedicated lane, meaning the trolley could get bogged down in the same traffic as other vehicles. It would travel routes already covered by the city’s DASH buses.
The project’s biggest booster is Councilman Jose Huizar, who has single-handedly kept it on track even as the price grew and the projected speed of the streetcar dwindled. Huizar has been a major force in revitalizing downtown, and he argues the streetcar will become essential as more people live and work downtown and need a better connection to area rail stations.
The population downtown is expected to grow, and there is a need for more transit options. But why is a pricey, slow-moving trolley the best solution? The fixation on the streetcar crowds out other options to help people move around downtown, such as, say, more buses. Real estate blog CurbedLA outlined several streetcar alternatives, such as a trolley bus or an electric train that rides virtual rails, that could hit the road in a matter of months, rather than years or even decades.
Real estate investors also want the streetcar because, unlike a bus, its route wouldn’t change; it would be etched in the asphalt. They know their property will always be streetcar-adjacent. But what’s good for investors isn’t necessarily good for the public, and the public shouldn’t be obligated to pay the vast majority of the bill for a project that’s designed to serve commercial interests.
If private investors want to put up the bulk of the money, then the streetcar would be more appealing. However, the bar for spending public transit dollars should much higher. Los Angeles needs more mass transit to help people get to jobs, schools and opportunities across the region. It needs fast, efficient transportation options to persuade people to leave their cars at home and cut greenhouse gas emissions.