Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Theme park developers opportunities

Most U.S. cities are run by people who love industrial policy. (And why not?) This is why so many projects are ludicrous and wasteful. This morning's WSJ includes "A Streetcar Named Aspire: Lines Aim to Revive Cities" (excerpted below).

At best, these things are tourist attractions (see punchline at the end of the story). The Disney people are much better at this but seem to be missing the opportunity to contract with city development and transit agencies around the U.S.

As usual, if all this is a way to spend large amounts of taxpayers' money and if there exists rhetoric that can associate these things with "economic development" (or anything "green" or anything "sustainable") then watch out.

Just a week ago, the WSJ wrote about the "successful development" prompted by Transit Oriented Development (TOD) plans and projects. Seldom mentioned is the fact that any development near these places tends to be subsidized and/or favored in the approvals process. And most people that move in keep and use their autos. So what's the point?

TAMPA, Fla. -- As a transportation system, this city's $63
million streetcar line is a dud.

Since the project opened in 2002, its financial losses have
exceeded expectations. Last year ridership declined 10% to its lowest level yet.
And the vintage system spans only 2.4 miles between the edge of downtown and a
historic district called Ybor City.

"It goes from no place to nowhere," says Hillsborough County
Commissioner Brian Blair, an opponent of the project.

But proponents say Tampa's Teco Line Streetcar System has
delivered on another front: helping to spur development. Some $450 million in
residential and retail space is complete along the route, most of it in the
Channel District, a once-languishing maritime neighborhood. With another $450
million in development underway and $1.1 billion in the planning stages, local
officials expect the district to be home to as many as 10,000 residents within
the next decade.

Out-of-town visitors make up more than half of all the riders
on Tampa's streetcar line.
Like stadiums, convention centers and aquariums,
streetcars have emerged as a popular tool in the effort to revitalize downtowns
in the U.S. About a dozen cities, from Madison, Wis., to Miami, are planning
lines. But while research shows that big-ticket projects such as ballparks
largely fail to spawn economic development, evidence is mounting that streetcars
are indeed a magnet.

Streetcar systems are slower, less expensive and smaller than
light rail, with cars that carry a maximum of 125 people and the average line
2-3 miles long. The cars are powered by electricity and run on tracks, which
developers tend to favor because they suggest a sense of permanence, unlike bus
routes, which can be changed overnight.

... Still, streetcars face considerable odds because they vie
for the same money as transportation projects designed to serve the suburbs.
This has been particularly true at the federal level, where funding has long
depended on how quickly projects can move people from one point to another.
Streetcars, which average under ten miles per hour, are at a distinct
disadvantage. By contrast, light rail moves at 20 to 60 miles per

.... While streetcars lack speed and mobility, proponents say
the role they play in urban development makes them a worthy transportation
choice. They argue that by helping to draw development to urban areas such as
downtowns, and by providing a transportation link in those areas, streetcars
reduce the need for extra lanes of highways to the suburbs and limit the need
for cars in and around downtowns.

.... Still, Tampa's streetcar line is still largely a tourist
attraction, drawing 389,770 riders last year, more than half of them out-of-town
visitors. A $4.75 million endowment set up to operate the streetcar system for
10 years is losing about $1 million a year. ...