Today's loser: Fans of the historic waterfront streetcar. 

Proponents of bringing back the historic George Benson Waterfront Streetcar---which was shut down in 2005 when its maintenance base was torn down to make way for the Olympic Sculpture Park---as part of the big waterfront redevelopment argue that the historic streetcars are popular with tourists, can take some of the passenger load off nearby transit during tunnel construction and after the tunnel is built, and is the best option for carrying people to waterfront destinations like the aquarium, restaurants, shops, and parks in a narrow, heavy-traffic corridor.

But their most compelling option, to transit nerds, has always been this: Compared to the rest of Metro's system, where farebox revenues pay for less than a quarter of operating costs, the streetcar comes much closer to paying for itself. "Farebox recovery," the technical term for how much of a transit system's costs are funded by fares, was much higher on the streetcar than on Metro buses in general, streetcar proponents argue.

See, for example, this recent post on Crosscut by transportation writer C.B. Hall:

“My understanding is that the Benson streetcar had the best farebox recovery of all vehicles in the Metro system,” said Lloyd Flem, long-time executive director of All Aboard Washington, the state's passenger-rail advocacy organization.


Unfortunately for streetcar proponents, their best argument isn't true. According to Metro, during the last full year of streetcar operations, 2004, streetcar fares paid for 16 percent of its operating costs, compared to a 21 percent recovery rate for the system as a whole. Given that the Metro system necessarily includes many far-flung routes with low ridership (as opposed to a route that operates entirely in the high-ridership area of downtown), the streetcar shortfall is even more stark.

The bottom line is: Yes, we need a transit-based solution to congestion once the viaduct comes down. Yes, the streetcars were cute. And yes, historic preservation is important. But if money, not sentiment, is the appropriate benchmark for public spending, the historic streetcar shouldn't be a top priority.
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