As you know, I have been critical over the years about the cost of the streetcars. This week we learned that in 2022 they had an operating loss of $2.9 million, with 65,000 free rides, which means that each ride was subsidized $44.62, while our buses were subsidized $8.77 per ride.
I realize that public transportation systems are normally subsidized, but in the case of our streetcars, the subsidy is unacceptable.
The reason for this is that the project was poorly planned from the outset. Peter Svarzbein and the developers pushed for the current route, which connects the Segundo Barrio with Kern Place and serves little practical purpose aside from entertainment. And no, I do not believe that there are many people commuting to work on the streetcars or relying upon them for their daily needs. There is no data to support that.
I am writing to suggest a pragmatic solution.
The City could build an extension of the streetcar line from the intersection of Kansas and Texas to the Airport. The distance is only 6.6 miles and could be completed at a cost of around $150-200 million. See my attached map.
Sun Metro has a budget of $93 million that has never been thoroughly analyzed with the aim of finding efficiencies. Up to $65 million of those funds come from the half-penny from our sales tax that is earmarked for transit.
Sun Metro could be directed to find $5 million annually from the sales tax portion of their budget for the construction of the extension to the airport so the project can be leverage-financed without increasing the Sun Metro budget or raising taxes. This would require some financial creativity but it could be achieved provided there is a steady and reliable cash flow. It may require decreasing streetcar service in the interim, increasing bus fares, and trimming fat. In fact, the entire cost for the extension could be financed from the Sun Metro budget.
Moreover, the City could apply for a federal and/or state grant to connect downtown with our Airport so as to reduce automobile traffic on I-10 and vehicle emissions, provide a new and affordable service to our community, and save our streetcars from oblivion.
The City can ask Peter to pay for any budget shortfall. 😂
Ellen Smyth, Chief Transit and Fields Operations Officer for the City of El Paso, told me that one of our busiest bus routes is the one connecting our Airport with the International Bridge downtown. That route could be replaced with streetcar service provided the service is regular, fast, and reliable (three times faster than the current route, with less stops).
A feasibility study would likely show that my proposed route would be practical in terms of passenger demand and general utility. Many El Pasoans would be happy to not pay $7.00/day to park their cars in the sun while they are out of town, and to not pay for expensive taxis or Uber rides. Visitors would love the novelty of boarding a street car from the Airport terminal and heading straight to their downtown hotel.
Furthermore, my proposed 6.6-mile route would connect our downtown with the Texas Avenue corridor and the heart of Five Points.
I would further suggest retrofitting the streetcars so there is an area for luggage inside and eliminating that awful tinted glass, which makes it very difficult to see outside and enjoy the views.
The Libertarian that I am, I am normally opposed to large expenditures of this nature but recognize that the streetcars are a valuable asset and that a solution (which does not expand our City budget our raise our taxes) must be found to make them solvent or they will ultimately be eliminated.
With strong leadership from our Mayor and key members of City Council, I believe my proposal could be successfully implemented.