Editorial: Hop off the trolley


Published: Tuesday, April 30, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, April 29, 2013 at 2:38 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission is becoming its own worst enemy.

Case in point: Its 6-1 decision last month to pay a consultant up to $100,000 to study the possibility of a downtown streetcar system.

If the commission wants to build public support for a possible transportation tax that would provide revenue for mass transit, the idea of a streetcar is hardly helping the cause.

As the area faces more pressing priorities including badly needed road repairs, it's a distraction to waste time on a streetcar that wouldn't be built for a decade or more. Its potential price tag — an early projection is $128 million for infrastructure and annual operating costs of $2 million — is Exhibit A for critics of the commission's extravagant spending.

The frustrating part is the idea of an urban circulator has some merit. The Innovation Square development is growing, with Boston-area mobile app developer Mobiquity being the latest company to locate there. It's a good idea to provide fast and reliable transit options for students and workers moving between the businesses there, the University of Florida campus, the hospital complex and downtown.

It just doesn't require the metal rails and other costly infrastructure necessary for a streetcar. A bus could serve the same purpose — with the difference in costs paying for improvements such as better stations and even a design that gives it a trolley-like appearance.

In addition to the $100,000 approved by the commission, the city is seeking $1 million in federal money for future phases of a streetcar study. City Commissioner Thomas Hawkins said such studies are needed simply to know whether the project is worth pursuing.

But the city is already in the middle of studying another transportation concept, bus rapid transit. Hawkins and other backers need to do a better job explaining the benefits of bus rapid transit to the public, rather than muddying the waters with another costly possibility.

Alachua County's transportation summit last month showed that there's consensus building in support of placing a transportation tax referendum on the 2014 ballot. While representatives of local organizations gave support for mass transit getting funding from the tax, there was skepticism among some of them and members of the public about high-priced projects that drain money from other priorities.

The commission's mistakes with the biomass contract have given reason to be wary of another expensive, long-term commitment. Bus rapid transit may be a great idea, but the commission is going to have to do a better job developing and selling the idea before the public gets on board. Asking them to also hop on the idea of a streetcar system is expecting too much.

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