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Fort Lauderdale Approves Heavily Maligned $270M Streetcar

A rendering of the Wave streetcar

About 15 years ago, Fort Lauderdale officials first proposed a streetcar project to promote development in the city's downtown.

Critics say it uses clunky, antiquated technology, that ridership will be low and that it will not alleviate traffic — in fact, it may make it worse. Not a foot of track has been laid. Still, last night, commissioners voted to keep the proposed 2.8-mile system, dubbed the Wave, on life support.

Developers did not need a streetcar to start building in Fort Lauderdale, which has been experiencing an unprecedented boom. In a newspaper op-ed before the vote, Mayor Jack Seiler noted that the city of 179,000 is set to absorb even more people, with 19,000 units newly built or in the development pipeline in downtown alone.

To build the Wave, roads would have to be ripped up, tracks would have to be laid in street lanes that are used by cars and an overhead electrical system would be constructed to power it. The average speed would be 8 miles per hour, so the streetcars would likely clog traffic. 

"I have concerns about the Wave product — overhead wires and underground infrastructure are not ideal," Seiler wrote in his op-ed. "Moving forward, we must upgrade the Wave to reduce or eliminate the need for both."

Last night, Seiler reportedly asked the streetcar manufacturer, Siemens, whether it could be converted to a wireless system. He was told that was not possible with current technology. Seiler would go on to vote for the project anyway. 

In his op-ed, the mayor pointed out that almost $200M had already been committed to the Wave by various federal, state, county and city entities, plus transit agencies. He said that abandoning the Wave could jeopardize the city's ability to get funding for future projects, and the Wave would ultimately be part of a regional transit network that is slowly coming into focus.

Portland's streetcar was a model for the controversial Wave streetcar in Fort Lauderdale.

Citizens have long been skeptical, and more so as projected building costs came in about $100M higher than initially projected, bringing the current price tag to about $270M. It would cost another $6M annually to operate. Its funding plan would take away dollars intended for a poor, black neighborhood, but the streetcar would not operate in that district — a "reverse Robin Hood," as one critic described it. 

Some opponents pleaded with the city not to spend millions of dollars until better solutions could be developed. Five streetcars — just the cars, not the infrastructure — cost $28M, whereas five buses would cost $4M, the critics' website said. The streetcar would likely never connect to the airport, as originally promised. 

Last night's vote was on whether to approve a cost-sharing agreement with the county, which would require the city to pick up cost overruns and also send the project back out to bid. The vote was rushed because $10M of allocated federal grant money would have to be forfeited if the project does not get underway imminently, due to deadlines outlined by the grant. 

Four out of five commissioners, including Seiler, are set to be replaced in a March 13 election, and all six candidates running have vowed to kill the Wave.