The El Paso Streetcar continues to struggle with ridership after the COVID-19 pandemic thwarted operations in 2020, prompting Mayor Oscar Leeser to consider scaling back its future operations.
Ridership has varied greatly since the electric streetcars started operating in November 2018 – shutting down for more than a year during the pandemic and then running only a few days a week.
“The intent of this item never put them at risk, optimizing their use was the intent of this item,” Leeser told El Paso Matters about why he placed an item on Tuesday’s City Council agenda asking that the streetcars only operate during special events. He said he wants city management to explore what will work, adding that he has received feedback from the community concerned about the streetcars running empty.
The City Council instead voted to direct city staff to conduct an economic impact study, assess economic development along the streetcars’ 4.8-mile route, and determine the impact that different operating hours would have on access to public transportation in the Downtown and Uptown/UTEP areas. City Reps. Brian Kennedy and Alexsandra Annello voted against the motion. The information will be presented in 90 days.
The streetcars saw more than 220,000 riders from November 2018 to the end of the fiscal year in August 2019, according to figures provided to the City Council by Deputy City Manager Tracey Jerome. The streetcars run in two loops – one that runs in Downtown and another that connects Downtown to the University of Texas at El Paso.
Ridership dipped to about 188,800 in fiscal year 2020, when the cars ran for only six months because operations ceased in March during the pandemic. The streetcars didn’t begin operating again until July 2021, and then only ran a few times a week and during special events. In the two months of fiscal year 2021 – July and August – the streetcars saw about 5,200 passengers.
Last fiscal year – only the second year they operated a full 12 months – the streetcars had a little more than 47,000 riders, although the cars were still on limited schedules for most of that time.
Nearly 55,000 passengers have ridden the streetcars in the first seven months of the current fiscal year, when the city increased its days and hours of operation.
The streetcars now run from 3 to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday, according to the city’s website. They also run on extended hours during city events and festivals, as well as during sporting events. The streetcars host onboard events such as Trolley Tracks, a streetcar music series, and often have guest readers or presenters.
The city anticipates ridership will climb to about 84,000 this fiscal year.
“I can tell you that if an airline flies around empty they’re not going to continue to fly the same route – they’re going to adjust and maximize … but if they continue to fly empty, they’re going to be out of business,” Leeser said during Tuesday’s meeting. He said he has a hard time accepting that the city is supposed to be losing money, referring to comments from streetcar proponents who argued that they weren’t intended to serve as a way to generate revenue, but rather, an economic development and tourism draw.
The streetcar’s annual operating budget is about $2.9 million and is funded by sales tax revenue, which is part of the city’s Mass Transit Department budget. Initial estimates for the annual operating costs for the street cars were about $2.5 million a year. Preventative maintenance, estimated at about $1.5 million for this fiscal year, is paid by grants from the Federal Transportation Administration, according to the city.
There is currently no fee to ride the streetcar, though standard fares were $1.50 when it first started operating in 2018.
Kennedy said he supports finding ways to maximize the streetcar operations because there are inequities in the public transportation system.
“I think we’re gonna get deep in the weeds and I think that it’s going to be unfair, because what could some of that money do? It could help fund some other bus lines to some of the outlying areas where they’re not being serviced right now – and that’s my concern,” Kennedy said.
Annello said the City Council as a whole has done a poor job with public transportation.
“I’ve spoken many times about my concerns about the public transit system in this city (and) across the city and I think we as a council really need to take a step back and figure out how we’re going to improve that – and improve that citywide,” Annello said. She added that while she didn’t think limiting streetcar operations was the best approach, she supported it.
The attempt to limit the streetcar operations drew about 15 people to speak during public comment both in favor of limiting their use and against, including former city Rep. Peter Svarzbein, who strongly advocated bringing the streetcars back into operation.
“There’s not a public transit system in the world that pays for itself,” Svarzbein said. “Just like roads, they don’t pay for themselves. But rarely do we hear people say, ‘there’s only one person driving on that road,’ or ‘there’s only one person in that park – shut it down – or that library, let’s cut its hours.’”
Construction of the $97 million state-funded project was overseen by the Camino Real Regional Mobility Authority. The project included renovating six vintage President’s Conference Committee streetcars that were used in El Paso until 1974 when the electric streetcars first ceased operating. Sun Metro took over streetcar operations in 2018.