The D.C. streetcar line should be up and running on H Street next summer, and the District is open to potentially privatizing the system.
The District Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that it was seeking information from the private sector, issuing a Request for Information seeking feedback on the proposed schedule, financial plans and the overall project.
The request stresses that it is just an inquiry, not any sort of contract or agreement. Still, the responses could impact the District’s plans for the project and perhaps lead to privatized elements down the line.
Buried within the 23-page RFI is a note that the District anticipates a contract spanning at least 30 years and which would make a private entity responsible for designing, building and financing a streetcar system; at the end of the 30-year period, ownership of the system would revert to the District.
Under such a contract, the District would remain in charge of fare policy, among other things. (You can read the complete request here.)
The DDOT request was issued on the same day that Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) met with officials from the Export-Import Bank of China in Beijing to continue discussions about whether the bank would be interested in funding all or part of the city’s streetcar system.
In an interview Friday, Gray said he was intrigued by suggestions that Chinese investors could fund the $1.5 billion project in exchange for the proceeds once the system is built out. Without private investment, Gray said it could take decades for the streetcar system to get built because the city is nearing its debt cap.
“It’s got to be something that works for them, but it’s got to be something that works for us too,” Gray said. “What is the structure of the deal? But there is certainly an interest in the streetcar system here.”
But D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a chief proponent of constructing the streetcar system, said in an interview Tuesday that he’s “very skeptical of privatization of public transit.” Wells said he has concerns a private entity would establish fares so high that the system could become unaffordable for low-wage residents. Wells also questioned whether a private firm would prioritize lines that reach into disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“There is not a great history in the country of privatization of public transit because it becomes more and more expensive,” Wells said. “The public interest is in keeping the fare box low.”
Wells noted the highest percentage of car-less District residents live in Ward 8 in Southeast. He worries that a private firm or bank wouldn’t think broadly about how best to connect those residents to jobs in neighborhoods other than downtown. “I’m concerned that privatization will work against our public policy goals of viewing transit as connecting people to opportunity,” Wells said.
Though Gray stressed his talks with Chinese officials are preliminary, he said the question is how quickly residents want to move forward. Chinese officials, he said, were stunned when Gray told them in earlier meetings it would take at least 20 years for the city to build the streetcar system on its own.
“If they think they can do it quicker, we wouldn’t be adverse to that,” Gray said. Wells countered the District could expedite construction if it makes the project a budget priority that will quickly pay off due to increased economic development.