Problem with D.C. streetcar advocacy: No streetcar service


The first D.C. streetcars, like this one being tested near Union Station, will operate on H Street and Benning Road NE. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

The modern version of the D.C. streetcar system has been around a long time, but only as a concept. The program has its first kickoff celebration under then-mayor Anthony A. Williams. Then another one under then-mayor Adrian M. Fenty. And another with Mayor Vincent C. Gray.

Along this long slog between vision and reality, transit advocates have encountered many challenges to the streetcar program, such as the long-term funding revision put forward by D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson.

Back in 2010, when Gray was council chairman, he came in for some sharp criticism from streetcar fans during an effort to cut the program’s funding to help close a $550 million gap in the D.C. budget. Fenty’s transportation director, Gabe Klein, led the lobbying effort to avoid the cutback, which Klein said at the time would “essentially kill the program.”

As mayor, Gray became a cheerleader for the streetcars, and a strong opponent of the cuts proposed by Mendelson.

It would derail the future of streetcar,” said Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro.

Same dramatic scenario as in 2010, with some role reversal? Not exactly, as The Post’s Mike DeBonis points out in a blog posting.

During the 2010 dust-up between Council Chairman Gray and Mayor Fenty, the District’s streetcars were being warehoused in the Czech Republic. Today, they’re being tested along their initial route on H Street and Benning Road NE, and the District Department of Transportation is well into developing future routes that are meant to be part of a 22-mile network. Council members are supportive of the streetcar program, but skeptical the money in Gray’s program will actually get spent in the time allocated.

And it’s tough to argue with their skepticism.

After DDOT busted through several schedules, there’s still no target date for an opening of the first line. DDOT has yet to announce what the fare will be, or how it will be collected. Components of the line, including the car barn for maintaining the vehicles, have yet to be completed.

Right now there’s too much concept and not enough actual service — no service, actually — to stave off a cutback in the long-range spending program for the streetcars.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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