It’s alive: Many say reports of Washington streetcar’s demise are greatly exaggerated


An interior view of a steetcar during testing for Washington’s under-construction streetcar line along H Street NE on Jan. 23. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The talking points Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration passed to allies ahead of Wednesday’s D.C. Council budget vote were grim.

“The reality is that under the Chairman’s plan, the streetcar program is likely to die altogether,” one read.

“What this means is that instead of having a robust streetcar system under the Mayor’s proposal in 2024 . . . we’ll have at best two streetcar stub lines under the Chairman’s proposal,” another read.

The council did vote to dramatically slow what Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) called an “unsustainable” automatic funding stream for the city’s future streetcar system. The move essentially lopped in half planned spending related to 22 miles of streetcar lines through 2021, from $1.4 billion to $730 million, according to an updated administration analysis of council budget actions.

But many council members — and even one of Gray’s appointees to a task force that the mayor created to hash out future streetcar financing and governance issues — preferred to see things in a glass-half-full kind of way.


A new streetcar is placed on the rails along H Street NE near 4th Street NE, in Washington on Dec. 13. (Eva Russo/For The Washington Post)

“Some people have told me today I’m very optimistic,” Richard H. Bradley, executive director of the Downtown DC Business Improvement District, said in the aftermath of the budget vote. “I think many of us are still encouraged that the streetcar is alive.”

While Bradley is sympathetic to the administration’s position that a full financial commitment would have provided a better, more certain road map, he said the council’s decision to dedicate hundreds of millions of dollars to the program in coming years is important.

“I think the very fact they have left that amount is a signal that they have confidence that the streetcar is part of the future of the city,” Bradley said.

Council member Muriel Bowser (Ward 4), who won the Democratic mayoral nomination in April, said the signal she’s sending is explicit. Although she slammed what she called a “leadership failure” that she said has led to long delays and other problems, and has argued that the project has had trouble even spending all the money already allocated to it, she said the system itself is badly needed.

“I’m solidly behind streetcars,” she said. “That’s the only way that we’ll be able to accommodate the growth that’s expected in this city, in this region.”

She continued: “It’s really going to be up to the next mayor of the District of Columbia how fast we can move,” adding that if the voters select her in November, a major objective in her Department of Transportation will be to “recruit really innovative thinkers around how we move people around our city and our public transportation infrastructure.”

Her main opponent in the November election, fellow D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), echoed that support. “I’m committed to streetcars, and I know the vast majority of the body is,” he said, adding that he will take Mendelson “at his word” that there will be enough funding for the future.

“The most important thing is to not see any diminishment in the current funding level or that for the next couple of fiscal years, so I’m satisfied with that. There will be opportunities to have a midstream correction if by some chance there is a miscalculation,” Catania said.

He asserted that Gray administration officials have overstated their case. “The mayor’s office appears to be careening increasingly into the land of hyperbole and not into fact,” Catania said.

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro rejected that assessment.

“How do you build a project when half of the funding has been cut from it? That’s not hyperbole. There’s no exaggeration about that. The number itself is pretty clear,” Ribeiro said. “So the question is, is it worth building half a project? Or, in this case, we actually believe it’s going to be less than half a project.”

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a longtime streetcar proponent who pushed for the more than two-mile-long line along H Street NE and Benning Road NE that is still being built and safety-tested after numerous delays, also argued that the council’s budget vote deeply undermines the system’s future. On Twitter, he called the financial plan a crossroads budget “for public transit for DC and the next generation.”

Ribeiro also said the scaling back of streetcar funding will come back to hurt Bowser, Catania and others.

“What they are, in effect, doing is tying the hands of any future mayor” and ensuring that “they won’t be able to deliver on the promises that have been made,” Ribeiro said.

District Department of Transportation officials are still figuring out precisely how much of the streetcar system they can build with the money the council has voted to give them, he said. DDOT says costs associated with the project have totaled about $200 million, more than $80 million of which has gone to road, sidewalk and other streetscape improvements.

Council officials said more than $100 million of the streetcar money is unspent, but Ribeiro said that $40 million is already obligated in current contracts and that another $40 million is to be spent by the end of the fiscal year. A broader, 37-mile streetcar system would have cost $3.2 billion by 2025, according to the administration’s latest calculations, but after the council’s budget vote last week would receive about $938 million.

Ribeiro argued that the efficiencies and economies of scale that would have come from seeking an experienced outside contractor to take on a vast building program will now be lost.

Mendelson said that argument was bogus. The city could not afford to give the streetcar program that much money every year, he said. In 2025, the yearly amount automatically redirected to the streetcar system under the old spending formula would have reached more than $500 million, according to city figures. The District government eventually would have had to “cut salaries and fire people” in other areas just to keep up, Mendelson said.

The rollback in Gray’s requested streetcar funding “was motivated entirely by the need to fix an unsustainable funding formula. It didn’t matter that it was for streetcars or something else,” Mendelson said.

The council chairman instead directed hundreds of millions of dollars to a far-reaching series of tax cuts. He said that money could be restored to the streetcar program in the future, just as with other city priorities, and that there is no reason large and high-quality outside contractors cannot still be brought in for future efforts. He said the priorities should be completing the H Street/Benning Road line, rebuilding a major bridge behind Union Station that is key to redevelopment there and is connected to the streetcar program, and then putting down lines elsewhere in the city.

“They have yet to finish H Street. That’s the bottom line,” Mendelson said. “If they can demonstrate to the council they can really build this out, we will provide the dollars.”

Even longtime streetcar doubters acknowledge that the program continues to have the backing of many city leaders.

“There’s a lot of skepticism” about the overall streetcar program, “and it’s not just in the Committee of 100,” said Meg Maguire, referring to the planning advocacy group whose transportation committee she chairs. The Committee of 100 has opposed using overhead electrical wires to power streetcars.

She said the council’s move buys time for better planning.

“Rather than barreling ahead with construction, let’s figure out where we’re going to put the maintenance facilities, how we’re going to finance it, how we’re going to govern it, how we’re going to apply the best technology for wireless streetcars,” Maguire said.

The talk of streetcars dying is overblown, she said.

“They’re not cutting out all funding for the streetcar system. That’s not what’s happened,” Maguire said. “They’re going ahead, and hopefully they will do it in a more deliberate fashion.”

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Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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