The District’s ambitious plan to build a streetcar system crisscrossing the city became much less grand Thursday when officials from Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration said they now will push to spend roughly a billion dollars for a transit network with only about eight miles of streetcar line.
The revised plan represents a dramatic scaling back of the 20-mile-plus network that officials envisoned completing within the next decade. Officials put the cost of completing and operating the reduced transit network at about $800 million, a major investment in a transit system that is in the midst of a troubled launch.
Gray’s team blamed the D.C. Council for the reduced goal, saying the council’s vote in May to cut future funding was misguided and left no other responsible choice.
But council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the council’s transportation committee, responded Thursday that Gray (D) and his team are behaving in a “childish” manner and have proved themselves unwilling to collaborate to solve problems. “You don’t take your marbles and go home,” Cheh said.
The $800 million would be used to extend the city’s still unopened 2.2-mile streetcar line on H Street and Benning Road NE. That line would be extended west to Georgetown and east across the Anacostia River. It would include a dedicated transit lane for streetcars and, likely, buses along K Street NW. Funds would also go toward a major bridge project at Union Station, a council priority. There would be a minor extension to a short stretch of track in Anacostia that has been used to test streetcars.
Excluded for now would be a north-south line running from Buzzard Point on the city’s south end to the Takoma Metro station, as well as a line along M Street in Southeast and Southwest Washington. Officials said those sections could be restored to the plan if more money became available.
Gray, in a statement, called it a “bitter sweet” moment. Despite the cutbacks, Gray said, his plan still represents a “significant step” toward the city’s long-term planning goal of a 37-mile streetcar network.
Matt Brown, director of the District Department of Transportation, said the city would contract out construction of the streetcar system, as well as the operation of the streetcar and Circulator bus systems, to a private consortium of major transit companies. Doing so would boost speed and efficiency in what has in recent years been a piecemeal contracting process, Brown said.
“What we’ve done here is present a game changer,” Brown said.
The idea is that combining thestreetcar work and the bus business into one big opportunity will lure top-flight private talent to manage the entire effort. To that end, the city has chosen three groups of bidders to work with the District on the “Integrated Premium Transit” system, Brown said. The $800 million figure for the total value of the contract also includes funds for streetcar and Circulator operations, he said.
The three groups include prominent construction and transit firms. DC Transit Partners includes Clark Construction, Shirley Contracting and Herzog Transit Services, Brown said. Capital Transit consists of Balfour Beatty Rail, FCC Construction, CPT Operators, CPT Constructors and Parsons Brinckerhoff. Potomac Transit Partners is made up of URS, MC Dean, Facchina and RDMT.
When the council, led by Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), voted in May to essentially cut planned streetcar funding in half, Gray administration officials circulated talking points warning that the “streetcar program is likely to die altogether” or, “at best,” to be reduced to “two streetcar stub lines.”
In the intervening months, DDOT officials have been coming up with a plan for how to use the more than $700 million the council voted to send its way for streetcar-related projects through 2021.
The push to hire a private transportation infrastructure and operations team to take over the city’s transit priorities has continued even as key questions on the direction of the effort remained unanswered publicly.
In 2012, the council passed a law instructing Gray to create a streetcar governance and financing task force to answer a series of basic questions. The council gave the task force a deadline of Dec. 31, 2013 to finish its report.
As of last week, a spokesman for City Administrator Allen Y. Lew said the report remained unfinished but was getting close.
According to an executive order from Gray, the task force was supposed to provide “detailed annual cost estimates for the construction of” each segment of a 22-mile streetcar line; provide annual operating and maintenance costs for the first eight years of operation; examine potential funding sources; propose reasonable construction timelines; and consider ways the streetcar system should be governed, including perhaps “the establishment of an independent agency.”
But instead of hashing those matters out publicly, administration officials have sought to spring finished plans on the council, Mendelson said. “They haven’t done a very good job in the last several months of running their plans by the council. This has been a problem consistently with the streetcar project,” Mendelson said. Top administration officials “seem to be constantly backing the government into actions, rather than developing this proactively.”
That said, Mendelson remarked that he is supportive of where the Gray administration appears to be headed.
“It sounds like it’s in the right direction. The streetcar project is one that can always be expanded. There is a value in getting H Street underway and seeing how well it works,” Mendelson said. Retrenching now “makes more sense than building a huge system and then figuring out that part of it was not economically viable,” he said.
But Cheh said she still supports the 37-mile vision for streetcars.
“We had a vision. We had a plan,” Cheh said. “We should try to stick to it. Of course, financing can prove to be difficult, but we’ve worked our way through things before, and I think we can do it again. We shouldn’t give up on this.”