Longtime streetcar supporters on the D.C. Council gave city transportation officials a drubbing Friday, warning at an oversight hearing that they need to quickly restore faith in the project or risk seeing it crumble like that of Arlington County’s canceled streetcar effort.
Council members pressed District Department of Transportation director Matthew Brown and other officials to offer additional information on the still unopened line along H Street and Benning Road NE, as well as future lines and extensions. They argued that DDOT had been opaque in providing information on how the troubled project is progressing.
“The main thing the H Street streetcar line has done is found a way to turn a lot of people against the streetcar who otherwise could have been for it. It’s just been a disservice how it’s been managed,” said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), who was perhaps the line’s biggest booster on the council in recent years.
Brown acknowledged the repeated delays that have marred the program.
“Bringing streetcars back to the District after a 50-year hiatus has not been easy. Each time we have an issue resolved, something else seems to emerge that has not been fully resolved,” Brown said. One of the latest issues is securing needed safety certifications for the streetcars themselves.
DDOT has sparred with the State Safety Office, an independent entity housed within the Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services that has responsibility for certifying the system’s overall safety. Transportation officials have at times bristled at the safety office’s oversight and are dependent on officials there to green-light the launch of passenger service.
“We all want service to begin as soon as possible and are working day-in and day-out to make that a reality for the citizens of the District,” Brown said.
The hearing followed a move by Mayor Vincent C. Gray last month to sharply scale back immediate plans to build a 22-mile streetcar network crisscrossing the city. Instead, transportation officials are working with teams of outside contractors on a contract to build a more limited system, with an option for more if additional funding can be found. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) led an effort in May to essentially cut planned streetcar funding in half.
Brown noted that new estimates from the city’s planning office show hundreds of millions of dollars in increased tax revenue would come from adding streetcar lines. But Wells knocked what he said has been “the lack of creative engagement with the community and land use planning” along planned streetcar lines.
Wells was also concerned that Gray’s budget did not include a so-called “value capture” plan, which would allow the city to tap more directly into those expected future revenues. Under such an arrangement, land owners would pay a higher tax rate to help build the streetcar lines since doing so would boost their land values.
Such a plan would need a boost from the landowners themselves, who could push for the idea by telling the council: “We want to be taxed on the increased value of our land,” Wells said. Instead, he added, the business community failed to rally behind the effort. “You could have heard a pin drop when the funding was cut,” Wells said.
Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and David Grosso (I-At Large) joined in the grilling of transportation officials, with Cheh decrying what she called “an organizational mishmash over at DDOT,” characterized by ad hoc decisions. “It drains confidence,” Cheh said.
Brown provided additional details about the timing of three planned extensions the city could build under current projected funding levels. The Benning Road extension east of the existing line would be under construction from fiscal year 2017 to 2019. A line west from Union Station to Georgetown would be built from 2019 to 2024. And a southeast-southwest line would follow from 2027 to 2030, he said.
A north-south line connecting Takoma and the Buzzard Point area would come when resources are available, Brown said.
Ben Klemens, who lives near that would-be line, said many, though not all, of his neighbors still support that line and want to see it built sooner rather than later.
“Our neighborhood grew up in the streetcar era, thanks to thousands of residents and builders who thought Shaw was the perfect location for a lifestyle built around taking the streetcar to work and shop,” Klemens said. He said “streetcar pessimists” warn that streetcars are too slow for commuting.
“But even that would be a great addition to Georgia and 14th and U streets,” he said. “I would love to be able to tell bar hoppers from Maryland that they could park further up on along Georgia Avenue toward Silver Spring and take a smooth ride to our neighborhood.”