This post has been updated.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who never caught fire with Republican voters in his presidential bid, spent the run-up to Super Tuesday bashing D.C.s new streetcar system and mocking federal transportation officials as a band of clueless enablers.
Following Saturday’s grand opening after more than a decade of missteps, Paul called the District project “A Streetcar Called Waste” and questioned “why D.C. needs one in the first place.”
But D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s administration has pushed back furiously, saying the senator’s are “obviously hypocritical.”
At issue is what Paul said was $1.6 million in federal funds the U.S. Department of Transportation provided the District several years ago to study expansion of the 2-mile streetcar line. The money came at a time when the effort “was already showing glaring signs of trouble and experiencing unprecedented delays,” Paul said.
The federal government turned down a series of larger grant requests to actually build streetcar projects in Washington, while spending more than a half-billion dollars on streetcars in other cities from 2009 to 2014. The District’s streetcar efforts, beset by delays and cost overruns, have cost the city more than $200 million.
“But not to worry, with this kind of boondoggle right in the federal government’s back yard, Uncle Sam still found a way to waste your tax dollars,” Paul said in his latest “Waste Report,” produced in his role as chair of a subcommittee on federal spending oversight. “Only the federal government would shy away from investing in a troubled venture, while at the same time providing funding to help expand the same troubled venture.”
But Bowser spokesman Mike Czin said Paul takes a different approach when it comes to his Kentucky constituents.
“I don’t know why Senator Paul would attack the District for doing something his residents have expressed interest in doing,” Czin said.
Last week, representatives of a group seeking to build a streetcar line in Kentucky visited Washington and met with Paul’s staff to discuss their effort.
“They felt it looked like a project that could be economically beneficial to northern Kentucky,” said the group’s chairman, Ian Budd. “They were supportive and they talked about the competitive federal funds that would be available and they certainly would be supportive of us going for those competitive federal funds.”
A Paul spokesman, Sergio Gor, said “Paul has not come out in favor of any streetcar program.” He said while a meeting did occur, “that group lacks any plans, any studies or even an estimate of funding needed.”
Czin said Paul was not being straight forward.
“I don’t know what you would call it, aside from hypocrisy, to say one thing behind closed doors to constituents, while criticizing a program that was almost exclusively funded by District taxpayers,” Czin said. “The residents of Kentucky want streetcars, or at least are interested in streetcars, for the same reason District residents have been interested – because it can spur economic development and create jobs, and it adds to a diverse transportation system.”
Gor said: “This is nothing but an attempt by the DC government to deflect blame for their failed management of this project. Senator Paul will continue to oppose DC’s streetcar to nowhere.”
Staffers for other Kentucky legislators on Capitol Hill shared the positive outlook of Paul’s office, Budd said. The line would be an extension – over the Ohio river and into Newport, Ken. – of the Cincinnati streetcar system. The group is working on finding local money for the needed initial study, Budd said, but will seek federal funds for construction.
Budd rode the District’s new streetcar line Saturday while he was in town.
“People were very excited about it, which I though was just wonderful. It was really nice to be part of it. Bands were out on the street playing. It was very festive,” Budd said. “It seems to make a lot of sense to me that it would be a good route for people getting into town,” he said, adding that some of the “transitional” areas further east would benefit by drawing new development.
In his statement, Paul noted that streetcars are “a current transportation fad.” He said “some cities that lack rail transit systems have turned to streetcars, but D.C.’s streetcar overlays its existing subways system,” which would have been a better recipient of federal funds.
District officials argue that its streetcar efforts are meant to link areas between Metro stations. The current line starts in the back of Union Station, where there’s a subway line, but the rest of the route traverses an area without Metro stops.
Bowser has pledged to extend the transit startup, which runs through a once-riot ravaged neighborhood along H Street that is now teeming with bars and restaurants.
It also extends to Langston golf course, which was built for black players in the 1930s and is located on Benning Road NE, near RFK stadium. Bowser has connect the current line to the Benning Road Metro station, through communities that have missed much of the District’s recent revival, and later to tony Georgetown.
The system was mobbed by curious residents throughout Saturday, used for electric-powered bar crawls along H Street Saturday night, and ridden by just a smattering of commuters this week. It has been criticized for being too slow, too short and closed on Sundays. It has also been scrutinized for poor planning and weak oversight of project spending.
The U.S. Department of Transportation did not respond to Paul’s critique of its grant making.
This post has been updated
Perry Stein contributed to this report