The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. should not walk away from streetcar expansion

The D.C. Streetcar. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Michael Havlin is a data scientist who lives in Ward 7.

D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) is reintroducing his signature Metro for DC legislation, which would create a “transit equity fund” intended to expand transit services to underserved communities. The fund would expand DC Circulator and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority bus services, but it likely does not include funding for the D.C. Streetcar system.

Though expanding bus service is of crucial importance, omitting the streetcar would mean missing an important opportunity to right-size a plan that got wrong-sized seven years ago.

The ethos behind Allen’s legislation is very much aligned with the ethos of early streetcar planning, and the funding mechanism is similar to what was ultimately proposed for the D.C. Streetcar system. Including the streetcar would be a wise nod to the project’s supporters, to diversity in transit options and to D.C. history. Omitting streetcar funding from the legislation would be a slight to the legacy of four consecutive mayoral administrations, and it would ignore an important aspect of transit planning: Context matters, and diversity of transit options matters.

Recent Metrorail safety problems and the related disrupted service underscore the importance of a D.C.-specific light-rail alternative to Metro. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments included streetcars as part of its plan to improve housing and transit in “equity emphasis areas.”

The current political discourse around the D.C. Streetcar system ignores the aspirational history of the project, doing a disservice to the leaders and constituents of D.C. who have long called for improved transit and who have long looked to the streetcar as a promising tool to uplift underserved communities. The abbreviated streetcar line on H Street NE, along with the dismissive political rhetoric taken up by streetcar critics, makes it seem as though the D.C. Streetcar system was nothing more than a half-baked dream; however, a critical examination of its history shows a robust and long-standing nearly 25-year commitment to local surface rail that abruptly evaporated without much of an explanation from public leaders.

The streetcar plans that began with Mayor Marion Barry (D) got bigger, more detailed and more actionable through four consecutive mayoral administrations before suddenly fading into the background shortly after Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) lost his reelection in 2014 and Phil Mendelson (D) ascended to chairman of the D.C. Council. After 20 years of consistent forward progress, D.C. Streetcar planning largely stalled when Gray’s funding mechanism was blocked by Mendelson in 2014 in favor of tax cuts.

As early as the late 1990s and early 2000s, initial streetcar plans had support at all levels of D.C. government. Council members, mayors, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), the D.C. Department of Transportation and WMATA all agreed that D.C. should consider its own light-rail system. As mayor, Anthony A. Williams (D) carried the streetcar baton forward after Barry, believing that the streetcar system could be a tool to drive economic opportunity east of the river and connect those neighborhoods to downtown.

During the Fenty administration, the streetcar plans began to take off. As mayor, Adrian M. Fenty (D) proposed a 37-mile streetcar system that included several lines going from Wards 7 and 8 to Georgetown, and he presided over the initial construction phases.

With a starter line on the way, in 2014, Gray sought to secure the future of the entire system by proposing a dedicated funding mechanism, which Mendelson blocked, stalling streetcar plans over the subsequent years. Without much more than hand-waving and platitudes about the “moment” of the streetcar being over, the council appears prepared to walk away from this nearly 25-year history.

Diversity of transit options matters. And when it comes to the streetcar vs. bus debate, context matters. There are many situations for which buses are the ideal transit tool, but there are also some contexts in which streetcars are optimal. To omit the streetcar from Allen’s proposed transit equity fund would ignore decades of history and unduly restrict DDOT to one transit mode.

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