The Bowser administration has put the District’s streetcar plans on pause to do some rethinking. New transportation director Leif Dormsjo said that it’s even possible the administration will scrap the H Street “starter line,” the construction of which is finished. It’s important to think hard about the right transit approach, but whether it’s a streetcar, buses in dedicated lanes or something else, Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and her administration must keep enlarging the District’s transit infrastructure with projects they can deliver in the near future.
New transit service is a must as the District and the region grow. In the District, substantial development is coming to every quadrant: the former Walter Reed campus on Georgia Avenue, the Skyland shopping center east of the Anacostia, the McMillan Sand Filtration site and Armed Forces Retirement Home along North Capitol Street, Hill East near RFK Stadium, the Southwest Waterfront — including a new soccer stadium — H Street and NoMa and many more.
People need to travel to and from these growing areas. Inaction by the District government will mean ever-worsening traffic. The simple laws of mathematics mean that roads of fixed size cannot move more people unless more people are in higher-capacity vehicles — such as buses and trains.
Our region’s businesses agree. Marriott, for example, plans to move its headquarters because the poor transit access at its North Bethesda site is an obstacle in attracting the workforce it desires.
There’s no doubt that the streetcar program was badly mismanaged over the past four years, as District Department of Transportation officials repeatedly promised unrealistic timelines and failed to plan for important elements such as a maintenance yard and fare collection. Indeed, in its haste to open a line of some sort, DDOT conceded many elements that would have maximized the line’s success, including a short-term connection to Union Station, high-frequency service and quick travel times.
If Bowser and Dormsjo conclude there is an option better than some or all of the 37 miles of planned streetcar lines, they should identify it and their plan to build it.
Complicating matters is that Dormsjo must rebuild a hollowed-out Transportation Department, which suffered a massive brain drain in key areas over the past four years. His experience in Maryland and his stated focus on professionalizing DDOT will serve him well, and that effort will lay the groundwork for better transit planning. But he and Bowser must deliver tangible improvements in the short run.
Besides making no promises on the streetcar in which the District has already invested $190 million, at a March 6 hearing, Dormsjo also criticized work on a Circulator for the Mall and said he hadn’t formulated a clear “barometer” for how to balance investment in transit, bicycle, pedestrian and single-passenger car transportation. The Bowser administration could start by embracing the moveDC city-wide transportation plan that the agency spent more than a year developing with substantial public input.
It’s laudable for a new mayor and agency director to review projects in the works and decide how to proceed, but the clock is ticking. To ensure some efforts aren’t slapdash is valuable, but without a clear plan and the political will to move quickly, too much backtracking or delay will leave the District woefully unprepared for the growth of the next decade.
Bowser and Dormsjo will also show their commitment to transit, or lack thereof, when releasing the draft budget this month. Amid budget pressures and many priorities, transit-supportive council members are bracing for the administration to reallocate some or all of the $400 million over six years currently slotted for more streetcar lines. It’ll be extremely difficult to fit new streetcars or rapid bus lines into the five-year capital plan if transit construction funding decreases this year.
Before scaling back the District’s ambitions for new transit, the Bowser administration must state a firm commitment to expand transit in parts of the city that lack Metro, articulate a clear process to study (or re-study) and choose the next decade’s transit projects and elucidate a realistic yet aggressive timeline to design and build them.
One of the greatest challenges in government is balancing careful planning and progress. Bowser and Dormsjo may have inherited a transportation morass, but that makes it all the more imperative they illuminate a path forward, and soon.
The writer is founder of the blog Greater Greater Washington.