Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Continuing Saga of the Washington DC Streetcar

Recently, the city council of Washington, DC voted to drastically cut the proposed budget for the DC streetcar, from the estimated $1.3 billion that would be needed for the construction of the basic 22 mile system, to less than half that, $460 million. This level of funding would only be enough to support construction of about half the H Street/One City line and a short segment in Anacostia not connected to the rest of the city, as opposed to the full One City line, Takoma Park line and the first line linking downtown with Anacostia. 

When the DC Streetcar was first proposed, it was intended to serve several purposes. First, it was intended to promote economic development in neighborhoods and corridors not served by Metrorail, many of which had streetcar service previously. Second, it was intended to connect neighborhoods and move people around DC, unlike Metrorail, which was designed to bring people in and out of Washington as fast as possible. Third, it was intended to add substantial transit capacity without having to spend tens of billions of dollars and decades expanding Metrorail.

To the first point, the city council's actions constitute blatant deception. Much of the economic development the streetcar was intended to attract has already occurred, and now it seems that this development will not be getting the transportation that spurred its construction and that is necessitated for it to live up to the expectations of developers. Not only does this open the floodgates to lawsuits but it also shows in a very public way that the DC government cannot keep its promises, even to developers whose efforts are generally immune from political power struggles. To this end, it is likely that DC will be left out of future economic development efforts, as the future of the District's infrastructure is in doubt and developers cannot guarantee that the city will support future efforts on a similar scale, or that growth projections can, in fact, be met.

In addition, the city council's actions are yet another reason for the residents of the District to lose faith in their government. The original maps of the streetcar system show it serving many low income neighborhoods, especially Anacostia. This transportation service, combined with the economic development brought by the streetcar and the District's affordable housing and inclusionary zoning policies offered the best opportunity to date to create true mixed income neighborhoods that cater to everyone and can bring about substantial, lasting reductions in crime and poverty. The city council has completely forsaken this opportunity. One which would prove valuable to other cities across the country and around the world.

To the second and third points, as two short segments of the streetcar system now intended to be the limits of construction for the foreseeable future, it goes without saying that the streetcar falls short of its goal of serving as a DC circulator and extending the reach of pedestrians within the city. This is a role that Metrorail has been forced to take on, and a role which that system was not designed for. Building the streetcar in its entirety can shift intracity trips away from Metrorail, allowing it to take on additional capacity in the form of radial expansions to suburbs as originally intended.

In addition, the lack of intra-city mobility brought about from the scaling back of the streetcar will only serve to increase the concentrations of wealth and poverty within DC. Lack of a more permanent, extensive, exclusively within the district transportation system will mean that wealthy residents are less likely to spread their spending dollars to other parts of the city, as accessing them is that much harder. This not only means that gentrified areas will continue to gentrify as a result of neighborhoods retaining dollars spent, but that low income areas will see little, if any, benefit from economic development in other areas of the city and continue to decline. It also means that there will be less transit capacity for low income residents who have jobs in other areas of the city, limiting economic and social opportunities.

One criticism brought against the streetcar system is that of mismanagement, and it is a very valid concern. A streetcar system, in various iterations, has been in construction since the mid 2000s. First in Anacostia, now the current line on H Street and the larger system after that. The fact that it has taken this long, and streetcars are not in revenue service, is unacceptable. It is clear that management and construction of this system is a bigger bite than DDOT can currently chew. To this end, a design, build, operate and maintain contract was planned to be put out that would cover the design and construction costs of the streetcar system, as well as its operation and maintenance in the future. This would turn the system over to an organization with expertise in the construction and operation of streetcar infrastructure, and significantly lessen the impact that political fights have over the streetcar system. However, by drastically reducing the funding available to the streetcar, the assembly of such a contract is essentially off the table, as the funding required now cannot be procured. Thus, the decision by the council has ironically shackled the streetcar system to the poor management of DDOT. 

Overall, it seems that the city council is either unaware of the consequences of their decision, or malevolent in their actions. The streetcar system as proposed would address several crucial economic and transportation needs within DC, doing so in a way that has a great potential to lessen income equality and provide for all the city's residents, not just the young and wealthy. This is what it really means for a city to be world class. Not that it has some fancy amenity, but that it uses its transportation system, zoning regulations, and economy to do the most good for the largest number of its residents.

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