DC Council Chairman Mendelson’s budget slashes the streetcar to Benning Road

Image by Ted Eytan licensed under Creative Commons.

Residents of DC's Ward 7, who have long awaited new investment in their community and support extending the H Street streetcar line to Benning Road, will have to wait six years or forever if the budget released last night by Chairman Phil Mendelson passes. That budget cuts about $60 million from the streetcar program, imperiling the extension.

In the typical (though not good government) practice, after the mayor releases her budget in April and individual committees make changes in markup hearings, the council chairman and budget office then propose a revision, often containing significant changes, late in the night the day before the vote (that's today).

The mayor's proposed budget allocated $160 million over six years to build the Benning Road extension and do preliminary engineering for the segment along K Street NW through downtown to Georgetown. Responding to criticism that a streetcar in mixed traffic would not provide enough of a transportation boost, DDOT revised its plans to give the streetcar a dedicated lane for almost the entire segment west of Union Station.

According to the spreadsheet of capital program changes (transportation section starting on page 101 of this PDF), the council's revised budget changes the figure to just $100 million, all of it in FY 2023. That doesn't sound like an actual serious plan for spending any money, since it's nearly impossible DDOT could somehow spend nothing for five years and then build the whole thing in one year. Not to mention that any pot of money sitting in 2023 is going to be a ripe target for councilmembers to grab for their capital wish lists in the future. 

The committee budget also reduces the capital program totals by $5 million from streetlight management, $9 million from the H Street bridge, $13.3 million from curb and sidewalk rehabilitation, $2 million from alley rehabilitation, $2 million from streetscapes, $53,000 from safety & mobility, and $5.5 million from power line undergrounding. However, many of these changes move money out of later years while adding some in the short term, and the current and immediate next fiscal years are the most critical as that's where money is going to be actually spent now; later years can and likely will get shuffled around in the interim.

The streetcar project is clearer and more valuable than before

Previous councils had criticized DDOT for not having a very thought-through plan for how to spend money on the streetcar. In response, agency officials created a spending plan (and provided it to the council). The transportation committee then discussed the plan with DDOT and decided not to make any changes.

There's no doubt that the execution of the streetcar was horribly botched during the Gray administration (on top of some early planning mistakes during the Fenty years). This left it unpopular, over budget, and behind schedule. That doesn't, however, mean that we don't need better transportation, or should ignore DDOT's strong efforts to create a worthwhile transportation facility moving forward.

Justin Lini, an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the Paradise and Parkside neighborhoods in Ward 7, pointed out that this project was not just tracks:

A good half of [the streetcar money] was going towards a complete replacement of the 55+ year old Lorraine Whitlock bridge that crosses 295. Right now bridge is a barrier for pedestrians and cyclists. Many residents are scared of crossing it, especially at night. It's both crumbling, looks like something out of old East Berlin and is poorly lit. Streetcar was also to include some significant streetscape improvements on Benning Road in River Terrace. Those blocks of Benning road look more like a freeway than the kind of arterial streets we see elsewhere in DC.

We've been waiting on a redesign for the Minnesota Ave/Benning Road intersection for nearly a decade because of the street car. Local residents should really start asking why we've have to live with one of the most dangerous intersections in the district for so long with nothing to show for it. At least the money's still there to do the work, but that's small consolation for everyone whose been injured at that intersection in the last decade.

Streetcar was originally a project that was to serve Anacostia, now the streetcar ends on the west bank of the Anacostia River. The Council appears to have some funny ideas about equity.

It's important to also note that the council is not shifting the money to some other transportation solution they see as better; they're just not funding better transportation. The same happened a few years ago when they cut the previous streetcar budget to fund tax cuts.

Contributor Stephen Hudson wrote, "The biggest thing that has changed since in my mind since the Gray administration started this project is the deterioration of the Metro (and the Circulator). The streetcar would never be a replacement for Metro, but having viable alternative modes of transit would give more flexibility for maintenance."

He added:

This follows the classic cynical loop of inefficient government:

Step 1: claim a government service is inefficient / a waste of money. It took ~$100 million to complete a 1.7 mile line, which is incredibly expensive for a streetcar. This ignores the fact that this was due to bad management rather than some intrinsic aspect of streetcars or the plans to extend the line. Ridership seems pretty decent, but the idea that the government spent way too much on this project (they did) has already created the impression that this is a white elephant.

Step 2: since the aforementioned government service is inefficient/expensive, we must stymie it to protect the taxpayer from waste. Therefore, streetcar expansions must be stopped.

Step 3: the "I told you so moment." Without any expansions, the public is left with a short, expensive streetcar line that has limited use for decades to come. Opponents will point to this as a boondoggle, and due to their own unwillingness to give the project an adequate chance to flourish, can say "See! We told you this would never work! Projects like this are a waste of government money!" By design, the project has now become inefficient and a waste of money.

Step 4: Rinse and repeat. Being now that the project has been determined in the court of public opinion to be a waste of money, leaders are now free to cut service and use the money for other projects. Service quality declines. 

The streetcar isn't as useful ending on top of the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station, but connecting to Ward 7 in the east and at least somewhere downtown in the west, with dedicated lanes, would make this existing transportation program into a very useful one.

Correction: A sentence has been modified to clarify that Gray administration mistakes were not the only ones, and there had been missteps during the Fenty administration as well. The initial version of this article listed additional transportation cuts. However, budget experts explained that the other cuts are more about moving money in "out years," which is not very important, and in many cases increase spending in the short term. This article has been updated to focus on the streetcar cuts rather than those other items.

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