DC Council Chairman Mendelson says he didn’t cut the Benning Road streetcar extension. DDOT says “that’s false.”

Image by Max Pixel licensed under Creative Commons.

When a final budget came out of the DC Council the night after Memorial Day, I reported that it cut $60 million from the DC Streetcar and that would significant delay, or permanently scuttle, extending the line to Benning Road Metro in Ward 7. Chairman Phil Mendelson is disputing that's the effect of his cuts, but transportation officials re-confirmed to me that is exactly what will happen if the cuts stay.

Or, to put it simply: When I spoke to DDOT Director Leif Dormsjo and asked about Mendelson's claim that the Benning Road segment could still be built with what's in the budget, he said, "that's false."

What's going on? Let's look at what's in the budget. Below are the capital line items for streetcars (the capital budget always covers the next 6 years). Amounts are in thousands (so $1,000 means $1 million).

Mayor's & Committee Budgets, Streetcar
  Unspent FY18 FY19 FY20 FY21 FY22 FY23 Total
Local - $6,627 $8,457 $20,590 $62,500 $52,500 $10,000 $160,676
Legacy $33,239 - - - - - - $33,239
Federal $257 $6,935 - $39,546 $30,048 $15,415 - $92,201
Total $33,497 $13,562 $8,457 $60,136 $92,548 $67,915 $10,000 $286,116
Council Budget, Streetcar
  Unspent FY18 FY19 FY20 FY21 FY22 FY23 Total
Local - - - $4,000 $16,000 $18,000 $62,000 $100,000
Legacy $31,965 - - - - - - $31,965
Federal $257 $6,935 - $39,546 $30,048 $15,415 - $92,201
Total $32,223 $6,935 - $43,546 $46,048 $33,415 $62,000 $224,166
Change ($1,274) ($6,627) ($8,457) ($16,590) ($46,500) ($34,500) $52,000 ($61,950)

The capital budget contains 3 "projects" for the streetcar. The first, called "LMCEC Street Car" in the budget, is the category where DDOT is putting the future streetcar work (labeled "Local" in the table above). There's also an old project designation, "SA306C H St/Benning/K St Line," which was used previously and still has about $33 million in not-yet-spent funds ("Legacy" above). Finally, there is a designation in the budget, STC00A, for the portion of formula dollars from the Federal Highway Administration is intended for roadway and bridge work necessary to support the streetcar project ("Federal" in the table)

Mendelson's budget takes $1.2 million of the not-yet-spent dollars and also zeroes out all local dollars for the next two years. It also pushes most of the remaining funding out to FY23 instead of spreading it over the next six years.

What's this unspent balance?

According to conversations with DDOT staff working on the streetcar, the currently unspent balance includes about $15 million in committed purchase orders related to the Spingarn maintenance facility, project management, vehicle spare parts, and other things for the current line. About $15 million is slated for contracts that are soon to be awarded for new project management and preliminary design for Benning Road. About $1 million was not yet lined up for a specific need, and that was removed from the budget.

What's this federal money?

Every state, and DC is considered a state for this purpose, gets formula funding from the Federal Highway Administration. DC can't spend this funding directly on transit projects, but the Benning streetcar effort includes roadway projects including rebuilding the bridge and intersections along Benning Road that are potentially FHWA-eligible costs.

Image by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

What DDOT was going to spend this money on

You can read the full spending plan here. In short, of the money in the budget, it would have been:

  • Capital asset management for the H Street/Benning line:
    • $6 million in FY21-22 for design and construction of potential larger asset management or safety fixes
    • $18 million ($3 million per year) for program & asset management across all six years
    • $35 million in FY21-23 to purchase new vehicles
  • Wireless operation:
    • $500,000 for a propulsion study 
    • $2 million in FY17-18 for design of wireless vehicles
  • Benning Road:
    • $17 million in FY18-19 for environmental review and design
    • $182 million in FY20-22 for construction and new vehicles
  • K Street expansion:
    • $5 million in FY19 for preliminary engineering of the Union Station-Georgetown dedicated lane segment
    • $3 million in FY18-19 for environmental review and preliminary engineering for a maintenance facility to support the extension

The Benning Road segment itself costs $199 million, some of which can be paid for with federal funding. But, that doesn't mean the streetcar needs no more money than that. At the very least, it's important to maintain the line we have so that it doesn't fall into the kind of disrepair that is plaguing Metro and the Circulator.

There are things that need to be changed to deal with safety risks that have come up through experience, or issues like those arising when a Megabus recently destroyed the eastbound platform at 3rd Street. The program management contract includes reviewing safety issues, designing fixes, managing schedules and budgets for making those fixes, providing technical oversight and expertise on issues related to tracks and vehicles, and more. 

The DC Council had required DDOT to study changing the streetcar to wireless operation; they believe that is now possible. Chairman Mendelson, at the urging of the Committee of 100, was one of the biggest advocates for this. If the council doesn't want wireless operation any more and doesn't plan to extend the line farther west, it's possible to cut the wireless funding, though that should happen through an explicit change in policy rather than a sudden budget maneuver.

The streetcar vehicles will soon start to break down and need maintenance or replacement. I'd like to understand more about these numbers and why it would be necessary to buy new vehicles for H Street. It's possible DC could (and perhaps should) rehabilitate its existing vehicles instead of replacing them, if moving to off-wire operation isn't a priority.

DDOT staff had said they need some vehicle purchases to have spares, as right now the H/Benning line required 4-5 vehicles to maintain headways. With a fleet of 6 vehicles, that makes it difficult to operate if one is down for a long period of time for a lengthy overhaul, or even when one is in for preventive maintenance activities and there is an incident on the line. Therefore, it appears at least some of this vehicle purchase line item may needed no matter what to keep H/Benning running reliably.

Image by Tim Evanson licensed under Creative Commons.

What Mendelson is saying

Mendelson's office sent an email to me and other residents who've contacted him about the cuts, including ANC commissioners in affected ANCs 6A and 7D. Here's what he says, with my comments:

At my recommendation, the Council voted Tuesday May 30th for a budget (six-year Capital Improvement Plan, or “CIP”) that included a reduction of $60.7 million in the streetcar project.  Some have said this means that the extension of the streetcar along Benning Road east of the Anacostia River “will have to wait six years or forever.”  This is not correct.

The three CIP components that comprise the streetcar project total $224.2 million in the budget adopted by the Council.  DDOT’s spending plan for the Benning Road extension, including work on the Whitlock Bridge just west of Minnesota Avenue, totals $199 million.

It is correct that the Benning cost totals $199 million. However, DDOT officials have said that the H Street-related costs are not really optional to maintain a well-functioning system in a state of good repair. Therefore, the needed funds are something like at least $59 million more.

DDOT’s spending plan calls for $76 million through FY 2020, and the Council’s budget authorizes $82.7 million through FY 2020.  Funding in the last three years of the CIP (2021-2023), as adopted by the Council, is one year slower than DDOT’s spending plan.

This $82.7 million counts FHWA funds, which as discussed above, can't be used for design and preliminary engineering of the streetcar itself. Therefore, there is no money in this budget to actually design the line. It appears this budget would not allow doing that until FY21, delaying the whole Benning project at least three years.

The claim that the Council has delayed the Benning extension “six years or forever” is false.

I'm happy to revise this. The council's budget delays the Benning extension at least three years if the current H Street line is allowed to fall into decay and disrepair along the way (and still falls at least $7 million short). In the meantime, capital costs will continue to escalate. For a large project, even a one-year delay can have big cost implications. So maybe "just forever" is more accurate.

What the Council did cut is funding for other streetcar efforts, including design of the Union Station to Georgetown line, a propulsion study, vehicle design, and replacement of existing vehicles.

As above, those were cut (and those things are cuttable, if the Council does not want to fund them), but there are other, higher-priority items that were cut as well.

The execution of the streetcar project over the past decade has been horribly botched, and the project is wildly unpopular throughout the city.  Billed as an alternative transportation system for commuters, it is currently a novelty and is likely to remain so.  And yet many hundreds of millions of dollars has been spent – already – on a single line that remains incomplete.

It makes sense that the H Street/Benning line should connect to the Metro system at Union Station and Benning Road.  Period.

I won't dispute that many aspects were horribly botched. However, it's unfair to say it's "likely to remain ... a novelty." Under the DDOT plan, a rail line was going to run through downtown DC, connecting the vast bulk of the District's jobs and all Metro lines. It would have used dedicated lanes to ensure a reliably quick ride even in high-traffic times. And it would have connected to Benning Road and Ward 7, reaching many people who can benefit from better access to jobs. DDOT recently put out a newsletter about progress on the Union Station to Georgetown extension; it shows impressive travel times and ridership potential.

Right now, the line ends behind the Union Station garage, which is a poor connection to the station. The station also has just one Metro line and is crowded. So it's not a good permanent terminus, which is a big reason it was allowed to just end there. If extended at least to 7th Street downtown, it would not be a novelty.

Mendelson disputes my other figures

In my original post, I noted that Mendelson's budget cut many other transportation projects. He disagrees, listing a number of areas (streetlights, streetscapes, safety & mobility, etc.) where the amount approved by the budget exceeded what was in the Mayor's budget. 

It appears he is correct that the final figures for most of these projects exceeded what was in the mayor's budget. In some of the cases, the Committee on Transportation and the Environment increased the budget for those categories above what the mayor had asked for. So, it's not a cut from the first phase, and then is a cut from a second phase. However, some Mendelson's budget changes took money away in more distant years (which could change anyway), but restored committee cuts in the short term, which is helpful to keep projects moving. So he makes a fair point that for most of those projects, just describing them as "cut" is oversimplifying things, and I'll adjust the original post.

Finally, Mendelson concludes:

It is unfortunate that Greater Greater Washington has created the impression for its readers that the Council is, at worst, hurting our transportation system, or at best, “just not funding better transportation.”  Besides inaccurately alleging cuts, GGW overlooks that Tuesday’s Council action included carving out a dedicated sales tax to fund Metro.  D.C., Maryland, and Virginia need to come forward with increased, dedicated revenue for WMATA – I think a regional sales tax – and the Council has taken the first step.

It's terrific that the council supports funding Metro. But keeping Metro in a state of good repair, while necessary, is not enough to improve transportation for District residents, many of whom live away from Metro. The government need to be able to follow through on projects the council decides to support, and sudden cuts do not help DC plan long-term enhancements (especially with dedicated lanes!) to its transportation system.