New D.C. Streetcar Project Becomes Trainwreck for Residents

Published October 27, 2014

On the roads of the nation’s capital, there seem to be two constant things: the roads are always congested, and there is always lots of construction going on.

The city’s government seems to hope that a new streetcar system will reduce some of the former and incentivize more of the latter, but slow test runs and a lack of administrative direction are casting doubts upon how much it will actually help.

As the Washington Post reports, officials have been developing and promoting plans for a streetcar system linking the District’s neighborhoods for several years now.

Question Marks

Eventually, the system could consist of 37 miles of track, stretching from Georgetown to Anacostia, and many points in between. However, plans have been repeatedly delayed, as questions concerning the project’s funding and the logistics of running a streetcar through D.C.’s often chaotic traffic have gone unanswered.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) has been testing passenger-free cars along the inaugural 2.2 mile line on H Street (in the Northeast quadrant of the city), but the trials have shown several problems already.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) bus operators have complained that DDOT still hasn’t offered final safety guidelines, concerning whether streetcars or buses have the right-of-way at certain intersections and turns. There have already been two streetcar-related accidents reported.

The streetcars operate in the midst of regular traffic, which presents a major problem when cars and buses need to navigate the same routes.

The D.C. City Council has already committed $700 million to streetcar-related funding through 2021. However, there are still questions regarding how much riders will pay, and whether that will be enough to cover the estimated costs to run the streetcars. Based on recent ridership projections, a $1 fare would only cover about 8.8 percent of the system’s $5.1 million annual operating costs.

Duplication of Service

Vox writer Matt Yglesias points out that the proposed streetcar lines already overlap with WMATA’s popular bus routes, only serving to amplify the problem.

“That’s the fundamental problem with the H Street streetcar. It’s not just that the city is spending a lot of money to build a transit line that will be less useful than the X-2 bus whose route will overlap with it,” Yglesias wrote. “The city is spending a lot of money on a transit project that will slow buses down.”

Despite all of the concerns, DDOT and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray appear determined to push forward on the project, with plans to have the initial lines fully operational “by year’s end,” according to the Washington Post.

Michael Tasselmyer ([email protected] ) is the Policy Analyst for the National Taxpayers Union Foundation. Used with permission of Government Bytes: