Thursday, May 27, 2010

Streetcar Funding Abruptly Pulled, Then Reinstated

Wow. This was a shocker. The DC City Council voted yesterday to strip the nearly $50 million slated to fund the first phase build-out and operation of the DC streetcar lines.

Almost immediately after the decision hit the airwaves and websites, a reversal. The funding was restored by 3:00pm after calls to members' offices, a mini-revolt on the web and even intervention of a member of Congress (surprise).

This is the same project that was highly touted this month as the future of DC transportation. The city trotted out its experts, other DDOT employees, an actual street car, a few Circulator buses, Smartbikes and heaps of pamphlets and display boards. All in an effort to educate residents about the extensive and exciting transit changes just around the corner. Except it was (almost) all a sham.

The initial vote yesterday was odd for several reasons. First, the city had, for years, planned a citywide network of streetcars, running east-west, north-north, touching every ward. Tracks have been laid and cars purchased and delivered. We are 80% there. So much time and money have invested in start up and the future looks bright.

Second, so many businesses have been affected by the streetcar saga, especially along H Street NE, where track-laying has disrupted vehicular and pedestrian traffic on the street for months on end. And the potential payoff of customers delivered by streetcar is a key reason they would have looked forward to completion.

Third, the streetcars were part of the plan to help alleviate crowding on Metro bus and rail. The Circulaotor was partly a success because it wasn't a Metro bus or train. The routes were unconventional, the city didn't have to consider the needs of VA or MD, and changes could be made to meet customer demand (adding a stop, rerouting, etc) quickly. Streetcars were a significant piece to the puzzle of solving Metro overcrowding. Not the only piece, but a significant piece. The only way we'll get around the Metrorail "full-capacity" issue is to add more transit options, i.e. streetcars.

Legislating is a tricky thing. You have to please multiple constituencies and at the same time make financially responsible decisions for the District. Not an easy task. But to temporarily kill a project that was so far along and with so much infrastructure and moving parts already in place was, well, ill advised. I'm personally happy that the funding was restored. And the Council seems to think that they've found the funds to cover the other essentials that apparently took precedent the day before. Here's to riding the rails.