Transportation Boondoggles: Streetcars (and Other Things) Lacking Desire | Citizens Against Government Waste

Transportation Boondoggles: Streetcars (and Other Things) Lacking Desire

The WasteWatcher

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but in the “DMV” (not the Department of Motor Vehicles, but a local acronym describing the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia), it is lined with ill-conceived transit projects, some of which are being given greater scrutiny by chastened elected leaders.

In the March 8, 2015 online edition of The Washington Post, reporter Michael Laris wrote that Washington, D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT) Acting Director Leif Dormsjo is contemplating whether the city’s controversial, $3 billion streetcar project is “worth saving.”  Mr. Dormsjo, who previously served as Deputy Secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), was channeling his boss, new D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.  On February 22, 2015, the day following a flash fire on top of one of the streetcars and the latest of nearly a dozen accidents caused when streetcars sideswiped a car during simulated service, the mayor’s office issued a statement that the streetcar would not open until “we know it’s safe.  And not a moment sooner.”  Dormsjo has asked experts from the American Public Transportation Association to help evaluate the safety of the system.  Their report is expected within 45 days.

Local government officials have already spent $200 million on the project, commencing with just over two miles of rail along H Street, NE, from Union Station to Benning Road at Oklahoma Avenue, NE, terminating near the Anacostia River.  The line’s supporters envision future extensions eastward into the city’s Wards 7 and 8, while eventually bisecting Washington all the way to the Georgetown neighborhood in the west.  All told, the ambitious project would grow to 22 miles as the Priority Streetcar System, and if fully developed, a 37-mile Expanded Streetcar System.

On October 23, 2014, city leaders had already announced a scaled-back project of only the eight miles stretching from Anacostia to Georgetown, cutting two-thirds of the initial budget to $1 billion.  This action was the logical conclusion of a May 28, 2014 vote by the District Council to cut future funding for the project.  Still, an additional $800 million would be required to complete and operate even this down-sized effort.  Mayor Bowser is the fourth D.C. mayor to be involved in the project, which was first funded under then-Mayor Anthony Williams in 2002.

Across the Potomac River, the Arlington County Board voted 4-1 on November 18, 2014 to cancel all streetcar projects in the county.  The action reversed what had been a 3-2 majority in favor of the streetcar projects along the Columbia Pike and Crystal City-Potomac Yards corridors.  Board Chair Jay Fisette, a streetcar supporter, acknowledged “…political realities.  It is a fact that on Nov. 4 voters convincingly re-elected the candidate who made opposition to the streetcar a centerpiece of his campaign. This was a serious message.”

A November 18, 2014 article in The Washington Post highlighted the opposition to Arlington’s foray into fixed-guideway transit systems:  “…a vocal contingent of Arlingtonians questioned the promised benefits of the project — whose price tag eventually reached $550 million — and wondered whether it was an example of county-funded excess.”  This anti-streetcar fervor translated into an unprecedented victory for John Vihstadt (I), who had campaigned against the projects and became the first board member in 15 years who was not a Democrat.  Vihstadt told The Post that, “A streetcar makes no sense from either a transit efficacy or an economic-development perspective.”

Then there’s Maryland.

In the so-called “Free State,” the administration of then-Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.) had strongly supported the development of the “Purple Line,” a proposed $2.4 billion light-rail line from Bethesda to New Carrollton.  By naming it the Purple Line, proponents allowed the impression that this connector would be integrated into the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area’s Metrorail (Metro) system, whose existing rail lines are known by different colors:  Red, Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green, and Silver.  Metro is managed by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), but the proposed Purple Line would have no connection to WMATA whatsoever.  Instead, it would be operated by MDOT and would not begin or end at any existing Metro stations.  As reported in the January 29, 2015 online edition of The Washington Post, Purple Line opponents believe that it would be “too expensive, disrupt neighborhoods along the route and destroy a popular wooded trail between Bethesda and Silver Spring.”

In 2014, Larry Hogan, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, campaigned on the need for Marylanders to reduce government spending in order to balance the budget.  This was considered a shot across the bow for such high-dollar projects as the Purple Line and the $2.6 billion “Red Line” light-rail project proposed for Baltimore County.

When pundits were stunned by Hogan’s surprise victory in November, the Purple Line was, well, stopped in its tracks, at least momentarily.  As described on January 22, 2014 in Dan Reed’s blog on greatergreaterwashington.org, “While [Hogan] said he would not make a decision on either the Purple or Red lines before taking office, he previously expressed a preference for building roads over transit and focusing on the state's rural areas.”  In the meantime, the Purple Line’s proponents have shown their cards:  they describe the governor’s “foot-dragging” as jeopardizing some $900 million in federal funds, while the state would be contributing between $300 million and $700 million.  To them, it’s just a matter of “other peoples’ money.”

According to Kathleen Shaver’s January 29, 2015, article in The Washington Post, Maryland Secretary of Transportation Pete Rahn “hopes to make a recommendation to the governor about both projects’ future in the next 90 days.” 

From a regional perspective, one might think that “two out three ain’t bad.”  Victories in Virginia and either D.C. or Maryland should portend cautionary tales for supporters of costly transit projects.  But when it comes to protecting the taxpayers’ interests, leaders need to strive to hit all three of these boondoggles out of the ballpark.  Here, “batting a thousand” would be ideal.

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