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Streetcars — Folly or Not?

We honestly do not know with absolute certainty whether or not proceeding with building a few streetcar lines is outright folly or not. But what we do know is that the manner in which the District’s transportation department (DDOT) has so far gone about things is indeed outright folly. Unfortunately, it has so far been much to the detriment of the taxpayers who seem to be pouring good money after bad due to cost overruns and screwed-up project management by a bureaucracy that simply does not have the kind of institutional expertise to handle a complex rail project like this.

Whether the right questions were asked by members of the city council several years ago when they first authorized this undertaking and whether the relevant oversight committee was or was not asleep at the switch as things kept unraveling are questions for others to answer.

Our view, however, is that we have embarked on what can ultimately be a plus for the District in the long run, given that congestion along our streets will only get worse as more people move into the city at the same time as it continues to be an even greater national and international center –- to say nothing of DC attracting even more tourists than ever before. The District once had an enviable streetcar system –- safe, smooth riding, quiet and with dependable service. If it had not been for a deal of dubious pedigree struck between the leadership of the old District Committee of the House of Representatives which controlled DC and the then DC Transit’s last owner O. Roy Chalk who viewed his asset as a real estate gold mine to be plundered, we might very well have had the system in place to this day –- and no doubt appropriately upgraded over the years.

Instead, the then District Commissioners, along with the city’s “blue bloods” (a/k/a the “cave dwellers,” as they are still known) -– who, of course would never mingle with the hoi polloi on public transit –- bought into the notion that buses spewing fumes would be superior because they would allow for true route flexibility, among other alleged benefits. Curiously, route flexibility never materialized and the buses continued to follow the old streetcar routs –- and to this day they mostly still do.

We believe that if the city council — and especially the next mayor –- closely monitor the implementation of the current project and insist on bringing in a team that has a proven expertise and track record with such  undertakings, this project can be redeemed.

As a start, we applaud the council’s recent budgetary action by which it scaled back the funding scheme that would have siphoned off annually from the general revenues for the next several years vastly increasing  dedicated funds amounting to a hoard of hundreds of millions of dollars long before they would need to be disbursed. Contrary to the bleating from the mayor’s office, the just now appropriated millions will allow construction and planning to proceed apace; the streetcar project is far from having been killed off, as alleged.

A side issue that has galvanized many well-meaning residents concerned with maintaining the streetscapes to oppose creating a new streetcar system is that there will be overhead electric power lines. (As for routes through historic districts, provision has been made to allow for underground power lines, so this should not be an issue in those areas.) But we still hear about how the Europeans have respect for their historic city centers, etc., yet those cities boast extensive, modern streetcar systems –- even with overhead power lines; we fail to understand these objections.

One contributor to the twice-weekly e-newsletter, TheMail – even recently called attention to action taken during Grover Cleveland’s presidency by the 50th Congress when, on July 19, 1888, it included as part of the District’s then appropriation measure, the following prohibition: “The Commissioners of the District of Columbia shall not, after the fifteenth day of September 1888, permit or authorize any additional telegraph, telephone, electric lighting or other wires to be erected or maintained on or over any of the streets, Alleys or avenues of the City of Washington. . . .” This restriction on municipal authority did not apply beyond what was then known as the “City of Washington” –- that is, north of Florida Avenue (formerly Boundary Street) or in far Northeast or across the Anacostia, for example.

Furthermore, as the contributor to TheMail correctly pointed out, only the 50th Congress had the power to grant exceptions and after the “termination of the [then] present Congress” no DC official or agency could allow for any new overhead wiring. Presumably, however, either a later Congress modified its statutory prohibition by giving the District Commissioners authority to grant new overhead wires or the subsequent proliferation through the end of the century –- and even today’s stringing of cables by Comcast and Verizon for its FiOS service through our historic district alleys would be illegal!