Connecting communities (or not)
It was Councilmember Marion Barry (ward 8) who had the day's most relevant quote. "Streetcars are about connecting communities," he said, as he urged his colleagues to support the proposed 1.3-mile, $43-million Anacostia demonstration streetcar in his ward. There's only one problem: the proposed line doesn't connect communities at all.
There's no community on South Capitol Street, with the 295 freeway on one side and Bolling Air Force Base on the other, and where the first of DC's streetcar lines is slated to be built. The originally proposed line would have run along the abandoned CSX tracks all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue, but failed negotiations with CSX killed that idea. Then DDOT proposed a line along Martin Luther King Jr. Ave between historic Anacostia and Congress Heights, but some residents objected to not being able to park on both sides of the street.
Ultimately, DDOT settled on an alignment down the very wide and low-density Firth Stirling Avenue, and then onto South Capitol, which has no buildings on it whatsoever, serving basically as a frontage access road paralleling the freeway alongside a military base. Firth Stirling itself is slated to become a dense, mixed-use neighborhood main street if Barry Farm is redeveloped and the cloverleaf interchange at Suitland and 295 is converted to a diamond, freeing up land. But the Barry Farm stop is a mere third of a mile from the Anacostia Metro, an easy walk (supplemented by bus service).
The real riders of this line will be federal workers at Anacostia Naval Station and Bolling Air Force Base. But the federal government is not paying a cent for what Tommy Wells (ward 6) says amounts to no more than a "shuttle train" for federal employees. And it connects no communities. In essence, Barry was asking the Council to support a streetcar project for reasons that argue against the project instead. This divergence between rhetoric and reality characterized the entire hearing, where supporters and critics seemed to be talking about entirely different projects. That's because they were.
To supporters, like DDOT Director Emeka Moneme, the reasons to build this segment have little to do with this segment itself. Instead, this project is about starting, at long last, DC's streetcar system. And we certainly should be building a comprehensive system throughout the region. East of the river, the benefits abound of providing reliable, economic-development-stimulating streetcar service past the Anacostia Metro, through Historic Anacostia, and down Minnesota Avenue all the way to Benning Road and the Minnesota Avenue Metro.
In his testimony, Moneme often answered a question about the South Capitol alignment by discussing instead the benefits of a streetcar in Anacostia generally. David Catania (at large), who decided to put the first line in Anacostia during his WMATA board tenure, spoke about building demand for Class A office space in downtown Anacostia. Unfortunately, the planned line doesn't go to downtown Anacostia.
Moneme's testimony made clear that, quite simply, DDOT is building this first segment in this location because it is the path of least resistance. Here, there is no argument about capacity on Firth Stirling (it is really two parallel roads separated by the abandoned tracks, with ample excess space), and no residents on South Capitol to complain about anything. The District owns land, currently partially used for garbage truck storage, that will serve as the new line's maintenance shop.
Yes, it's easy to build a line in the middle of nowhere. But is it a prudent use of funds? If this piece catalyzes the next one, maybe. Will it? Chairman Jim Graham argued that with CFO Gandhi's recent warning about debt for capital projects, funds are precious. Will DC be stuck with this little "shuttle train" for years and years?
Moneme thinks not. He believes that this segment will build public support for future streetcars. It will show people how smooth, quiet, and reliable a working streetcar can be, and how non-intrusive the overhead wires really appear. He's hoping this path-of-least-resistance project will make it easier to build the next segment in an area with some resistance today, such as an extension to the center of historic Anacostia.
That's possible. Or, perhaps the line will encounter some mechanical problems, suffer from low ridership (due to its failure to connect communities) and create opposition instead of support. Even if it does convert skeptics to believers, is it worth $43 million? How about a really nice video, or maybe we could just fly every resident of DC to Portland to see their streetcars firsthand.
This debate comes down to a strategic decision. The current line serves few DC residents and connects no communities, but is easy to build and passes by cheap land for a maintenance shop. Is it better to get a track in the ground as soon as possible, in the easiest possible place, to show people a working streetcar even if the immediate benefits are few? Or is $43 million too high a price? Should we wait longer to build a streetcar in an area which needs and wants one? Graham and Wells say, do it right and in the right place. Fenty and Moneme say, just build something now.
Meanwhile, Catania says build it now and, in fact, this is the right place too. Of all the opinions at the hearing, Catania's is the least plausible. He was the only one to firmly defend a line to Bolling, arguing that a streetcar will generate office demand in Anacostia among defense contractors doing business at those military bases. He also wants the line to continue to National Harbor to access the jobs there. As Wells pointed out, National Harbor is not designed for transit and competes with DC for business; a line (and my transit vision map contains one), but building such a line first, with DC money, is not the right priority.
Catania is stuck in a commuter-only mindset, like the one in force when Metro was designed. Streetcars aren't a way to more quickly shuttle workers to their jobs; buses do that more cheaply over short distances. Streetcars work best to open up run-down areas to development, creating new, mixed-use, mixed-income communities, like Portland's Pearl district (or the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro in Arlington). H Street, Minnesota Avenue, or the AFRH/Hospital Center/McMillan Sand Filtration area may be such places. An access highway to a military base, far from any people, with no parcels available for development along most of the route, is not.
But the engineering is done, the cars are waiting in the Czech Republic, and the administration is ready to go. Is it best simply to get this one built and then push for the next segment? Or are we wasting our money? Whatever will create the complete planned system, or better yet the original full system, I support. The approximately $1 billion price tag may come in large part from incremental tax revenues from development it spurs. The $400 million earmarked for the 11th Street bridges looks inviting; Graham called it a "Christmas goose," suggesting the Council might find it appealing to reallocate that money to streetcars. Most likely, to kick off the investment requires federal investment from a better FTA, which we can hope to get from a President Obama.
Pictures from along the route:
- Bikeshare is a gateway to private biking, not competition
- Short-term Washingtonians deserve a voice, too
- Judge denies injunction against closing schools
- Long-term closures: A solution to single-tracking?
- Public land deals have both benefits and pitfalls
- PG planners propose bold new smart growth future
- DC Council makes major policy changes overnight