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What role will the private sector play in the streetcar?

City officials and business representatives haven't yet reached consensus on whether to create a separate authority for the DC Streetcar, or how much the private sector should chip in to build it.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

At a meeting yesterday of the Mayor's DC Streetcar Finance and Governance Taskforce, members talked about whether to create an independent authority to manage the streetcar. Alternately, it could be an agency of the DC government or a part of an existing agency, or a hybrid.

The authority, if created, would also control the Circulator and possibly also DC's non-regional bus service, making a sort of DC transit authority. One city official said at the meeting it could even include Capital Bikeshare.

Rich Bradley of the Downtown BID expressed a strong preference for an authority, saying DC has used this structure for other large-scale projects in the past.

But City Administrator Allen Lew said that if the public is paying for the streetcar, there would be "pressure to make it a public entity." Whereas, he added, if the private sector contributes more, then "an entity would make more sense."

Further, there is a strong likelihood that DC will contract with a private company to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain (DBFOM) the streetcar in exchange for annual payments and oversight power. If that happens, a separate entity already will be making the more micro-level decisions; would an authority just be an extra layer?

Having a separate authority for WMATA is necessary because it crosses regional lines, but it has some drawbacks. Perhaps in part because the mayor doesn't control WMATA, often city leaders have sought to advance their transit aims with programs they can control, where they can better ensure success.

Someone's missing from the task force

Besides Lew, who chairs the task force, there are 7 public officials or their designees: the budget director, CFO, and heads of DDOT, DCRA, DGS, DMPED, and OP. There are also 5 people from business and development organizations (Co-chair Jair Lynch, Rich Bradley from the Downtown BID, Akridge president Matthew Klein, Ginger Laytham of Clyde's Restaurant Group, and developer Charles "Sandy" Wilkes), and Rob Puentes of Brookings.

Where are representatives of transit riders and residents who have been pushing for the streetcar? What about Jason Broehm, who led multi-year campaigns to build resident and business support for the streetcar on H Street when DDOT was dropping the communication ball? Or the new Sierra Club transportation leads? Or the Coalition for Smarter Growth? For that matter, where is a representative of Mary Cheh?

If private sector organizations who will benefit from the streetcar are going to make a significant contribution, over and above the regular taxes they would pay from having the value of their property skyrocket, there's some logic to having meetings specifically between those who would pay and city officials, though still no reason to exclude community streetcar supporters.

However, a stronger "value capture" mechanism doesn't seem to be in the plan at this point. A streetcar's primary value over a rapid bus is that it stimulates economic development (and has higher maximum capacity if you have maxed out the number of buses you can run, like on Columbia Pike, but that's not the case for most DC streetcar corridors).

The economic development should mean that a streetcar line brings economic growth larger than its cost over and above a rapid bus. If it doesn't, a streetcar might not be what you want to build. If it does, then it will bring a big windfall to landowners along the corridor. For its money, the public should get some benefit.

That could be that those landowners chip in extra to help pay for the streetcar, perhaps with an extra assessment on commercial and large-scale residential property values beyond their previous levels. Or, if the concern is that the streetcar will gentrify a corridor, the contribution could be affordable housing instead (either a requirement to have some or payments into a fund).

More on wireless technology, and public meeting tonight

DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said that the agency is looking at wireless streetcar technologies. Current technologies allow them to run cars for about a mile without wires, but the technology is advancing quickly and they are keeping an eye on new developments.

He said they will be presenting more about wireless technology at the next meeting on the Union Station-Georgetown streetcar study, which is tonight. The meeting is 6-8 pm at the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square. That streetcar segment will cross many significant avenues with viewsheds from major DC sites, so going without wires across at least those viewsheds has always been part of the discussion.

David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. 


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Let them play any role that makes it a reality. Wasn't the old Connecticut Avenue street car privatly funded to get people out to the new subdivision of Chevy Chase?

by Thayer-D on Apr 11, 2013 11:09 am • linkreport

So, DC wants to create its own version of MUNI.

I cannot possibly emphasize strongly enough how much of a terrible idea that would be.

If there are problems with WMATA, let's fix them. Creating multiple transit authorities is going to create a transportation system that is more expensive, less efficient, and impossible to change over time.

by andrew on Apr 11, 2013 11:10 am • linkreport

I haven't seen anything bolstering the notion that there needs to be a separate authority.

Some of the others things, like whether economic development trumps costs, will only be seen over time...if at all.

by HogWash on Apr 11, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

"If there are problems with WMATA, let's fix them. Creating multiple transit authorities is going to create a transportation system that is more expensive, less efficient, and impossible to change over time."

At this point I don't think WMATA is fixable short of Congressional intervention.

by Phil on Apr 11, 2013 11:25 am • linkreport

make it part of WMATA!

by GDubber on Apr 11, 2013 11:26 am • linkreport

Then get congress to intervene.

by andrew on Apr 11, 2013 11:31 am • linkreport

I just got back from London and while Transport for London is responsible for every part of transportation (roads, trains, tube, ferries, bike share, buses, and streetcars) they've been able to ensure that the various private entities that are contracted to actually run the services (even the bus lines are operated by different companies) keep to strict metrics regarding service.

I don't know much about the specifics but I'd welcome someone to look at or speak more about the comparison. It seemed to work well for me while I was there albeit I was only in town for a week and was a tourist.

by drumz on Apr 11, 2013 11:34 am • linkreport

So, DC wants to create its own version of MUNI.

Well, the MUNI situation is more similar what exists now - the city DOT (SFMTA) running the transit service as well as the other DOT functions like streets and parking.

SFMTA is more independent than DDOT though.

If the service is going to be contracted anyway then I don't see much point to creating a transit authority. I could see making DDOT more independent with a mayor-appointed board like SFMTA though.

by MLD on Apr 11, 2013 11:57 am • linkreport

I am against an independent authority. It adds one more player to the discussion that will develop its own institutional character. It will likely become competitive with DDOT and WMATA vs. collaborative. We need multimodal systems not each mode with their own little fiefdom they will protect at all costs. Contracting it all out en masse could be interesting, but I'm definitely against splitting it up at a high level.

by Alan B. on Apr 11, 2013 12:02 pm • linkreport

Does a seperate authority suggest different bonding limits?

by charlie on Apr 11, 2013 12:15 pm • linkreport

Let's keep the bureaucracy to a minimum. Is there any reason it can't be managed by DDOT (and without a large expansion of that agency)?

by H St LL on Apr 11, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

I thought this wire business was settled. Nearly every city in the world has overhead with the exception of Bordeaux and a few others, and then only in the center of the historic core. Why gamble on virgin technology, especially if it accomplishes little?

by NFA on Apr 11, 2013 12:23 pm • linkreport

I think the wire thing is only an issue because it's an easy rallying call for the opposition. There is a group of people that oppose the wires and there is a group that oppose the street cars. Neither are all that large I think and they know that together they have a stronger voice, though its a bit of a gambit on both parts because they dont necessarily want the same thing in the end. The city is probably only still entertaining the idea because they dont know yet if they can get the project through without the support of the wire opponents. I wonder in the end if it will come down to less than optimal routing in order to protect some "key" viewsheds like Pennsylvannia Ave.

by Alan B. on Apr 11, 2013 12:47 pm • linkreport

Regarding London: It couldn't be more of an apples and oranges comparison to Greater Washington. TfL is effectively a part of a regional government overseeing the affairs of Greater London, with the mayor controlling the TfL board. For example, the fact that Ken Livingston was mayor and personally pushed hard for the (now successful) congestion charge is the only reason it happened in the face of massive opposition. In contrast, this region's highly fragmented political structure would make such a thing highly improbable, if not impossible.

by Jonathan P on Apr 11, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

Let us give it to Ward One's Jim Graham...he knows nothing about streetcars yet he was placed over WMATA!

by DC John on Apr 11, 2013 6:16 pm • linkreport

I had no idea DC still hasn't figure out how they are going to pay for the streetcar; weird considering it's supposed to go into operation this year.

by Kolohe on Apr 12, 2013 6:49 am • linkreport

They have figured out how to pay for the initial H Street line. The open questions are about the rest of the system.

by David Alpert on Apr 12, 2013 8:00 am • linkreport

"That could be that those landowners chip in extra to help pay for the streetcar, perhaps with an extra assessment on commercial and large-scale residential property values beyond their previous levels."

Because public transportation is provided and I own property nearby, you think I should be taxed higher? This is insane reasoning. If your theory that streetcar lines will be a boon to retail proves true, that is where the additional revenue will be provided for the city - through sales and employment taxes above current levels.

by Denis James on Apr 12, 2013 8:19 am • linkreport

Yes, it's so insane, it's been done all over the place!

by MLD on Apr 12, 2013 8:48 am • linkreport

Out here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there's been non-stop handwringing about the multiplicity of transit agencies. The Bay Area is similar in population to the Washington area, people say we have something like 27 transit agencies, the exact number depends on what you count. There are clearly 7 transit agencies, including Muni, that carry a significant number of people. We have fare coordination problems (people have to pay twice to use two connecting systems), schedule coordination problems, branding problems, service problems in border areas etc. Think hard what a new transit agency would accomplish before you create one.

by Wanderer on Apr 15, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

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