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Mayoral challengers criticize the Gray administration's streetcar progress

We interviewed candidates for DC mayor and competitive council races for the April 1 primary, and recorded the conversations on video. We will be posting the videos for each subject area and each race over the course of a few weeks. See all of the interviews here.

Left to right: Muriel Bowser, Tommy Wells, Vincent Gray, Jack Evans, Andy Shallal. Images from the candidate websites.

Love it or hate it, DC is building a streetcar, but there have been a lot of delays in getting it running. We already posted videos of Ward 6 candidates Charles Allen and Darrel Thompson criticizing the slow pace of progress on the first line, which will be in that ward. The mayoral candidates running against Vince Gray had some sharp words as well.

Tommy Wells, the councilmember most closely identified with championing the streetcar, had plenty to say.

I think that it has been managed very poorly by this administration. I know that sounds political, but let's go through why.

It's being run by engineers, and seems to have almost no coordination with the Office of Planning. Ward 5 is told, you're getting a streetcar barn and you're going to like it. Or whether you like it or not, we're putting a streetcar barn in, with very little creativity.

In Seattle, their streetcar barn has affordable housing over it. The most valuable land now is going to be where the streetcar runs. There's no retail plan there showing that we can bring in restaurants or other things facing Benning Road with the streetcar barn behind it. ... I think that the administration has not been creative, has not thought out of the box. There's a way to leverage in amenities along with the streetcar barn.

And then they kept failing at being able to procure streetcars, so finally they had to piggyback on someone else's contract. That's why the streetcars are so late in coming here. And they better not run it without at least 6 streetcars. You need 5 on the tracks and 1 in reserve. Otherwise, it's just a ride at Disneyland that comes by every 30-40 minutes. ...

The other thing was that—my understanding is that the contract for design-build, for finishing off the line, it sat with the Attorney General's office for almost 8 months. This administration, it's like someone poured molasses over the government. I think they're going to get there, but it's not with a sense of urgency. It's not real smart how they're doing it. We're missing an opportunity to do this really creatively.

But we're going to get a streetcar line. We're going to be able to touch it, ride it, so that our residents can see what the future can be like, but it's not as good as it could have been.

Later in the segment, Wells also talked about how important it is for the streetcar to go east of the river, and how he thinks it should never cost more than $1.

Muriel Bowser also talked about DDOT's procurement follies, and says the administration wasn't honest enough with residents:

I'm just as frustrated as I think most people. Mostly, I want somebody to tell the truth. Every month it seems we have a new opening time.

I have no doubt that it's a complicated project. There is nobody more excited than me to figure out all the lessons learned from went wrong in getting this thing going and how we we can fix it, and next time, Mayor Bowser can go out to the community and say, "Listen, this is going to be—dig up your street one time. And we know how we're going to energize it, we know where we're going to turn it around. We know where we're going to store the cars and we know about how long this is going to take."

I think where this mayor and this DDOT director lack credibility is, they won't go out to the community and level with them. And I think people just want to know what gives and what do you need to do to fix it and when can we expect the streetcar to be running.

Andy Shallal was the least enthusiastic about the streetcar, or at least most overtly unenthusiastic. He referred to concerns many H Street business have been voicing that the streetcar will interfere with deliveries.

I think maybe we need to figure it out, use it as an experiment now—it's already built—before we continue to build the rest of what's proposed. I would suggest making sure we understand the challenges that a streetcar is going to bring to a community. I know there's issues with parking that are going to get in the way; deliveries with restaurants, how are those going to happen—many of them don't have alleys and have to depend on deliveries from the front; bicycles and how they cross those tracks.

It's a lot of stuff there. I think we need to really be mindful of how we go about completing the tracks and making sure that whatever we put in place on the H Street corridor is something that's workable and manageable and doesn't create more hassles than it tries to solve.

Later, when we were talking about political obstacles to bus lanes, he suggested doing more projects that make it possible to experiment. He said,
Things like bus lanes are a great way to try something out. What's the worst that can happen? you erase them. As opposed to a trolley, where you've spent millions of dollars, hundreds of millions of dollars. You've dug up the street for years, you've caused all this disruption, you've shut down businesses.

Jack Evans was very brief and much less critical. "It's just taking forever. It's on the right track, it's just taking too long to get down the track. ... What we have to do is get the program moving. To be honest with you, with any program it takes forever to get off the ground. And now we have lines built, we have the streetcars, maybe this will be the end but it needs to be moving a little bit faster."

See the full discussions with these candidates:





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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Thats because there is a lot to be critical about.

Yes, the streetcar program existed before Gray became mayor, but then again he was the Council Chair for thje 4 years before that, with a heavy influence in city progamming and spending whose true opinion on the streetcar was shown when he canceled its funding, only to do a complete 180 within 24 hours because of how it made his nascent mayoral campaign look.

In the 3 years Gray has been mayor, the street car has fallen behind another 2 years, and this is during a time when the city is flush with budget surplus cash.

by Streetcar on Mar 7, 2014 1:02 pm • linkreport

Jack: "maybe this will be the end" lol

The writing is on the wall.

The question is — now that Gray has a short streetcar line on his hands, that serves so few residents, and once other communities realize the problems and block any effort to expand the boondoggle — how many years of commercial disruption will it take to remove the tracks so they don't pose a threat to the increasing number of cyclists that corridor attracts?

Would hate to pedal over those tracks in the winter when they are partially concealed and covered by slush.

A streetcar would be great if it could have a dedicated lane, but electeds and planners have a hard time dancing around the fact that even a dedicated bus lane is a tall order in this town.

My friends in Silver Spring get all red faced talking about traffic delays and would love a dedicated rapid bus line to get downtown, but it would be more attractive if the city could build free wifi into that system and maybe get one of the big telecom companies to sponsor it.

by @ShawingtonTimes on Mar 7, 2014 1:49 pm • linkreport

Tommy Wells for mayor! No retail plan and almost no coordination with the office of planning? I don't know if this is true, but they certainly are the right questions. As for Shallal, sounds like he's too busy playing the political field rather than "going out in the community" and explaining what's going on and why as Muriel Bowser said. This isn't the only issue on the table, but I appreciate GGW providing this platform to hear where candidates stand on this issue.

by Thayer-D on Mar 7, 2014 1:52 pm • linkreport

I didn't see a lot of these candidates when the Mayor was fighting the NIMBYs on the car barn, or the over head wires. It is poorly executed, but look at the mess left by Fenty and Scott Kubly.

We have three cars in DC now and service is expected any week now, and there is an RFP out for the next phase, so keeping fingers crossed!

by William on Mar 7, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

When Fenty was mayor, the streetcar was a tool for myopic little twits to push african americans out of the district. Under Grey, some people are saying the same thing, but AFAICT with somewhat less (pardon the expression) traction than before. Even IF Wells could manage this better than Grey (of which I am not convinced - and the car barn issue, as we have been over before, was largely a result of the Fenty admin counting on a deal with Amtrak they never really had - when that fell through DDOT had to scramble, and integrating retail was a secondary issue) there is real value, for streetcars, and indeed for the rest of the urbanism issues advocated often at GGW, to having a black person from EOTR be their advocate. In that sense, OneCity is not just a slogan.

by TheSilentFactor on Mar 7, 2014 2:07 pm • linkreport

Gray keeping the start up until after the primary doesn't bode well for it's prospects.

by Tom Coumaris on Mar 7, 2014 2:08 pm • linkreport


I think credence is given to your statements in the cancellation of the Anacostia line, which should've been the first built

by PotomacAveres on Mar 7, 2014 3:04 pm • linkreport

@William, but more generally as well--certainly a lot of the blame for the present situation falls at the feet of Fenty, but it reaches back to the Tangherlini era in the Williams administration. True, it was under their leadership that the extensive study known as DC's Transit Future got started, and it was also under their leadership that the laying down of streetcar tracks got included in the H Street rebuilding project. What they didn't do was ensure that there was any coordination of these efforts, nor start any planning of any sort to actually get a streetcar operational on H Street.

Tangherlini left before the study was finished, and under Michelle Pourcieau, the study finished with a thud, and the unresolved question of an H street operating plan was left open. Fenty's first DDOT director, Emeka Moneme, didn't do anything about H street either.

Finally, when Gabe Klein was DDOT director, he realized that there'd be these tracks in place on H street real soon now, but that nobody had figured out anything like an operational plan. So he and Scott Kubly scrambled to put something in place. Sure, there were mis-steps, but in the end they did an admirable job of pulling the H street project back into some semblance of order.

by thm on Mar 7, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

thm's comment is well informed and reasoned.

by pduc on Mar 7, 2014 4:01 pm • linkreport

@thm, there is nothing you posted that I disagree with, thanks for correcting/expanding on my thoughts. I wasn't trying to blame Kubly, it is just that the whole process has been without proper planning and holistic cohesion.

by William on Mar 7, 2014 4:22 pm • linkreport

Well the streetcar has had problems, but I remain optimistic that it will work out once it starts operating. The one flaw that I saw in the initial segment was that it didn't go all the way to the Minnesota Avenue Metro Station. That way it could have been an bypass for the Orange line so that riders wouldn't have to go to Metro Center.

But I suspect that, once it is up and running, they won't remove the tracks. I don't see them scrapping the entire project. Maybe it won't expand further, but I think ripping out the tracks is unrealistic.

by Rain17 on Mar 7, 2014 4:38 pm • linkreport

Are you sure this wasn't an audition for "Zombie Apocalypse" ?

by NE John on Mar 7, 2014 8:57 pm • linkreport

In all seriousness, this whole election business in DC is a joke. I can't join this ridiculous party and vote for any o these clowns in a primary. The actual election is a sham. I will never accept this DC government.

by NE John on Mar 7, 2014 9:00 pm • linkreport

I'm reading stuff like this:

Wells: >And then they kept failing at being able to procure streetcars, so finally they had to piggyback on someone else's contract. - <

Bowser: >I think where this mayor and this DDOT director lack credibility is, they won't go out to the community and level with them.<

I didn't go through the videos. The excerpts are painful enough.

Browser can cut-and-paste her observations about the streetcar on almost any issue, and Wells? Talking about a procurement contract piggyback is one of firing up the base.

by kob on Mar 9, 2014 12:13 pm • linkreport

The streetcars we got out of the piggybacking contract were way cheaper than the ones we bought from Oregon so... the problem is?

Also that's a pretty standard practice for smaller transit agencies. I think the circulator buses were bought as part of an AC Transit contract.

by MLD on Mar 9, 2014 12:39 pm • linkreport

It should be run by engineers. What a stupid thing to say, Wells .

by NE John on Mar 10, 2014 8:21 am • linkreport

The Anacostia Line was to be a demonstration project designed for the city to learn, but was mismanaged by Dan Tangherlini under Williams (the CSX deal). It was also a pet project along with the study of David Catania who mismanaged it politically.

H street was a last minute fall back during the Fenty admin which decided to jam tracks into what was to be a streetscape improvement project. This assured that it would not be none well.

Gray was correct as chair to delay funding because the project was not ready for the funding. His reversal made the GGW crew feel good, but was inconsequential as those dollars were not able to be spent then anyway.

The GGW crew should be thankful to the Gray admin for turning a F'd up demonstration project into something that can barely pass for real transportation development. Wells was there, but really a bench player getting some garbage points in the 4th quarter.

by W Jordan on Mar 10, 2014 8:45 am • linkreport

There's something very disingenuous about sitting councilmembers talking about the DC government as if they're not part of the DC government. What has the Council done to speed up streetcars? Nothing. Where was the Council when it came time to do oversight on the streetcars, asking hard questions to DDOT officials? Stop Monday morning quarterbacking and get something done, you yahoos, you're on the Council *now*.

by Alan on Mar 10, 2014 11:21 am • linkreport

@ Alan

Such hypocrites, especially Wells. Not only does he serve on the transportation committee, he was the streetcar's biggest proponent, introduced the key bills, hosted streetcar parties and showcases, and rebuked efforts to get any private funding help. Now he says it was poorly run, but failed to acknowledge he vastly underestimated costs.

by Burd on Mar 11, 2014 3:16 pm • linkreport

Lets get rid of the streetcars, overhead wires (750 volts - 50 will kill you), tracks and electromagnetic radiation, which causes leukemia in children and adults and especially pregnant women.

Spend the 400 million dollar cost of the H Street Benning Road streetcar line on housing, the homeless and least among us. Conserve our greenspace and school properties.

by Better Idea on Apr 2, 2014 11:07 am • linkreport

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