Greater Greater Washington

NCPC not why DC lost streetcar grant, politics may be

A source familiar with the Urban Circulator grant process says that Urban Circulator grant awards had been decided before NCPC Chairman Preston Bryant sent his letter to the FTA.

According to the source, FTA had chosen the recipients for the grant over a month ago. Bryant only sent his letter two weeks ago. Therefore, disappointing as it is, DC wouldn't have gotten the $25 million to extend the H Street streetcar line across the Anacostia River in any event.

On the other hand, it's certainly possible that politics played a role in several ways. Several people inside USDOT have said that part of the discretionary TIGER grant process involved political calculations. (Though nobody ever accused the previous administration of not being extremely political either). Several commenters noted that the Urban Circulator grants seemed focused on swing states.

In addition, Congressional representatives can play a role in influencing these decisions. With no voting representatives, DC is at a disadvantage to getting federal money. Furthermore, Eleanor Holmes Norton has expressed trepidation in the past about streetcars, and seems to be approaching this home rule debate with NCPC less fiercely than on many other issues.

Perhaps that's tactically a smart move to avoid a lawsuit that could set a bad precedent harming DC home rule more broadly, but her lukewarm feelings about the project could play a role in deciding which battles to fight and when to stay on the sidelines.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. 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 daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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I felt this might have been the case. Usually federal grants are actually decided long before the decision is due to be announced; I just wasn't sure when these were officially going to be decided.

People should also keep in mind that these projects aren't just concentrated on winning the Presidency in swing states. In many of those cities, vulnerable Democrats need to show that they're able to get something for their constituents. Charlotte is a good example, a city represented by Larry Kissell who managed to take the seat from the GOP last election but is now in a tight race for reelection. The same is true for Cincinnati's Steve Driehaus, who also flipped the seat from red to blue last election and is facing a rematch from his GOP challenger.

by Adam L on Jul 8, 2010 3:18 pm • linkreport

Alpert, has your AC gone out and you've gone loco? Bashing Norton for not going after a federal appointee that wrote a letter that, as you said, is meaningless is really pushing it.

There is one group at fault for this: DDOT for not doing their homework. Much like the Penn. Ave. bike lanes, this is more evidence that being clever doesn't cut it.

by charlie on Jul 8, 2010 3:56 pm • linkreport

@charlie (and others)

Get over the DDOT bashing. Streetcars have been planned for 10 years. The bike lanes are an experiment. I, for one, am particularly thankful to have a government agency willing to try new things to get stuff done.

Look at NYC's DOT. Sadik Khan has transformed times square into a wonderful pedestrian boulevard. Being clever cut it, despite the initial gripes of businesses and car-activists that couldn't see the forest for the trees. In time, with tweaking, DDOT will reap the same types of rewards for our city. Better to move the bar in the right direction and make some mistakes than to deliberate and atrophy, or less, for decades.

by JTS on Jul 8, 2010 4:08 pm • linkreport

I'm with JTS... if we're going to bring up bike lanes, I'm quite excited to see an agency willing to take the perogative to experiment with configurations which no computer model can evaluate, especially ones that can be tested for relatively little cost. Sometimes things work, sometimes they don't... from those that work: we get their benefits; and from those that don't: we get the experience & knowledge.

by Bossi on Jul 8, 2010 4:38 pm • linkreport

@charlie,

I'm not sure what you really believe in. Your comments are usually snarky, though you seem reasonably educated on the issues. (I mean that in a non-patronizing way.)

The tone of many of your posts, though, borders on "trolling". If you were to write a post announcing your views on the issue of say, the value of streetcars along H Street, rather than just responding to someone else's, what would it say?

by Joey on Jul 8, 2010 5:46 pm • linkreport

It's hard to defend Eleanor ("Representation without Taxation") Norton here. I've never cared for her since she (a law professor) blamed her repeated failure to pay DC taxes on her former husband, and think it's past time for new blood on Capitol Hill.

But I also blame current DDOT management. Gabe Klein seems energetic and well-intentioned but had previously never steered anything larger than, well, a Zipcar. Fenty (or Gray) should bring in someone with a proven record of successful and innovative management of another large city tranportation agency.

by Pascale on Jul 8, 2010 6:11 pm • linkreport

@Joey; I'd love to see streetcars. But it getting painfully obvious that this is a "field of dreams" play -- and if you build one line, an entire system won't magically appear. I am neutral on the overhead line issue; they are ugly, even in Europe, and I'd prefer to see an underground system. But the real issue is cost.

Long term, building a streetcar line and removing DC bus subsidies for WMATA would make a lot of sense. Less personal cost. However, I've yet to see a workable plan to raise the several billion needed to build a network, how DDOT is going to manage a multi-million dollar contract to manage the system without the contract exploding, and how you build the political unity necessary for big investments like these.

I don't know much about streetcars, but I do know enough about politicians to know when I'm being sold a load of b.s.

As for tying the Penn. Ave. bike lane in with this, it is the same problem: move boldly, make some noise, but don't do the real work to make a workable system. Shoddy.

by charlie on Jul 8, 2010 6:39 pm • linkreport

Politics was involved in the decision? I'm shocked! Shocked!

by Chuck Coleman on Jul 8, 2010 6:59 pm • linkreport

DDOT will build, operate, and fund the streetcar program with hope.

And anyone who doesn't support hope, clearly hates America.

by Fritz on Jul 8, 2010 8:45 pm • linkreport

Federal dollars being used as a political slush fund to elect vulnerable Democrats?! Couldn't see that coming a mile away...so much for using science to determine the how prioritize national priorities.

by Joe on Jul 9, 2010 8:45 am • linkreport

Could it be the FTA realized DDOT couldn't produce a plan for the streetcars? John Lisle of DDOT said the loss of funding won't derail the plan. That's true, and now DDOT has time to get to the drawing board and start planning. Thanks Charlie for bringing up the unsightly overhead wires in Europe. I thought I was the only one who found them ugly and a sure way to ruin a view. Washington doesn't need a wire hairnet! Wireless technology is already in use in some areas, but DDOT bought cars before it had a plan and now its stuck. DDOT should sell the three cars it has to Portland, plan for a system that doesn't require overhead wires, won't tax existing merchants and residents along the routes to the point of extinction and can support itself because everyone is using public transportation. It's going to be a great day when there are no more cars to take up the curb lane with parking and everyone walks and bikes, takes the streetcar, bus and Metro. What will be left for GGW?

by Karl on Jul 9, 2010 9:53 am • linkreport

I am wondering when all the folks that spent all day here personally blaming the NCPC guy specifically for being responsible for not getting the funding, will apologize to him for being completely off base?

by nookie on Jul 9, 2010 11:37 am • linkreport

Hopefully all the folks will be thanking the guy from NCPC (L. Preston Bryant) for his efforts to point out DDOT didn't do its homework and tried to slip a streetcar system by the FTA. They did manage to fool Tommy Wells.

by Karl on Jul 9, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

Chicago and New York got grants and i'm pretty sure they're not swing

by g on Jul 9, 2010 11:56 pm • linkreport

Here is a picture of a streetcar on West Portal Avenue in San Francisco. Please note just how obtrusive the overhead wires are.

http://web.presby.edu/~jtbell/transit/images/SanFrancisco/MuniMetro/WPortal14th.jpg

People are confusing the thin single wire needed by a streetcar with the rat's nest of overhead wires from power, telephone, and cable companies. But in the DC core all of that is underground. All you're going to see is one thin wire.

The old DC streetcars used a system where a shoe, or plow, under the streetcar collected power from live rails in a slot in the ground. You can imagine how well that worked when snow or ice blocked the slot or when extreme heat narrowed the slot, causing a pulled plow, and a traffic tieup that lasted hours until the plow could be unstuck.

The environmental, social and economic benefits of streetcars far outweigh one thin little wire in the air.

by Carleton on Jul 10, 2010 2:40 pm • linkreport

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