Greater Greater Washington

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Politics


For DC Council in Ward 7: Vince Gray

In DC's Ward 7, mostly east of the Anacostia River, former mayor Vince Gray is running to take back his old seat on the DC Council from Yvette Alexander. We hope voters will return him to the council.

While ethical issues from his campaign marred his mayoralty and serious questions still remain, on the policy issues, he was very strong. He was the champion of DC's ambitious sustainability plan and the forward-thinking moveDC plan which called for bus lanes, protected bikeways, and much more. Under Gray, the DC government set ambitious goals for the future, ones we can only hope the District comes close to achieving.

Even before his term as mayor, he was an excellent councilmember and an excellent chairman. Having him back in the legislature will be a major win for DC. When he chaired the council, he charted a constructive course toward DC's zoning update and other long-term planning processes.

Gray was never shy about saying, loudly and publicly, that DC should reduce its reliance on private cars. He's also been adamant that DC needs more housing. In response to a question on the issue, he said,

The District's zoning laws are arbitrary and impose a significant burden on further growth, especially for affordable housing. As mayor, I fought to change our height limitations in order to allow for the development of more high rise buildings to support more residents. As councilmember, I will support zoning changes to make building more affordable units easier and more straightforward.
Yvette Alexander, on the other hand, has been a poor councilmember. She has shown little to no leadership in her ward to improve bus service, despite the fact that large numbers of her constituents ride the bus and transit to many neighborhoods is not what it could be. (Compare that to Ward 5's Kenyan McDuffie, who recently fought for and won funding for a new express bus line on Rhode Island Avenue.)

Alexander criticized bicycling at a rally about the bikeway on Pennsylvania Avenue and told Dave Salovesh that she wanted to keep being able to make U-turns across the lane (a very dangerous maneuver).

She responded angrily on Twitter when we reported her opposition, insisting she supported barriers on Pennsylvania Avenue, but refused to specifically state she supported them in front of the John A. Wilson Building, where the councilmembers park.

Having Gray back on the council would likely mean a big boost for good public policy. We hope Ward 7 voters will choose him in the Democratic primary. Early voting begins May 31, and election day is June 14. You can find out more about times and places to vote here.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine endorsements, we invite regular contributors and editors to participate in a survey about their preferences and opinions about upcoming races. The editorial board then decides whether to make an endorsement.

Politics


For DC Council at large: Robert White

There's no doubt about it: Vincent Orange should not continue as a DC councilmember. There are two people vying to unseat him who would both make excellent councilmembers. In the Democratic primary on June 14, we urge voters to pick the one who has the best chance to win, and that is Robert White.

Robert White is a good candidate

For a race as important as this, there has sadly been little press coverage and other attention. If you haven't been hyper-engaged in the race, you may know little or nothing about Robert White, which is a shame, because he is a strong supporter of the issues that matter to the Greater Greater Washington community. We endorsed him (along with Elissa Silverman) in the general election two years ago.

White has said he supports rezoning areas such as Georgia Avenue NW, Rhode Island Avenue NE, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE to add housing. He wants to ensure that costs don't spiral out of control for middle-class families. "We have to look at all ways to increase housing options in order to push down the cost of housing," he told Edward Russell.

He's spoken in favor of adding more bus lanes, for expanding the bike lane network, and strengthening Metro, including with more funding as needed.

He has considerable public policy experience through working for many years in the office of Congresswoman Norton and then for DC Attorney General Karl Racine. He will understand how to get things done and involve residents effectively in the political process.

White has won the support of the DC Sierra Club, DC for Democracy, the JUFJ Campaign Fund, and councilmember Mary Cheh.

No to Orange

Vincent Orange, the incumbent, simply is not a constructive force on the DC Council. He introduces legislation that is simultaneously overly specific and poorly thought through.

He introduced sloppy (and likely illegal) legislation to stop creation of new housing. Then he jumped on the "tiny houses" bandwagon with a "gimmicky" piece of legislation. He even submitted two conflicting bills about Airbnb.

Maybe it's because we're wonks, but we'd like our elected officials and their staffs to actually be thinking about a policy issue and trying to solve it. Orange doesn't seem to.


Robert White (left) and David Garber (right) images from the candidates. Base balance scale image from Shutterstock.

What about David Garber?

The third candidate in the race is David Garber. We like him a great deal. In fact, he has been an active part of the Greater Greater Washington community in the past. A number of our contributors are his personal friends. He has a strong grasp of policy issues and good values about them.

While an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for the Navy Yard area, he consistently supported adding more housing while also fighting for more affordable housing. He posted a really smart series of tweets about this issue recently, which sound just like what we might say.

On transportation, Garber has cheered efforts toward dedicated bus lanes. He told Edward Russell, "I think it's really important that we invest in things like better dedicated bus service and 16th Street NW is a great example of that."

He would make an excellent councilmember, and if he were in a head to head race with Vincent Orange, we would eagerly endorse him.

However, the fact of this race is that there are two candidates who are very strong on our issues. There is little actual policy difference between David Garber and Robert White; meanwhile, Robert White has an advantage on experience and, most importantly, likelihood of winning.

When should you vote strategically?

In the past, there's been considerable debate among our readers, contributors, and editors about whether to vote for the person you like the most, or the one who's most likely to beat a bad alternative.

During Vincent Orange's last race in 2012, Sekou Biddle almost beat him, with 39% of the vote to Orange's 42%. But Peter Shapiro, whom we endorsed, ended up with 11%. If enough of Shapiro's supporters had gone to Biddle over Orange, Biddle could have prevailed.

Other times, "vote your heart" has had value. Sometimes a candidate doesn't win, but getting more votes positions him or her for a later run. In a 2013 special election, we supported Elissa Silverman. She didn't win (Anita Bonds did), but her strong performance positioned her well for the following year's at-large independent contest, where she won a seat.

This contest, however, is somewhat different from 2012. Robert White is genuinely a good candidate, not a distant second best. Some allied groups that supported Shapiro in 2012 are now enthusiastically behind White. There are both fewer (if any) reasons not to support White, and a stronger accumulating consensus in his favor.

In giving their views on the race, several contributors said they liked Garber, but simply didn't know White that well; many said that if White seemed to have the edge, they'd rally to his side. We wish there were a good, independent poll to help people decide (it's very unclear whether to put any stock in this one).

We actually had a whole post written about how we weren't quite yet ready to make up our minds. After more endorsements for White rolled in and evidence mounted that he had the strongest chance to beat Orange, our editors and many contributors agreed that voters would do best to support Robert White.

Early voting begins May 31, and election day is June 14. There is no contested race for any party other than the Democrats. You can find out more about times and places to vote here.

This is the official endorsement of Greater Greater Washington. To determine endorsements, we invite regular contributors and editors to participate in a survey about their preferences and opinions about upcoming races. The editorial board then decides whether to make an endorsement.

Poverty


DC's homeless shelter plan just got a makeover

In February, Mayor Bowser put forth a plan to replace DC General with seven smaller family shelters around the District. The DC Council just made some key changes: all of the sites will now be city-owned rather than leased, and a few will be in different locations than first planned.


Photo by Jeffrey on Flickr.

After Mayor Bowser released her plan, many raised concerns about its expensive leasing agreements with private developers and the suitability of some of the proposed sites. Yesterday, the DC Council unanimously approved a revised plan that targets those concerns. The changes are expected to save DC $165 million. Here they are:

The shelter locations in Wards 3, 5, and 6 will change

Three sites, in Wards 3, 5, and 6, will relocate to city-owned land.

Many criticized the original sites: the Ward 5 location, for example, was too close to a bus depot with bad air quality as well as a strip club, and the Ward 6 location was too close to a party venue.

All three locations would have required zoning variances or exceptions to become shelter sites, but that isn't the case with the new sites.

Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen both expressed support for the new sites. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who previously opposed the shelter plan, now supports a shelter at either of the two proposed sites for Ward 5. Councilmember Yvette Alexander, however, said she is worried that the changes to the locations will delay the closing of DC General.

The District plans to purchase land for sites in Wards 1 and 4

DC will work with property owners to purchase two of the proposed sites, in Wards 1 and 4. If that doesn't work, DC will acquire the properties through eminent domain.

To fund the purchases, the new plan is to use capital funding originally set aside for the renovation of Ward 4's Coolidge Senior High School. Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd said using the school renovation funds places an unfair burden on Ward 4 residents. But Councilmember David Grosso, who is also the Education Committee chair, assured him that the school renovations would still happen on schedule; since the renovations are still in the planning stage, the school wouldn't have been able to use the funding this year anyway.

Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau added an amendment to the new plan that ensures the property owners of the Ward 1 site pay any back taxes they may owe to DC before the District purchases the property.

Mayor Bowser and Phil Mendelson aren't on the same page

Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May is worried that the new plan could overburden Ward 8 with more shelter units than other wards. She proposed an amendment that clarified the maximum number of units allowed at each site, but it failed after Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said he felt the issue could be worked out among the council before the next vote without an amendment.

While many councilmembers praised Mayor Bowser for her initiative and courage on the original shelter plan, Council Chairman Mendelson accused the mayor's office of "obfuscation and misinformation" and a lack of collaboration with the council during this process. Later in the day, Mayor Bowser made it clear that her office and the council are still very far apart on the plan.

What happens next?

"We should all be getting ready to go to happy hour, because we got it done!," said Councilmember Vincent Orange. Not so fast, though. There are still a few more steps before this bill becomes a law.

The DC Council will hold another reading of the bill on May 31. If the council approves the bill then, it goes to the mayor for approval. If she vetoes it, nine councilmembers must support the bill for it to become law. It's possible that a few of the councilmembers with misgivings, many of whom are facing tough reelections, could be swayed by lobbying by Mayor Bowser or her allies to vote against the bill.

Bicycling


A law that blames you, instead of the driver who hit you, could soon meet its end

In 2008, a driver in a minivan hit me (Tracy) when I was riding my bike on Connecticut Avenue, fracturing my pelvis in three places. The driver's insurance company denied my claim because of a law that says if you're even 1% at fault, you can't collect anything. The good news? DC is moving to change this.


Stickers from an effort to do away with contributory negligence. Image from WABA.

Currently, DC, Maryland, and Virginia use what's called a pure contributory negligence standard to decide who pays what damages after a vehicle collision involving someone on bike or foot. We wrote about contributory negligence in 2014, but the basic thing you need to know is that under this standard, if the person is even 1% at fault for a collision, they can't collect anything from the other party (or parties).

Insurance companies benefit from contributory negligence because it makes it very low risk to deny a claim, since the legal standard a court would apply is so broad.

Most people, however, agree that this standard is unfair—in fact, Alabama and North Carolina are the only states aside from those in our region not to have moved to an alternative legal standard that compares the fault of the parties and allocates responsibility to pay damages according to who was more to blame, known as comparative fault.

This might all change soon

On April 21, Councilmember and Judiciary Committee chair Kenyan McDuffie brought the Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2016 to a vote. It passed out of Committee 3-0 and is now awaiting two votes before the full council.

This bill would make it so a person on a bike or on foot who was contributorily negligent in a crash with a motor vehicle would still be able to collect damages if they were less than 50% at fault.

The version of the bill that came to markup had two minor but substantive changes from one that was introduced last January. First, it now includes a definition of "non-motorized user" to mean "an individual using a skateboard, non-motorized scooter, Segway, tricycle, and other similar non-powered transportation devices." These vulnerable road users are now explicitly covered by the bill, in addition to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Secondly, the bill expressly retains the "last clear chance" doctrine, something that is already available under the law in the District. The basic idea behind last clear chance is that even if the plaintiff (the person who gets hit) is contributorily negligent, the plaintiff's negligence is not a bar to recovery if the defendant (motorist) had the last clear chance to avoid the accident.

Reserving last clear chance will likely result in greater protection for bicyclists because in circumstances where the bicyclist is contributorily negligent, the bicyclist would still be able to recover for damages if the motorist had the last clear chance to avoid the collision.

The bill must be approved by the Committee of the Whole and receive two affirmative votes by the full council. It would then go to the mayor for her signature. Afterwards, the bill becomes an act and must go through the Congressional approval process before becoming law. Both votes could take place before the summer recess.

Who does contributory negligence hurt?

The contributory negligence standard is particularly hard on bicyclists, in part because the public is not well-educated about bike laws in general. But the reality is that contributory negligence is actually hard on anyone with relatively small damages to claim and/or no applicable insurance coverage (e.g. pedestrians).

Most personal injury attorneys work on a contingent fee basis, and small cases do not adequately compensate them for their time. Thus, though the cost of replacing a bike or a few thousand dollars in medical bills may be substantial for an individual, it's not enough to attract an advocate to take on a driver's insurance company.

Contributory negligence is hardest on low-income people

To some, the pain and damages that fall under this threshold are the difference between getting by and falling behind. There can be no doubt that this has real consequences for seniors, communities of color and low-income individuals who can't just call in sick and watch Netflix until a back sprain heals or buy a new bike.

We know that 38% of DC households don't have access to car. We know that 28% of trips made by DC households are by foot, and another 20% by transit (which includes some walking to access). The web of incentives and laws that we're all traveling in every time we take a step or pedal across the street to the bus stop, or get behind the wheel of a car, directly affects our quality of life and shapes our behavior and choices.

Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) introduced the bill. The bill's sponsors are Councilmembers Grosso (at-large), Evans (Ward 2), Bonds (at-large), and Allen (Ward 6); Councilmember Alexander (Ward 7) is a co-sponsor.

With this legislation, the DC Council has an opportunity to choose fairness and common sense. Let your councilmember know that this matters to you: thank them for supporting the Motor Vehicle Collision Recovery Act of 2016 or let them know you want to see their support.

Pedestrians


You don't have to push this button to cross the street

If you walk to a corner and see a button to activate the walk signal, you might need to push it. Or you might not. It might only be there to activate a chirping noise for people with vision impairments. Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.


Connecticut Avenue and N Street in DC. Photo by David Alpert.

Some intersections keep "don't walk" signals lit during both red and green phases of a traffic light unless someone pushes a "beg button"—technically an "actuated pedestrian push button"—before the light turns green.

The sign on the picture above clearly implies that that's what will happen when people wanting to cross the street push the button.

But the button actually has nothing to do with the walk signal. The walk signal comes on whether you press the button or not.

What the button does is turn on a loud chirping noise that speeds up when the walk signal begins. The misleading signs have appeared in large numbers in DC, Montgomery County, and elsewhere over the past year, on local roads and state highways.


Unless you can't see the sign, pushing this button won't help you cross Bethesda Avenue. Photo by the author.

Why is this?

Federal guidelines, known as the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD), authorize only certain standard signs for pedestrians. Among them are several variants for buttons that control the walk signal, but no sign for buttons that merely activate the audible signal for people with visual impairments.


Image from the Federal Highway Administration.

In downtown Bethesda, chirper buttons have appeared in large numbers over the last half year, all accompanied by the standard sign. Frequent passers-by soon recognized that the sign conveyed a falsehood, and now, few people push the button.

From my observation, it has become more common for people to simply cross streets wherever and whenever they feel safe. The streets seem no less safe.

Highway agencies take great care to ensure that signs meant for drivers are accurate and unambiguous—and doing so helps keep all who use the roads safe. Pedestrians, as these pushbutton signs illustrate, get very different treatment.

By taking such a nonchalant attitude toward those on foot, traffic engineers implicitly recognize something their profession refuses to officially admit: Drivers in the wrong place endanger others, but pedestrians do not.

Development


At a hearing on DC General, opposition runs the gamut from rational to prejudicial

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser has a plan to close DC General and put smaller homeless shelters in all eight wards of the city. There's a lot of opposition, ranging from concerns about shelters going up in dangerous places to positions that seem more about keeping poor minorities out of certain parts of the city.


Photo by Kai Hendry on Flickr.

Everyone agrees that the decrepit DC General Family Shelter needs to go; it's notorious for being a place where families and children share space with mold, mice, raccoons, and bats, along with geysering water mains and collapsing, leaky ceilings.

Bowser's plan is to distribute the 250 beds at DC General across sites across the city, each holding a maximum of 50 people. Over 150 citizens, non-profit leaders, and activists packed the Wilson Building for the DC Council's Thursday, March 17th hearing on the shelter plan. There were over 90 public testimonies over 13 hours, a level of engagement that underscores how much emotion and outrage there is on the matter.

At this point, there are two clear camps: Those who have enough concerns about Bowser's plan that they don't think it should move forward, and those who acknowledge it to be imperfect but who think it should.

The plan doesn't have to be perfect, say supporters

Among the supporters was a group organized by the Washington Interfaith Network, including pastors, citizens from across many wards, and former residents of DC General themselves.

"If everyone nitpicks this proposal," said a former DC General resident, "I am concerned that this plan will fall apart, and DC General Family Shelter will still be standing with families living in horrible conditions."

Councilmember Jack Evans shared the same sentiment in his opening remarks, saying "What I don't want to leave here with, what I don't want to happen today, is that we end up doing nothing. And that is a real possibility."

Opponents present factual and "veiled" arguments

Some people, however, aren't sold on the plan. A number of attendees followed a formula that's familiar for development projects of all kinds, raising concerns about mismanaged taxpayer money, a lack of transparency in the process, and worries about the buildings' designs.

One key argument against it comes from Ward 5, where the current proposal location is in an industrial area, surrounded by a bus depot, strip clubs, and no easy-to-access public transit. Residents, advocacy groups, and Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie all seriously questioned placing 50 some families in such a place.

Other arguments also have some legitimacy. Some of the units are surprisingly expensive, and many of the developers getting contracts are largely known Bowser backers.

But at the hearing, some of these concerns seemed closer to having roots in excluding "other" people from living in certain neighborhoods. Many people started statements with something like, "I am not against homeless people moving into my neighborhood, but...," which Councilmember Elissa Silverman referred to as "veiled challenges."

Other opponents left less up for interpretation: "The same problems that are at DC General are going to be moved across the street [from us]," said one witness.


Inside DC General. Photo from Homeless Children's Playtime Project.

In April, the DC Council will vote on how to move forward.

The issue of how to replace DC General has brought about themes and arguments that commonly surface any time a new development with new housing becomes a possibility for a DC neighborhood. Sifting through moral cover and deflections, as well as veiled attempts to keep "those" people out, is all too familiar territory. Those of us working to reshape a city that historically has warehoused people in overcrowded shelters and on blighted, ignored blocks should take note, and prepare for future hearings.

Government


The Wizards practice facility deal should be more transparent

Publicly-funded stadiums are a controversial issue in the District. There were public debates and long, contentious hearings about Nationals Park and the DC United stadium, and public speculation is now turning toward RFK and the future home of the Washington football team. But our latest sports project, a $50 million-plus practice facility for the Wizards, has largely flown under the radar.


Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr.

I introduced legislation called the Wizards Practice Facility Cost Containment Act of 2016 earlier this month to fix that, and to set basic limits on spending. There's a hearing on that bill this Thursday, March 24 starting at 3 pm in the John A. Wilson Building.

Here are the project's details

Events DC, our taxpayer-funded convention and sports authority, has been tasked with building the new practice facility, and is contributing $27 million to the construction. The District government itself is contributing $23 million, and Monumental Sports, which owns the Wizards, will put in $5 million in upfront rent payments.

The project will include a practice facility for the Wizards, which will have all the modern bells and whistles the team feels it needs to attract the top talent in the league, from cryosaunas to hydrotherapy pools. The facility will also have a 5,000 seat arena that will be the new home of the Washington Mystics of the WNBA for their 17 home games each year, and that Events DC promises will host smaller concerts and entertainment events.

There's one more detail: Under the current funding agreement, the District, through Events DC, will be on the hook for any and all cost overruns.

Too much would fall on taxpayers

I don't think that is right, given that the primary beneficiary of this facility will be the Wizards franchise, and its owner, Ted Leonsis. I have concerns that taxpayers are funding something that Monumental Sports and Leonsis can do themselves—and teams in other cities have done without taxpayer help—but I am especially focused on the cost overrun issue.

The District has a poor track record delivering capital projects on time and on budget. I don't need to remind Greater Greater Washington readers about the streetcar saga. Our school modernization program routinely goes over budget. Nationals Park was originally presented as a $435 million project, and even conservative estimates today put the final cost for the stadium at almost $700 million. (And that's before we learned last month the stadium will need another $160 million in repairs and upgrades over the next 10 to 15 years.)

If we don't bring a basic level of transparency and accountability to the Wizards project, it could easily grow far beyond our original $50 million investment. I've gotten pushback that given the project is in Ward 8, which has not experienced the private investment and economic renaissance neighborhoods west of the Anacostia River have had in recent years, we should spend whatever it takes. A reckless approach to budgeting will not bring more permanent jobs and development to Ward 8, and, in fact, it could impact the money Events DC has available for important promises it has made in terms of workforce development and community programming.

Because of the funding sources used to finance the project, the project not only doesn't need Council approval in the first place, but its costs could also go above $100 million before Events DC would need to ask the Council for additional funds. I find that troubling, which is why I introduced legislation to limit the District's total contribution to $50 million, including both the city government and Events DC.

Let the DC Council weigh in

My legislation isn't about killing the deal, or about taking investment out of Ward 8. Ward 8 is long overdue for investment, and it's shameful our East of the River communities have been historically left out when it comes to large public projects.

But the District's $23 million contribution for the practice facility comes from the more than $120 million the Council already allocated to rebuild the infrastructure at the St. Elizabeths redevelopment, a project which I wholeheartedly support. It is critical that these funds go toward a plan that will provide the maximum possible benefit to the Ward 8 community.

We usually use our legislative process to iron out big questions of how to spend tens of millions of dollars. We hold hearings, have committee markups, and vote on projects and programs. We also vote every year on our city's budget.

But this project has almost completely avoided the normal legislative process, and was set to be approved without the Council ever voting on it. There's been no meaningful feasibility study, no cost breakdowns to justify the estimates, and only one public roundtable, held in December before most of the details of the deal had been released.

Contrast that with the process surrounding the DC United stadium, which the Council exhaustively studied through multiple hearings and votes. And, I would point out, Mayor Bowser rightly insisted on a cost-sharing arrangement with DC United in case of overruns.

The legislation I introduced several weeks ago, along with a resolution on the funding agreement, will allow the Council to vote on the project, and will require a conversation about the District's priorities should the project go over budget. This is a basic level of accountability and transparency we should expect of all of our projects, but especially of taxpayer-funded stadiums like this.

Again, those who are interested can attend the hearing this week, on Thursday, March 24 in Room 500 in the John A. Wilson Building. To sign up to testify, contact the Committee of the Whole at (202) 724-8196 or cow@dccouncil.us by 5:00 p.m on March 22.

Transit


The DC Streetcar starts service on Saturday. It took a wild ride to get here.

When DC's H Street and Benning Road streetcar opens on February 27, it'll run on rails that were first installed almost seven years earlier. We've been talking about this project since 2008, with hundreds of posts. The following is a little walk down memory lane to look at everything that's happened.


Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

Forty years after streetcars vanish, efforts begin to bring them back

Streetcars used to ply DC's streets until 1962. In 1956, following a strike, Congress forced the streetcar's operator to shut down all streetcars and replace them with buses.

But decades later, the Metro was under construction and rail transit was coming back. Metro wouldn't serve all parts of the city, however. A 1997 long-range transportation plan from the Barry administration called for new streetcar lines, including on H Street and Benning Road.

In the early 2000s, the DC government was trying to find a way to get a streetcar system started cheaply. An unused CSX track that runs through Anacostia seemed like a great spot. DC jumped on a Portland streetcar contract in 2004 to purchase three Czech-made cars. But DC couldn't get the rights to use the line, and the cars sat in the Czech Republic, unused.

2008: Anacostia? H Street? Both?

A political fight also was brewing in the DC Council about where to start the streetcar project. A line from Anacostia Metro to Bolling Air Force Base wouldn't have served many people. DDOT agreed to plan a route through Historic Anacostia as well, but many residents were not enthusiastic. Meanwhile, H Street businesses, residents, and Councilmember Tommy Wells were eager for the line on H Street.

DC had recently finished designing several corridors around the city in a program called "Great Streets." H Street and Benning Road, NE was one. Since a streetcar line was in the city's plans, to avoid having to reconstruct the street a second time, the decision was made to install tracks during the project.


Photo by Ralph.

2009: DDOT gets serious about a streetcar, but questions remain

The streetscape program yielded visible progress, but many details of the streetcar itself were not yet worked out. Besides sticking rails in the ground, what exactly was DC going to build? Where would the streetcar turn around? Where would maintenance happen? And what would power the cars?

Gabe Klein, then head of DDOT, decided to make the project a much higher priority, and in late 2009, the administration followed through with a bold vision to build eight lines in all wards of DC. He also moved the three streetcars across the ocean from the Czech Republic.


Phase 1   Phase 2   Phase 3   View larger version (PDF)

At the time, officials estimated the whole system could be built in 7-10 years for a cost of $1.5 billion. Mostly, they planned to put them in mixed traffic rather than dedicated lanes, except for a few segments on Rhode Island Avenue, M Street SE, and K Street NW.

There were already some signs that DDOT wasn't thinking everything through. WMATA sent a letter worrying that the platforms, high enough to roll right onto a streetcar, would be too high to board the X2 buses, which run along the same street. Would they conflict?

Unless you've got power

One of the big questions was how cars would get power. A law prohibited overhead wires in the L'Enfant city, including H Street NE. Some groups were gearing up to oppose the streetcar not based on its function, but based on the aesthetics of having any wires above the street.


Bombardier Primove. Image from Bombardier.

While insisting that modern wires look much less intrusive than many of the old-fashioned ones in some cities, DDOT promised to look into wireless technology, especially hybrid approaches that could use some off-wire segments along curves (which require more wires) and across important view corridors.

Groups like the Committee of 100 were pushing for a fully wireless approach, but experts said that was not feasible without major extra cost and maintenance headaches, at least not today.

2010: The Great Overhead Wire Battle

To get people excited about the project, in May 2010 DDOT brought the streetcar down to the parking lot that's now CityCenterDC. People could touch the vehicle and climb on board. They could also see two other DDOT vehicles: a newer Circulator bus and a bicycle for the soon-to-be-launched Capital Bikeshare.


Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Opposition from the Committee of 100 and other groups continued. It focused on two streams: first, opposition to overhead wires; and second, an argument that there needed to be more planning before moving ahead. In retrospect, they were absolutely right on the second point, but the first one overshadowed it and unfortunately made the more prescient warnings less credible.

May is the time the DC Council finishes its budget, and many chairs have unveiled a final budget late the night before the deadline for a final vote. At 2 am on May 26, 2010, then-Chairman Vincent Gray, and also a candidate for mayor, cut the streetcar funding in his final budget. We and others sounded the alarm, and residents flooded Gray's office with calls asking to restore the funding. By that afternoon, he had worked out a deal with councilmembers to do just that.

Gray always maintained that his move to cut streetcar funds wasn't an attempt to kill the project outright, but stemmed from a belief that it needed more planning first. At a later campaign town hall, he said, "I support streetcars; let me make that clear. ... We have a commitment" to build out a 37-mile system.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Soon after the budget fight, the council took a step to amend the overhead wire ban to allow wires on H Street (and elsewhere once the council approves a citywide streetcar plan and DDOT studies off-wire options). All councilmembers except Phil Mendelson cosponsored the bill.

As Ken Archer explained to the council, beautiful historic cities like Prague have trams using wires and still maintain their historic charm.


A streetcar wire in Prague. Photo by Isaac Wedlin on Flickr.

The National Capital Planning Commission wasn't so excited about wires. Its chair, Preston Bryant, threatened to ask the federal government to reject grants to DC if the District continued with its efforts, and then followed through on his threat. DC officials called that "bureaucratic blackmail."

The Federal Transit Administration indeed rejected DC's grant application, though sources said NCPC wasn't the reason as the winners had been selected well before Bryant's letter.

Planning and promises

In October 2010, DDOT released a more detailed streetcar plan that said:

  • Service on the H Street/Benning Road line and in Anacostia (to start with, south of the Anacostia Metro) would start in March 2012
  • A train would come every 10 minutes on H Street and every 15 in Anacostia
  • Rides would cost $1
  • There would be a proof-of-payment system instead of paying on board
  • DDOT would buy three more streetcars in addition to the three it already had
In December, Gray, by that time mayor-elect, continued his support for the program in a budget proposal. His transition report, however, sharply criticized DDOT for mismanagement in a number of areas. His first official budget allocated $99 million to streetcars.

Studies continued about how to route the streetcar through Historic Anacostia, but growing numbers of residents raised opposition to the project entirely.


Tracks under construction in Anacostia. Photo by John Fuller.

2011-2012: Setbacks

In April 2011, the completion date for the H Street/Benning Road line slipped to "late 2012." It wasn't the last delay.

The streetcar plan had long called for tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge, then under construction, to get the streetcar over the Anacostia River. But in October 2011, the Federal Transit Administration blocked DDOT from installing tracks on the bridge. According to DDOT sources, the move was fine with the Federal Highway Administration, but FTA suddenly stepped in.


11th Street Bridge construction. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

If it seems ironic that the federal government's transit agency would be the one pushing against transit, it's not a new refrain. Then-FTA administrator (now head of Seattle's transit agency) Peter Rogoff argued FTA had little leeway, but many other transportation professionals privately argued they could have allowed it.

Another, even bigger hurdle popped up. Since the 2010 plans, DDOT had expected to put the Union Station stop and a maintenance yard under the "Hopscotch Bridge" which carries H Street over the railroad tracks. One property owner didn't want to go along, but DDOT officials kept predicting they could work out all necessary approvals.


Schematic of the maintenance yard (left), 1st Street NE (center), the Union Station stop, and tracks toward H Street (right). Image from DDOT. Click to enlarge.

That didn't happen. Instead, Amtrak rejected the concept because it wanted to use the space for other purposes. (The next year, it released a master plan for Union Station that used that passageway as a concourse.)

By early 2012, there had been procurement problems that meant DC would almost surely not have the 3 extra streetcars promised, meaning not enough to run at 10-minute headways. In mid-2012, Councilmember Marion Barry tried to block another contract for the H Street line.

Mayor Gray's commitment didn't wane, however; he budgeted $237 million over six years to construct multiple streetcar lines.


Spingarn High School in 2009. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Spinning wheels on Spingarn

DDOT had been planning a maintenance facility on the Spingarn High School campus, but that had been a longer-term piece of the puzzle; with the area under the bridge unavailable, this was now blocking further progress.

Nearby residents also asked to designate Spingarn as a historic landmark, forcing any plans to go through far more extensive historic review. Then-DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said this would delay the project further; by now, it was delayed to late 2013 at the earliest.

It also had become clear to many by this time that DDOT's claims were not credible. DDOT had proposed the underpass maintenance yard idea without having buy-in and then couldn't get it. It had planned tracks on the 11th Street Bridge and didn't get those. Now, it hadn't started working on Spingarn nearly far enough ahead of time, and like too many other streetcar pieces, plans for the maintenance facility weren't publicly available at first (and when they were turned out to be meh until later getting better).


One February 2013 design for the Spingarn maintenance facility.

2013: Will it open?

Studies also continued for planning how to extend the line east from Oklahoma Avenue over the Anacostia River and west to Georgetown.

Testing on H Street hadn't even begun, but DDOT officials said that could happen in late 2013. They also started talking about a 22-mile "priority system" of three lines: east-west from Georgetown to Benning Road, from Anacostia to Buzzard Point, and from Buzzard Point to Takoma.


The 22-mile "priority system."

Even though it looked iffy, Mayor Gray kept promising streetcars would run in 2013. He also increased the budget to $400 million to pay for the line to go all the way to Georgetown, build the Anacostia line, and study the other lines in the 22-mile system.

One issue that had been brewing: How to make the area safe for people on bikes. Bicycle wheels can get stuck in streetcar tracks, and for a brief time incorrectly-installed grates even increased the danger. "Bike sneaks" and other design strategies can help cyclists stay safe.


Toronto. Photo by Eric Parker on Flickr.

The most important thing was to give cyclists another way to travel east-west, which DDOT did by designing and building bike lanes so people could ride two ways on G and I streets, parallel to H.

By October, DC officials admitted the streetcar wouldn't run in 2013. Testing would start in December 2013. This was far from the only broken promise by DDOT under Bellamy's leadership, which developed a reputation for being unable to deliver on its commitments.

Streetcar wires started appearing in November and the first vehicle arrived in December.


Photo by DC Streetcar on Flickr.

2014: The public-private partnership that wasn't

The Gray Administration also devised a strategy to significantly speed up construction: Find a contractor who could design, build, operate, and maintain (DBOM) the streetcar. They hoped an organization with more expertise could get things done without all the delays that had come thus far.

Gray proposed a major, ongoing revenue source to fund the succession of lines, by allocating a quarter of new tax revenue that comes in above the base estimate for Fiscal Year 2015. That would have given the program an estimated $800 million over five years.

A team started working on studies for the line on or near Georgia Avenue, and we pushed for dedicated lanes for this line. DDOT had already agreed to build dedicated lanes on K Street.


K Street section through downtown from October 2013. Image from DDOT.

Challengers to Mayor Gray criticized his administration's progress and the repeated delays.

On April Fool's Day 2014, DC had its primary, and Gray lost his bid for renomination. His budget plan also went down the next month, as Chairman Phil Mendelson, again near the deadline (but not in the middle of the night), took much of the money away for tax cuts. He did, however, leave $400 million over five years, which the Gray administration said wasn't even enough to pay for the segment west to Georgetown.

Mendelson disputed that allegation, and battling budget analysts left many confused about what, exactly, was still being funded. But the bigger problem was that DDOT had lost much of its credibility on the streetcar program from all of these delays, broken promises, and cover-ups over setbacks. Residents who had excitedly defended the program in 2010 were not ready to stick up for it in 2014.


A Gray administration graphic criticizing cuts.

Soon after, it became clear even opening in 2014 was unlikely, though the Gray Administration, as it had in 2013, kept promising service by the end of 2014.

"Simulated service," where the streetcars run as if they're really operating with passengers to ensure they are safe, started in the fall. There was just barely enough time to launch service before New Year's Day if the fire department signed off on the safety plans quickly. It didn't.


"Simulated service" in January 2015. Photo by Dan Malouff.

2015: Reboot

A new administration brought in new leadership. Leif Dormsjo, the new head of DDOT, said he'd stop making promises until they could actually keep them. In fact, Dormsjo said he wasn't totally certain the line would ever open.

He brought in a team of experts from the American Public Transportation Association to evaluate the line. Their report concluded that it could indeed open, and Mayor Bowser promised to finish the line from Georgetown to either Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro.

Oh, remember wires? The ones on H Street weren't destroying the neighborhood, but DDOT did start planning for wireless operation across major intersections with state avenues, the Mall, and so on.

APTA's report identified 33 fixes to make to the streetcar line, and DDOT got going on those. By July, it had finished 12. Dormsjo brought in a team of experts who had actually launched streetcars in other cities to get this project over the finish line.


Workers modify the 19th Street station following the APTA review. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We didn't hear a lot about the streetcar in late 2015, but DDOT was working on fixing remaining problems with the line. Officials were also trying to get the fire department to sign off on safety plans.

2016: It's time

DDOT restarted "simulated service" at the end of 2015 and even announced the streetcar would close during the "Snowzilla" storm, in part to show safety officials how the line would handle a storm like this. The fire department ultimately gave its consent to open the line, and now it's scheduled to open on February 27.


Photo by Fototak on Flickr.

This will be the first time most people will be able to get on a DC Streetcar since May 2010 and the first time they can while the vehicle is in motion. There have been a lot of claims about the streetcar, pro and con, and riding it will finally give people a chance to decide based on real experience.

After that, DC will have to decide what to do about the other proposed lines and studies. DDOT will have to finish studies about extending the H Street/Benning Road line east and west, and decide what to do with the studies in limbo in Anacostia and Georgia Avenue.

One thing is for sure: It'll be great to have this sordid saga of delays and broken promises in the past.

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