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Streetcar Funding Slashed By D.C. Council, Gray Warns That Network Imperiled

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Streetcars are set to run on H Street and Benning Road NE this year.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Streetcars are set to run on H Street and Benning Road NE this year.

Funding is being slashed for a future D.C. streetcar system that would stretch from Benning Road west to Georgetown and from Anacostia north to Takoma.

The D.C. Council on Wednesday gave initial approval to a budget that scales back Mayor Vincent Gray's ambitious plan to spend close to $900 million dollars over the next six years on streetcars. Instead, Council Chair Phil Mendelson proposed putting $400 million into the 22-mile trolley network over six years.

In justifying the decrease, Mendelson said that the D.C. Department of Transportation has not been spending the amount available to it on existing streetcar construction, primarily the 2.5-mile-long route on H Street and Benning Road NE and a short segment in Anacostia. According to him, DDOT has been given $214 million for streetcar-related work since 2006, but has only spent $109 million of it.

Mendelson also said that the funding mechanism for the streetcar funding — a percentage of the cash the comes from future revenue increases — concerned him. Gray wants to set aside 25 percent of all future annual revenue increases, using the 2015 fiscal year as a baseline. Mendelson is instead proposing that the percentage come from growth relative to the previous year, and not use 2015 as a baseline.

"The reality is that there is over $500 million in the budget for streetcars and they have yet to be able to spend close to that. So I am fully confident there are adequate dollars," he said during the debate.

The move drew swift condemnation from Gray's office, which said that the move would undercut the city's plan to seek a firm to design, build, operate, and maintain the planned 22-mile network. Gray officials said that shortchanging the streetcar on funding could lead to a delay of up to 29 years in the construction of the network.

“There is not enough money to continue the streetcar program as proposed," said Pedro Ribeiro, Gray's spokesman.

Ribeiro circulated a map of Gray's proposed streetcar network in 2024 juxtaposed against what he said Mendelson's changes would do. (The map is below.) Gray's proposal would bring 22 miles of streetcars crisscrossing the city, while Mendelson's changes would limit trolleys to the route along H Street and Benning Road NE and a short segment in Anacostia.

"I expected the mayor would push back because there are some changes to his proposal. That is always part of the process. I think some of their criticism is over the top," said Mendelson of Gray's reaction.

Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Council's transportation committee, supported the cuts, saying that DDOT has mismanaged the streetcar program. She did ask Mendelson to commit to supporting the streetcar plans, though.

"I do have concerns about this perhaps being... a subterfuge for ending the streetcar or changing the program," she said. "Maybe people want to do that... but it shouldn't be through a budgetary move," she said ahead of the vote.

Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) was one of the only legislators to vote against the streetcar cuts.

"Transportation is second only to the cost of housing for those families living in D.C. at or above poverty. Public transit and local public transit is the future for transit equity. It does not matter if you get a job at Georgetown University, our number one private employer, if you live east of the river and cannot get there in a safe and reliable way," he said.

This isn't the first spat over funding for the streetcars. In 2010, then-Council chair Gray cut funding for the H Street line, though it was restored after an outcry from supporters of the trolleys.

The money Gray had hoped to spend on the streetcars will instead be used to fund across-the-board tax cuts for almost all D.C. residents.


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