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Amid Funding Fight, D.C. Cuts Streetcar System From 22 To 8 Miles

D.C. officials had planned for a 22-mile streetcar network, but funding changes forced them to cut it by more than half.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
D.C. officials had planned for a 22-mile streetcar network, but funding changes forced them to cut it by more than half.

D.C. officials today announced the next step in the construction of additional streetcar lines across the city, but also admitted that a conflict with the D.C. Council over funding would likely cut a planned 22-mile system by more than half.

In announcing a short list of teams that have bid for a contract to design, build, operate, and maintain an Integrated Premium Transit system — which will include new streetcar lines and the existing Circulator buses — officials said that a lack of funds is forcing them to cut two planned streetcar lines: an 10.9-mile line running from Buzzard Point to Takoma Park and a 2.2-mile line running from Anacostia to Southwest D.C.

As a result, they expect that D.C. will only have 8.2 miles of streetcar lines — not the 22 they hoped for — by 2024: a line running from Georgetown to Union Station along K Street NW, the extension of the existing H Street line to Minnesota Avenue NE, and an extension of an existing line in Anacostia. (See map below.)

City officials say that the remaining lines could still be built, though with the current funding they won't be included in the contract that D.C. has put out for bid.

"We've set forth a program that we think can be built with the money we have available. It's not the full 22 miles. If additional funding is available, we'll do our best to incorporate it," said Matthew Brown, the director of the Department of Transportation.

City officials lay blame for the pared-down system on the D.C. Council, which in May altered the funding mechanism for the streetcar system.

As part of his budget, Mayor Vincent Gray had proposed setting aside 25 percent of all annual revenue increases over the next six years for the construction of the streetcar network. He said it would be the best way to ensure that the streetcar system — which officials say could eventually grow to 37 miles of lines — would be built.

 ALTERNATE NAME OF PHOTO
The planned streetcar lines and where they stand in DDOT's plans.

But the Council changed the formula, setting aside only 25 percent of revenue increases from the prior year over the same period.

Legislators argued that DDOT had not been spending the money allocated to it to finish the 2.5-mile line on H Street and Benning Road NE, which is running roughly a year behind schedule. They also said that Gray's funding formula would leave little money for other large capital projects.

According to city officials speaking today on background, the difference between the two funding formulas is substantial: while Gray's budget would have set aside $1.9 billion for streetcars through 2023, the Council's change would leave the city only $526 million during that time. As a consequence, the officials say they were forced to cut the planned system by more than half.

Part of the reason for the cuts is how the lines will be built: instead of building them piecemeal like the first segment on H Street NE, the entire 22-mile network would be designed, built, operated, and maintained by a consortium of companies working under a single contract. City officials say that such a contract would speed construction of the lines, but would also require more secured funding upfront.

"They removed the dedication of the funding… that’s something that attracts bidders nationwide," said one city official speaking on background. "When you’re trying to get bidders to come in, you need confidence… that the city can do large-scale projects like this."

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the Council's transportation committee, rejected any claims that her and her colleagues were to blame for a pared-down streetcar system.

"If they want to lay it at the doorstep of the Council because of funding, I think that's shortsighted," she said. "We had said at the Council that the funding mechanism that they had put in place was unsustainable, but that we would be looking to fund the entire system."

Cheh also accused Gray's administration of prematurely cutting the streetcar system down.

"While we should act within the budget that's available to do the next steps, we shouldn't just simply say 'We're cutting off the rest of it.' It almost sounds a little childish. We should keep our plans in place, we should act on what we can fund right now, and we should be prepared, as the Council is prepared, to look for funding to build out the whole system," she said.

But another city official who asked not to be named said that funding the construction of the 22 miles as it happened would increase costs and extend timelines. "Any time you buy something like this in pieces, it will cost more," they said, arguing that under the Council's funding formula, the completion of the line from Buzzard Point to Takoma would be delayed from 2023 to 2044.

D.C. officials said that three consortia of firms had been short-listed from five proposals received by the city. DDOT will work with the three groups over the next two years, and likely award the final contract by December 2016. Construction on the six miles of lines could begin by early 2017.

And despite the funding fight, Brown, who was recently confirmed as DDOT's head, was upbeat about how the lines will be built. "Having a single team responsible for all aspects of designing, building and operating is something that is a game-changer for the District and for the streetcar," he said.

He said that the benefits would be felt when work starts on K Street for the line to Georgetown, which will run in a dedicated lane in the middle of the street. "Going down K Street is going to be a big, big project and having a single firm responsible for doing all that work will be a benefit to us all to get it done as quickly as we can," he said.

Still, even though this portion is part of the system DDOT is planning for, Brown said that a final $50 million will be needed for a final portion of the line into Georgetown.

As for how big D.C.'s streetcar network will eventually be, Brown said he was holding out hope for the 22-mile network that has been planned for years. "It's still a vision of ours, and we hope that it can all be funded some day," he said.

At left is what D.C. says it will built with the funds made available by the Council, and at right is what it says it could build with the money Gray requested.

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