Public transit on the ropes

It has been a brutal few months for local supporters of public transit, and it may get worse before it gets better.

In November, Arlington County officials tossed out more than a decade’s worth of work planning on a streetcar system for Columbia Pike. The same month, Larry Hogan — a skeptic of the proposed Purple Line light rail system — won an upset victory to become the state’s governor.

Metro officials, meanwhile, face a budget crisis, likely resulting in fewer expansions or improvements. D.C. streetcars, some of which were purchased a decade ago, have yet to carry any passengers, but been involved in at least nine traffic accidents and prompted an investigation when one of them caught on fire. Now D.C. Now Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is performing a “comprehensive reexamination” of streetcar plans beyond the H Street line.

Yes, the first leg of the Silver Line is open and servicing Tysons Corner. But overall the region that created Metro a generation ago is beginning to look like it does not have a second act in store when it comes to public transportation. The cuts and backpedaling have amounted to a beat-down for the efforts of public transit advocates.

“Each of these individual projects face specific challenges but it’s adding up to sort of a mood or sentiment that seems to be running against transit,” said Stewart Schwartz, who is executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Schwartz said one of the causes was federal government cutbacks, which are hurting local budgets. David Alpert, founder of the Greater Greater Washington blog, said he also thinks local politics are also trending more conservatively.

“Between Maryland and Arlington, it’s really true that basically there is a more conservative party in Arlington now that has been having electoral success. They may still call themselves Democrats and independents, but they are more conservative than what we’ve had,” Alpert said.

Public transit debates are not always conservative-versus-liberal, but they sometimes shape up as rich-versus-poor. Last week a reporter writing for Slate made an exhaustive argument that continuing to expand roads over improving public transit amounts to widespread discrimination against the poor. Alpert said Arlington’s streetcar died after some wealthier voters turned against it.

“A common, more conservative refrain is you, wealthier homeowners are paying too much in taxes for things you don’t benefit from,” Alpert said. “And [in Arlington] I think that was a lot of the message.”

The D.C. streetcar’s troubles could not play better into the hands of those who believe that government is ill-suited to manage such an effort.

The city has cycled through numerous transportation directors and plans, spent tens of millions of dollars, repeatedly issued unrealistic timelines and 10 yeas later has a 2.2 mile-length of track that, if it opens safely, would take passengers from the bridge behind Union Station to the intersection of Oklahoma Ave. and Benning Road NE.

Public support has unraveled. A Twitter account, @IsDCStreetcarOpen, mocks the system daily while the system’s official account has been silent for six weeks.

Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the D.C. Council member for the H Street neighborhood, said mismanagement of the project has made arguing for its expansion far more difficult. “The poor leadership and implementation from the Department of Transportation undermined the civic and political will to go fight for this,” he said.

Allen said he was not sure what Bowser will do but if she decides to back the streetcar expansion, who will stand with her?

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) cut money for the program’s expansion last year with little pushback. The Federal City Council, an influential group of business leaders, had a critical hand in launching Metro a generation ago. But the current iteration has been quiet on transit despite the fact that the group’s president, former mayor Anthony A. Williams, proposed the D.C. streetcar in the first place.

As badly as the D.C. streetcar — and projects like the Silver Spring Transit Center — have been managed, transit has created enormous value for homeowners and companies. Fortune 500 CEOs are insisting that their employees have access to it. It’s safer than driving. It produces less greenhouse gas. The newest addition, the Silver Line, is already showing strong ridership numbers.

Arlington County officials aren’t bringing back the streetcar idea. The question now is whether Hogan and Bowser will follow the same playbook in cutting or canceling their own projects. The Washington region is rapidly growing. If current plans are put on hold it begs the question: What happens instead?

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