Ward 2 debates streetcar’s value after council cuts its budget

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The District's streetcar network is currently limited to a stretch of H Street and Benning Road in Northeast. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

In the weeks following unexpected cuts to the DC Streetcar’s expansion budget — which the D.C. Council adopted earlier this month — some Ward 2 community leaders have begun criticizing the last-minute change.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson stripped more than $40 million from the $160 million that Mayor Muriel Bowser had requested for the streetcar over the next six years. Much of that money would have funded extensions of the existing line eastward to the Benning Road Metro station and west along K Street NW into Georgetown.

With reduced funding, the westward expansion faces particular peril. Mendelson argued that the current line — covering a 2.4-mile stretch of H Street and Benning Road in Northeast — isn’t popular enough to justify an extension into Ward 2.

But not all community leaders agree. Two Northwest advisory neighborhood commissions — ANC 2A (Foggy Bottom, West End) and ANC 2B (Dupont Circle) — recently asked the council to restore funding for the K Street streetcar during future budget cycles. Meanwhile, ANC 6A, home to much of the existing H Street NE streetcar line, also endorsed the expansion. Two other affected commissions — ANC 2E (Georgetown, Burleith) and ANC 2F (Logan Circle) — have been more circumspect.

The District’s streetcar network is currently limited to a stretch of H Street and Benning Road in Northeast. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

The DC Streetcar opened early last year following years of construction delays and budget headaches through several mayoral administrations. The Northeast line — which currently doesn’t require fare payment — tallied its millionth rider in April, and Mayor Muriel Bowser has touted its success against the odds.

But Mendelson and other critics, including Ward 2 D.C. Council member Jack Evans, argue that the extended streetcar rollout foreshadowed a bumpy lifespan. Earlier this month, a streetcar collided with a Metrobus, injuring 10, and in April, a Megabus hit one of the streetcar’s platforms. Even the streetcar’s proponents admit that the current stretch doesn’t serve an area in desperate need of more transportation options.

As proposed, the 3.5-mile streetcar line would continue west from the existing route’s terminus at Union Station. It would follow H Street to New Jersey Avenue NW and then K Street, then follow K past Mount Vernon Square and under the Whitehurst Freeway into Georgetown as far as Wisconsin Avenue. One option under consideration would allow the streetcar to operate on dedicated lines for 28 to 51 percent of the route, while the other would have 73 to 90 percent.

The council’s approved budget pushes completion of a Benning Road extension from 2022 to 2023 or 2024, D.C. Department of Transportation planner Jamie Henson said at last Wednesday’s ANC 2A meeting. Assuming that previously funded planning for the Ward 2 line proceeds on schedule and yields positive conclusions, construction would have to wait until the Benning extension is complete, Henson said.

Henson also said his agency continues to favor the Ward 2 streetcar study because the streetcar offers more capacity and fewer stops than a bus. If the city were to charge for streetcar rides, the fare would likely match the DC Circulator’s $1 cost, Henson said.

During Henson’s presentation, ANC 2A chair Patrick Kennedy passionately defended the streetcar project and criticized Mendelson for cutting funds at a late stage of the budget process that allowed little time for public input. He argued that a long-term view of the city’s transportation needs is the only way to solve a worsening congestion issue downtown.

“This city has a tendency to overstudy things and then leave the study sitting on the shelf or do nothing,” Kennedy said. “I think this project is at real risk of that.”

The H Street NE streetcar line was criticized for cost overruns and other construction issues. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2017)

Several residents attending the meeting said they think the streetcar extension merits further study and could be beneficial to the neighborhood. ANC 2A voted 6-1 to request restored funding, with commissioner William Kennedy Smith arguing unsuccessfully to delay the vote until Georgetown neighborhood leaders weigh in. The commission’s resolution also asks for closer consideration of noise impacts that might result from the streetcar’s horn.

At ANC 2B on June 14, one resident called the streetcar project a “waste of money.” But ANC 2B ultimately voted 3-1 to ask the council to restore its funding. Commissioner Randy Downs added that he only supports streetcars in dedicated lanes.

When a Current reporter told Mendelson on Tuesday about the ANC votes in favor of restoring the cuts, he responded, “Interesting.” But he said he remains convinced that most D.C. residents oppose spending more money on the streetcar.

Two more Ward 2 groups are scheduled to take up the issue soon. ANC 2E (Georgetown) will discuss it during its meeting Thursday, and ANC 2C (Downtown, Penn Quarter) has placed the streetcar on its July agenda.

ANC 2E chair Joe Gibbons told The Current he’s inclined to prefer a general study of short- and long-term improvements that could be made on Water Street/K Street under the Whitehurst, rather than emphasizing a streetcar extension.

The streetcar extension would run along K Street NW under the Whitehurst Freeway. (Brian Kapur/The Current/June 2016)

“I’m against a piecemeal approach to that limited area. This is limited turf on Water. It’s not like it’s a big California highway there,” Gibbons said, criticizing the potential for “an additional burden to that street.”

ANC 2F (Logan Circle) hasn’t taken a formal position, but commissioners generally like the idea of a westward streetcar extension despite some reservations about its impact on the already-congested downtown transportation corridor, chair John Fanning told The Current. ANC 6E in the Shaw area hasn’t yet taken a position, according to chair Alex Padro.

In addition to work on the Benning extension, the remaining $120 million in streetcar funding over the next six years will go toward modernizing the current fleet and replacing some existing vehicles, Henson said.

This post has been updated to correct the name of ANC 2A member William Kennedy Smith.