“This right here is the thigh-master of urban public policy”

From ReasonTV:

“Meet the Thighmaster of urban public policy: Streetcars.

Municipal politicians all across the country have convinced themselves that this costly, clunky hardware can revitalize their flabby downtown economies.

That includes the fearless leaders of America’s capital city. The DC government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars over the last decade trying to erect a streetcar line in the up-and-coming neighborhood of H Street. The project has been an epic disaster, perfectly demonstrating how ill-suited streetcars are to modern urban life.

Produced by Rob Montz, who also hosts. Camera by Todd Krainin. Graphics by Jason Keisling and Meredith Bragg.”

62 Comment

  • I have been a staunch streetcar supporter, but with every passing day of silence it’s getting harder and harder to defend it. It’s now July and they don’t seem any closer to opening than they were in January.

  • palisades

    Yeah, this isn’t a biased, emotionally-driven video. Nevermind the fact that the host is a complete clown who is attempting to come off as some pseudo-intellectual spoken word artist even though he’s just reading from a script.
    Why is something like this being posted? Slick editing intertwined with facts with zero sources = useless video. I like how he uses bus routes being cut as a cause of the streetcar. Correlation does not imply causation. And what was that whole shtick about the streetcar company? I feel dumber just watching that video.

    • “Why is something like this being posted?”


    • Reason has a phenomenal knack for taking reasonable criticisms and turning them into angsty Randian rants.

    • Oh, Reason. You unwittingly drift into self-parody so often.

    • “Slick editing intertwined with facts with zero sources = useless video.”

      I am confused by your zero sources jab. The Streetcar is overbudget, delayed, and there is no timetable on it even opening. Second, there have been plenty of news stories regarding its negative effect on traffic. If anything, there are few sources which support the idea that the Streetcar will be an economic investment worth the cost.

    • I guess it’s tough to face the fact that the streetcar project is an expensive, useless disaster.

      • palisades

        hmmmm no. I’m saying this video was absolutely moronic and there are more professional ways of proving a point.

    • In fairness, the video intercut clips from local news stories on the streetcar, which are, in fact, sources.

  • That video didn’t teach me anything that I already didn’t know. It’s an easy, unnecessary PR jab to make.

  • Monorail!!

    • Dam! I wanted to say that! What’s that? monorail…monorail…monorail! That’s right folks step right up and see the amazing monorail….what’s that again? monorail…monorail…monorail.

  • “The project has been an epic disaster, perfectly demonstrating how ill-suited streetcars are to modern urban life.”
    I’m by no means a streetcar supporter, but this statement is just odd. Streetcars can be very well-suited to modern urban life, it’s just that this particular streetcar has been poorly designed, managed and executed. It really says very little about streetcars as a concept. But this just shows you have to take pretty much everything Reason says with a grain of salt since, ironically, the stuff they say is typically not reasoned out all that well.

  • It was how it was implimented.
    1. It should have never been mixed with traffic. Dedicated lanes ONLY.
    2. It should have been the center lanes. This is how it is supposed to be done.
    3. They should have never allowed parking close to the streetcar path.

    Dumb, dumb, dumb. Whoever designed this needs to be fired.

    • If it was implimented correctly, it would have been perfectly suited for urban life.

    • They’ve all already quit and gone on to better paying jobs. Gabe Klein went to Chicago for a short stint and took the DC streetcar “czar” Scott Kubley) with him. After short stints in Chicago, burdened by controversy of their own making, they both quit Chicago. Klein is back here in DC, now the head of Birdj which from the looks of it is destined to fail, and Kubley went to Seattle.

  • How many millions have been wasted on automobiles.

    • I don’t know what this means.

      • It means we spend far more on highways and road maintenance than we ever have on streetcars, with questionable returns (what we got back was urban sprawl, pollution, climate change, and disastrous suburban planning).

  • Hilarious, and more to the point, completely true, especially as it relates to DC.

    Our simple little one line system slated to cost 90 million and be operational in 2010 is now 110% over budget (costing 200 million thus far and climbing by the day) and is 5 years late. To make matters worse, a joint study by DDOT and WMATA has shown that traffic flow has actually worsened on H Street since they’ve been doing the full scale service/testing.

    If it ever gets running, the DDOT proposed farebox recovery will be less than 30%, meaning every ride is subsidized by 70%, far, far more than buses or metro rail which means this will just continue to needlessly burn money in perpetuity.

    Heck, even Arlington County finally waved the white flag of surrender (in large part because of the embarrassing comparisons they were getting to the DC Streetcar), and those Arlingtonian’s have rarely found a capital project they didn’t want to burn millions on.

    My guess is, DC more out of embarrassment than serving a transportation need, will open the Streetcar and operate it for 2-3 years before quietly reducing its frequency and then shuttering it completely.

    • “If it ever gets running, the DDOT proposed farebox recovery will be less than 30%, meaning every ride is subsidized by 70%, far, far more than buses or metro rail which means this will just continue to needlessly burn money in perpetuity.”

      Not quite: Metrobus has a farebox recovery ratio of 24.6%.

    • How much money does the city directly receive from “farebox revenue” to maintain the road system? Oh that’s right, none. The idea that streetcars and other public transportation aren’t good because they’re not “profitable” and require “subsidies” conveniently ignore that the most dominant form of transportation in our country by far – the road system for automobiles – is largely provided for free to drivers. It’s entirely free in DC.

      • @Zartan,

        Glad you asked. I see the “roads are free for drivers canard” is alive and well.

        Revenue collected in DC specifically from Drivers.

        Revenue Per Year

        Parking Meter Revenue: $40 Million
        Parking Ticket Revenue: $85 Million
        Vehicle Excise Tax: $47 Million
        Gas Tax : $23 Million
        RPP (200K registered, assume half): 3.5 Million
        Registration: $72/yr X’s 200K vehicles): $14 Mil

        Total Revenue: 213 Million

        DC Expense Per Year
        DMV Total Yearly Budget: 36 Million
        DDOT Total Yearly Budget: 92 Million (and lets be honest, a lot of their money is going to non car programs “ahem streetcar”, Circulator etc.

        • Those revenue streams don’t compare well with direct usage fees on public transport. The only one of those costs that goes up movement of cars from point to point is the gas tax, and I’d bet (though I probably can’t prove) that most of the gas burned on DC soil is purchased outside of DC. The other costs are associated with car purchase/ownership (which means people who own cars they infrequently use are subsidizing other drivers to some degree, and District car-owners are subsidizing non-District drivers who make up a solid majority of cars on the street during the day) and street parking (which is pretty cheap compared to commercial parking garages, which admittedly also collect a parking tax; and we can all thank the ticketed for their subsidization of that whole system).
          I don’t really have the numbers for what percentage of drivers receive parking tickets in a given year and what the distribution of miles driven in the District by District drivers is, both internally and as a ratio of non-District drivers driving in the District. But my guess is there’s a whole lot of socialization going on benefiting the majority of drivers in town at any given time.

        • This is actually a misunderstanding of DDOT’s budget since DDOT spends from both its operating budget and its capital budget. The big expenditures are not on day to day operation but rather on capital projects like road and bridge maintenance. Together these projects cost several times more than the streetcar. For instance, DDOT is spending $400 million on the 11th Street Bridge project alone, which primarily benefits autos.

        • You realize that DDOT’s budget is only a fraction of the region’s infrastructure costs for cars, no? It’s not like commuters’ cars appear out of thin air at the District line.

  • I just called the DC Streetcar office to ask:

    Do you know when it will be open? No.

    2015? Can’t say.

    Estimate? Can’t say.

    This video, of course, is stupid, because plenty of American and European cities run streetcars very efficiently. That said, this project is a bit of a debacle and, if the streetcar network is never going to be expanded down K Street, I would submit — much to the chagrin of property owners along the route — that it probably should stop running. My favorite part of the route is the uncivilized connection between Union Station and the Metro — walking through a messy parking garage — that will plague riders. Moreover, once Union Station is redeveloped — which I imagine will happen before the streetcar is extended down K Street — the line will just have halt service anyway. So, what’s the point?

    On balance, I’d prefer for it not to open at this point. (And, I say this as a European citizen who loves trams, thinks they’re way more civilized than buses, and can definitely work very well in the urban fabric.)

  • willy wonka is trying out his rap music hand-gesturing in this video.

  • I don’t take advice from the Riddler. I kept expecting Batman to swoop in and kick his ass.
    Seriously though, ReasonTV is a libertarian propaganda outfit. What they don’t tell you is that they would mock any public works project. What they also don’t tell you is that streetcars are not just about transportation. They are also about redevelopment. Like metro, they have fixed stations, and so developers can count on the station being there for years to come, unlike a bus stop, which can be moved in a moment. This means guaranteed foot traffic to support local businesses. Hence developers are more likely to invest in a new or rehabbed building near a streetcar station than a bus stop.
    I take no position on whether our streetcar project is good or bad policy, but this piece is trash.

    • So, you’re saying it’s all about corporate welfare?

      Yes, it sure sounds like that’s what you (and others are saying): the permanent infrastructure associated with streetcars will provide impetus for business to locate in the area. Yup, that’s (small-business) corporate welfare.

      • No, corporate welfare is providing benefits to companies that would not otherwise change their behavior. Here, you’re encouraging businesses (and residents) come set up shop there. Sure, that has a cost, but it also has a benefit most corporate welfare doesn’t, which is a return through taxation on those businesses that wouldn’t otherwise be there.

      • You and I clearly have a different definition of corporate welfare. Your definition seems to sweep in anything that might spur private development.

        • As if H Street needed the help. By 2007 there had already been nearly 2 million SF of new development along H Street, with another 3 million in the pipeline. Heck, even the WaPo called H Street “Up and Coming” in 2006, and when the WaPo gets around to calling it, they are usually a couple years late. By 2008 when the money had been secured and the streetcar program authorized, there were already near million dollar condo’s on the market. The commercial retail market had seen nearly half a million sf of churn between 2006 and 2008. Construction didn’t even start until 2009.

          • Do more research. You are 100% wrong.

          • @D,

            Funny, but no cigar. By the looks of it, I am far more versed in District development history, process and cost than you are. If you disagree, then feel free to reference some data, add some of you own. “Do more research, you are 100% wrong” is more akin to a response I might get from my know-it-all 6 year old niece, and quite frankly, just doesn’t cut it.

          • Becca,

            To channel Daniel Patrick Moynihan, you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. Links sometimes get eaten by the spam filter, but if you google “Turning Northeast’s H Street Into Main Street” by Paul Schwartzman of the Post, you’ll find that there were already plans to lay tracks in 2006. A Dr Gridlock column (A [Working] Cure for the Trolley Blues) from later that year confirms that these plans were indeed already in place in 2006. A Post article from 2004(!!), “H Street NE, The Next Hot Spot,” confirms that a streetcar was part of the Strategic Development Plan for H Street.

            It seems as though you’re nowhere near as well versed in the history of the streetcar as you think you are. As D said, you should probably do more research.

          • Your timeline is a little bit off. The streetcar was announced originally in 2003 and DDOT announced plans to build a 3.5 mile line in 2006. Further, the claim about “near million dollar condos” in the corridor back in 2008 is just plain wrong. What condos, exactly? And finally, the streetcar plan was part of a larger revitalization effort under a Strategic Development Plan for the corridor. It’s hard to know precisely what the impact of the streetcar is, but on the hand, the streetcar can’t be discounted as worthless to the economic growth of neighborhood. A good chunk of the investment has occurred based on the prospect of the streetcar being built.

          • Actually they are right. Though in this case the Washington Post was not a couple of years late, they were right on time.
            The area started to see investment starting in 2006, then by 2010 it was pretty obvious to everybody it was exploding. The streetcar was not the fuel, it was Tokai Underground, Rock and Roll Hotel, etc.

          • HaileUnlikely

            H Street was selected as one of DC’s “Main Streets” projects way back in 2002, which brought the promise of significant investment for revitalization irrespective of whether there was to be a streetcar involved.

  • Narrator is definitely a tool spitting propaganda but there is no denying that the DC Streetcar has been a colossal failure and revenue drain.

  • With regard to the “streetcars spur development” argument, I’d love to dig into this a little more. More specifically, I’d love to know how much of a motivation the prospect of a streetcar was in spurring development. Do we have any polling on this (e.g. surveys) or lots of statements by developers indicating that absent the streetcar they would not have considered building on H St.? Just looking at a map, it seems H St. was a leading candidate for redevelopment regardless of the streetcar given its proximity to Capitol Hill and the way in which gentrification has radiated outwards from that part of DC. FWIW, I’ll note that Senate Square, one of the first major developments on the H St corridor as I recall, does not mention the streetcar in its hyping of the building and nearby amenities: http://abdo.com/landmark-lofts-senate-square
    Furthermore, even assuming some percentage of the redevelopment would not exist absent the prospect of a streetcar, does it still make economic sense? If the cost is $200 million and the extra tax revenue produced is $50 million, should that be considered a win? $100 million? At what point is this a winner and at what point should it be seen as a loser?

  • H Street was designated as a “Main Street” in 2002 and thus a streetscape overhaul was in order. After that, someone in charge thought it would be a shame to do the streetscape overhaul as a stand alone project and proposed laying the tracks as long as they were tearing up the street anyway. The streetcar project was implemented piece by piece with no pre-planning for how to power it, where the stops would be, how the fares would be collected, what the impact would be on traffic, the money lost by businesses due to the disruptions of the construction, etc. And, the geniuses at DDOT decided before all the details were worked out that they should make capital investments in cars built in the Czech Republic that were stored for years. I have nothing against the Czech Republic, and at least they are now sourcing the cars from a U.S. source, but I wonder if there is an added cost involved with two different types of cars (replacement parts?). I live less than half a block from the tracks and always wonder why DDOT got into the transportation business in the first place instead of investing that money in WMATA, and why those that made so many dumb choices with taxpayers funds will never be held accountable.

  • That host’s voice is so shrill it could make a dog howl 2 miles away

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