Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

The $300 million 11th Street bridge project won’t have streetcar tracks after all, at the insistence of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Instead, it will have structural elements to make it easier to add tracks in the future, but that will cost much more and take many more years.

The District Department of Transportation (DDOT) originally planned to place tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge. This would allow future streetcar service to span the river, like that planned in DC’s streetcar plan, without an expensive construction project tearing up the just-completed bridge.

That plan fell apart earlier this year, when officials from FTA told DDOT they can’t put the tracks in the project, which uses federal funding.

DDOT spokesperson John Lisle confirmed that the tracks will not be in the project, but noted that it is being made “streetcar ready,” so that tracks can be added in the future without major changes to the bridge. 

Lisle says that DC will save some money, at least $1.5 million, of the $300 million project for not putting in the tracks, but it will cost more to install the tracks later. DDOT doesn’t have figures on how much, exactly, it will cost in the future to add tracks.

Adding them later will also force DDOT to close down lanes on the bridge. Right now, the bridge is being built next to the old bridge, allowing all of the traffic that currently uses the bridge to keep doing so during almost all of the construction. Once the new bridge opens and the old one demolished, a track project will require interfering with existing traffic.

So why couldn’t DDOT include the tracks? Environmental review rules, federal officials’ interpretations of those rules, and DDOT’s eagerness to move quickly all mixed together.

DDOT completed its Environmental Impact Statement for the bridge project in 2006, working with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The “Purpose and Need” of the project, an official statement in any EIS that defines its goals, was to deal with traffic congestion stemming from the “missing link” between the bridge and the Anacostia Freeway to the northeast.

A secondary Purpose and Need was to better connect neighborhoods on each side of the river and to the waterfront itself. The freeway acts as a barrier, and getting across on any motorized vehicle requires getting onto a freeway and then off again. Therefore, DDOT decided to separate freeway and local bridges. The EIS mentioned that the local bridge would be designed for “future transit accommodation.”

Is including tracks “accommodation” or not? What is “accommodation”? Is it just building the bridge with the structural capacity to handle streetcar vehicles? The actual slabs to underlie tracks? The underground conduit for power and foundations for catenary poles? All of the infrastructure short of actual service? The EIS doesn’t specify.

DDOT originally planned to use mostly local money for the project, but switched to make it mainly federal when the stimulus bill passed. Significant funding became available to projects that were ready to obligate their money within 6 months, and the 11th Street Bridge was one of the few large enough projects ready to go.

People familiar with the conversations between DDOT and federal officials, speaking only on condition of anonymity, say that FHWA had signed off on contracts that included mention of the rails, but in early summer, DDOT tried to change the type of rails in order to comply with Buy America requirements that mandate more expensive, domestic rails. FHWA then brought in FTA, which objected to the project not having gone through even more environmental review.

FHWA ultimately appeared willing to give DDOT permission to include the tracks, according to the people familiar with the discussions, but FTA said no. Ironically, the federal government has subsequently offered waivers to Buy America around rails.

The question here is whether FTA had to make the decision they did, or had leeway. And if they had leeway, should they have used it to let the project move forward?

Already, federal regulations impose greater burdens on transit projects. To get funding, transit projects have to meet complex cost-effectiveness criteria while highway projects do not. The FTA acts at times like it’s the Federal Make Transit More Difficult Administration. That’s not because they’re anti-transit, per se, but simply that they are regulating transit, FHWA is regulating roads, and FTA is the stricter parent.

One of the FTA’s added hurdles is a requirement that environmental analyses not “prejudice” their decision for any mode. Local agencies have to study many modes, even ones that seem ridiculous on their face, like heavy rail transit for a project that evidently is best as bus or streetcar, or even considering monorail alongside other modes. Highway projects have no comparable requirement; cities don’t have to study whether every new road should be carpool-only, for instance.

FTA officials objected that putting tracks on the bridge could predjudice the the Environmental Assessment (EA) underway for streetcar service in Anacostia. Even though DC already has a streetcar segment under construction in part of Anacostia and has made a citywide commitment to streetcars, FTA requires them to pretend none of that exists for the purpose of thinking about Anacostia. In the meantime, they’re stopping another transit facility from being part of a project.

There are only 5 bridges connecting DC neighborhoods across the Anacostia, and they’re each rebuilt once a generation at most. The EIS already considered the provision of transit service, which in any event has only positive environmental consequences for surrounding neighborhoods compared to single-passenger motor vehicle traffic.

Federal officials have substantial leeway within the regulations to help projects move forward more smoothly or put up obstacles. Sadly, in this case those at FTA seem to have chosen the latter. Instead, perhaps FTA should have been excited to see DC’s commitment to transit and willingness to put money, including substantial local money, behind it.

Last year, some said that FTA officials were annoyed with DDOT for moving ahead with tracks on H Street, using local money, without involving FTA. This might have contributed to their rejecting DC for an Urban Circulator grant.

Perhaps DDOT could have worked better with its federal partners, and it probably should have involved FTA sooner in the 11th Street bridge project. But the federal agencies also create a disincentive to work with them when they impose even more rules than NEPA, the environmental act that mandates EISes and EAs, really requires.

The Adrian Fenty and Gabe Klein approach was to move forward as quickly as possible and get things done, sometimes with a minimum of process. In some cases, that led to action that might otherwise have gotten mired in years of debate but which are now remarkably successful, like the cycle tracks or Capital Bikeshare. With this bridge, that posture alienated some federal officials.

DDOT should take more care to follow proper process, and its current leadership is taking pains to rebuild relationships with federal partners even though that likely means slowing progress on streetcar and other projects. That’s a good strategy. But federal employees should think about the big picture, too. If they slow down projects whose DOTs try to move fast but maybe come off as a little arrogant along the way, the end result is to hurt transit and the residents of cities who need its service today.

Now, before there can be tracks on the bridge, DDOT will have to undergo an environmental review, then find and program the extra money for the construction. 2020 might be an optimistic timeframe at this point, whereas the money was already in hand to build the tracks this year had FTA chosen to be flexible instead of taking the strictest approach.

Meanwhile, DC expects major development around Saint Elizabeth’s and elsewhere in Ward 8. Sadly, our ability to better connect this important and growing area to the rest of the city has just lost a decade, thanks to this decision.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle.