Photo by tracktwentynine on Flickr.

DDOT has made a number of missteps on the streetcar project in the past year, and has been opaque about plans for funding future lines. This is prompting calls for a new independent authority to plan, build and/or run the streetcar.

DDOT only has 3 cars today, and a procurement snafu means they might not have enough to run 10-minute headways. Couple that with problems nailing down the Union Station connection, tracks being deleted from the 11th Street Bridge, and more, and councilmembers are understandably nervous.

Councilmember Mary Cheh (ward 3) proposes splitting the streetcar off from DDOT into a new authority. Creating new boards and authorities can just replace old problems with a set of new problems, but unless DDOT shows it has the project under control soon, a separate authority may be the best way to ensure the project’s success.

At a roundtable last week, Director Terry Bellamy did little to reassure Cheh and Tommy Wells (ward 6) that DDOT has the project under control or that it is any closer to working out financing mechanisms for future lines.

There’s no time to waste. As I argued in a previous post and my testimony, we must couple promises to build a streetcar with a promise from local neighborhoods to help support it. Once a neighborhood’s planned streetcar line gets close enough to reality, there’s no incentive for local commercial property owners to agree to a value capture system, or local residents to agree to selective extra density along the commercial strip.

Cheh has introduced a bill to create a task force to make recommendations for a permanent governance structure. In her opening statement, Cheh noted that:

The system is still without a long-term financing and governance plan. ... Continued development will require a dedicated operating outlay and significant capital investment. Though the District expects some federal financial support along the way, development of a clear plan is crucial to moving the project forward. Still, there has been only quite limited movement to resolve some of the larger outstanding issues.

The 2010 streetcar system plan noted that DDOT would immediately begin to convene a governance task force composed of private sector, public sector, industry and community leaders to propose a an appropriate governance structure for the streetcar. Now it is almost 2 years later and the task force has not been created, and we are still without a concrete plan.

Later in the hearing, Wells fretted that the streetcar might open without enough cars to run it effectively. Right now, DDOT has only 3 cars, which would only support running a streetcar every 18 minutes on the H Street line, or less if one breaks down. Plans call for a car every 10 minutes.

DDOT solicited bids to buy 2 more, which would support the 10-minute headways. Portland-based United Streetcar and Czech company Inekon both bid. DDOT chose United, but Inekon appealed, saying that it received a higher overall score, which combined price and technical merit. United was better on price, but Inekon got a better technical score.

Also, Inekon said United fell below a minimum technical threshold set out in the procurement. DDOT decided to cancel the contract. Regardless of which vendor would have been best, this now means DC has to scramble to get more cars by the planned opening in July 2013.

Bellamy said DDOT is looking into “piggybacking” on another city’s purchase, but that’s more difficult and potentially expensive since other cities likely have slightly different requirements. And he couldn’t give much reassurance that this was going to actually happen.

People of H Street have waited patiently for a long time for the streetcar. If it opens and succeeds, then the wait will have been worthwhile, and other neighborhoods will clamor for the streetcar. But if it fails, it will get an early reputation as a boondoggle that will be very difficult to shake. Wells said,

If they start with 3 [cars] the headways are ridiculous, and often 1 car needs to be worked on. It would just be a tourist ride. ... If you start it with only 2 or 3 cars, I’m not with you. ...

If you actually open the system at half capacity, I think that’s the story, and we don’t need that. ... We’re the nation’s capital. We’re rolling out the first leg of a 37-mile system. This is really a big deal. ... It’s got to be done right.

If we start with 3 cars ... It will be a symbol of failure for this administration that it does not need.

Here is the video from the segment of the hearing about the number of cars:

DDOT still has time to procure the cars, if no additional obstacles pop up. This delay might force them to postpone the opening by a few months to later in 2013, but the current July timeline is already aggressive. Maybe the schedule will slip anyway, and the streetcar procurement will provide a good cover.

Creating an authority can bring significant advantages. Local business groups, like the Downtown Business Improvement District, and advocacy groups like the Sierra Club have been leading the way in building support for the streetcar. Yet many advocates say DDOT hasn’t engaged with them much at all in recent months.

DDOT has been secretive about progress and especially about setbacks. When the Federal Transit Administration told DDOT it couldn’t put tracks on the 11th Street Bridge without stopping the project for expensive and time-consuming new studies, DDOT kept the news secret for months until we broke the story. And how long did DDOT know that running the tracks under the Hopscotch Bridge was a no-go?

Creating a financing and governance plan is complex, and Bellamy said DDOT has been working on the problem. But all discussions have happened behind the scenes, and insiders familiar with the matter I’ve spoken with say they don’t have much confidence in the process so far. Plus, this isn’t a decision that should happen in secret. Residents and advocates are stakeholders that need to be involved as well.

Some of the current problems may come from DDOT having no streetcar head. Scott Kubly left in July, and DDOT just hired Carl Jackson a month ago.

The divison’s other staff, many of whom are very talented, have to juggle many other competing priorities, like the Circulator, Capital Bikeshare, and oversight of WMATA. The Circulator and Capital Bikeshare are huge successes, and there have been few complaints about the way DDOT has handled these projects.

Cheh said this is a reason to support creating an authority. Maybe the streetcar, unlike the Circulator and CaBi, is just too large and complex to be part of another agency. She noted, “DDOT does an enormous amount, and it dos it very well. It gets a lot done, and a lot correct. But it’s humongous.” A separate authority would have staff and budget dedicated solely to the streetcar.

But separate authorities can also bring problems. If a project requires multiple agencies to cooperate to achieve a goal, it’s a lot more complex. Staff at the agencies might not get along, or if they do, their bosses might have competing priorities or desires. If they’re not all under the Mayor, there’s no one person who can order everyone to get moving or resolve disputes.

Understandably, staff with limited time end up focusing on projects they can achieve themselves, without needing a lot of buy-in from people outside the building. Likewise, if DDOT is running the streetcar, its director, the mayor, and councilmembers can make sure the project succeeds and get credit for success. If there’s a separate authority, will those agencies focus their energy on other priorities which live entirely in-house?

Finally, our mayorally appointed boards don’t always act in harmony with the admini­stration’s priorities. For example, the Historic Preservation Review Board can single-

handedly facilitate or derail many development projects, and the Zoning Commiss­ion actually sets DC’s zoning policy in ways the council and mayor cannot. But even a very pro-development, anti-delay mayor like Adrian Fenty still appointed HPRB and Zoning Cmmission members more on personal relationships than on any policy alignment.

Who would be on this streetcar board? DDOT officials? Business leaders? Community members? What about people who aren’t so enthusiastic about the streetcar? Will the board focus on getting the system done, or will it devolve into a forum for battles over the pace of change?

We have an authority for transit already—WMATA. It’s not exactly a paragon of efficiency, and government officials in DC, Maryland, and Virginia grumble about handing over money year after year without as much power to fix problems as they have over local agencies. The streetcar authority wouldn’t be an interstate compact, but could it develop some of the same problems?

We can certainly imagine an authority effectively shepherding this complex project to great success. Certainly DDOT’s recent management of the project sets a low bar for an authority to surmount. But we can also envision the authority turning into another awkward structure that needs reform a few years down the road.

Can the council design the authority to capture the benefits of a separate structure but avoid many of the pitfalls? Portland seems to have done so, for example; an independent authority successfully manages its streetcars. The details of the plan will determine whether an authority in DC would lead to similar success, or not.

Cheh’s bill properly proposes a public conversation about whether to create an authority, and how. It’s good to explore whether an authority could better serve the goal of implementing and operating an efficient, sustainable, innovative streetcar system. If it can, DC should set one up. But it should not be a foregone conclusion.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.