Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

City officials and business representatives haven’t yet reached consensus on whether to create a separate authority for the DC Streetcar, or how much the private sector should chip in to build it.

At a meeting yesterday of the Mayor’s DC Streetcar Finance and Governance Taskforce, members talked about whether to create an independent authority to manage the streetcar. Alternately, it could be an agency of the DC government or a part of an existing agency, or a hybrid.

The authority, if created, would also control the Circulator and possibly also DC’s non-regional bus service, making a sort of DC transit authority. One city official said at the meeting it could even include Capital Bikeshare.

Rich Bradley of the Downtown BID expressed a strong preference for an authority, saying DC has used this structure for other large-scale projects in the past.

But City Administrator Allen Lew said that if the public is paying for the streetcar, there would be “pressure to make it a public entity.” Whereas, he added, if the private sector contributes more, then “an entity would make more sense.”

Further, there is a strong likelihood that DC will contract with a private company to design, build, finance, operate, and maintain (DBFOM) the streetcar in exchange for annual payments and oversight power. If that happens, a separate entity already will be making the more micro-level decisions; would an authority just be an extra layer?

Having a separate authority for WMATA is necessary because it crosses regional lines, but it has some drawbacks. Perhaps in part because the mayor doesn’t control WMATA, often city leaders have sought to advance their transit aims with programs they can control, where they can better ensure success.

Someone’s missing from the task force

Besides Lew, who chairs the task force, there are 7 public officials or their designees: the budget director, CFO, and heads of DDOT, DCRA, DGS, DMPED, and OP.  There are also 5 people from business and development organizations (Co-chair Jair Lynch, Rich Bradley from the Downtown BID, Akridge president Matthew Klein, Ginger Laytham of Clyde’s Restaurant Group, and developer Charles “Sandy” Wilkes), and Rob Puentes of Brookings.

Where are representatives of transit riders and residents who have been pushing for the streetcar? What about Jason Broehm, who led multi-year campaigns to build resident and business support for the streetcar on H Street when DDOT was dropping the communication ball? Or the new Sierra Club transportation leads? Or the Coalition for Smarter Growth? For that matter, where is a representative of Mary Cheh?

If private sector organizations who will benefit from the streetcar are going to make a significant contribution, over and above the regular taxes they would pay from having the value of their property skyrocket, there’s some logic to having meetings specifically between those who would pay and city officials, though still no reason to exclude community streetcar supporters.

However, a stronger “value capture” mechanism doesn’t seem to be in the plan at this point. A streetcar’s primary value over a rapid bus is that it stimulates economic development (and has higher maximum capacity if you have maxed out the number of buses you can run, like on Columbia Pike, but that’s not the case for most DC streetcar corridors).

The economic development should mean that a streetcar line brings economic growth larger than its cost over and above a rapid bus. If it doesn’t, a streetcar might not be what you want to build. If it does, then it will bring a big windfall to landowners along the corridor. For its money, the public should get some benefit.

That could be that those landowners chip in extra to help pay for the streetcar, perhaps with an extra assessment on commercial and large-scale residential property values beyond their previous levels. Or, if the concern is that the streetcar will gentrify a corridor, the contribution could be affordable housing instead (either a requirement to have some or payments into a fund).

More on wireless technology, and public meeting tonight

DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said that the agency is looking at wireless streetcar technologies. Current technologies allow them to run cars for about a mile without wires, but the technology is advancing quickly and they are keeping an eye on new developments.

He said they will be presenting more about wireless technology at the next meeting on the Union Station-Georgetown streetcar study, which is tonight. The meeting is 6-8 pm at the Carnegie Library in Mount Vernon Square. That streetcar segment will cross many significant avenues with viewsheds from major DC sites, so going without wires across at least those viewsheds has always been part of the discussion.


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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.