Photo by B Rosen on Flickr.

Transit projects in the Washington region are going through a tough period. The Columbia Pike streetcar is dead, the DC streetcar delayed and had its funding cut, and Maryland just elected a governor who’s at best skeptical about the Purple Line. Any transit project seems to have many critics. Why all the negativity?

People who agree with the decision to cancel the project seem to fall into a few groups:

  1. People who want much better transit, like Metrorail. This will cost a lot of money.
  2. People who support buses in dedicated lanes, which VDOT has rejected on Columbia Pike, but where possible (like in DC), also would interfere with drivers.
  3. People who don’t want to spend much money on transit and don’t want to slow down cars either.
  4. People who were confused.

1. People who want Metrorail instead

Group #1 points out that Metrorail is great transit. So it is. It’s also massively, massively expensive. The United States was willing to spend that kind of money in the 1950s and ‘60s, when our economy was growing rapidly, tax rates were really high, we wanted to compete with the Soviets, and the public supported public investment.

Now, a few big subway projects are still possible, but the federal government does so much less. That means that states, counties, and cities have to put up a lot of money, and elected officials who support it are always vulnerable to challenges from people appealing to those who don’t benefit from the project.

On Columbia Pike, we’d be talking billions of dollars. On top of that, the line wouldn’t be possible without a separate Blue or Yellow Line in downtown DC — the trains need somewhere to go and there isn’t room now.

Bus lane in Santa Monica, not possible on Columbia Pike. Photo by Complete Streets on Flickr.

2. People who want buses in dedicated lanes.

This group says you can build much better transit than mixed-traffic streetcars or slow buses by dedicating a lane to buses or light rail. And that’s true! It just takes one little thing: taking space away from drivers. And we know drivers are totally fine with losing lanes as long as a thoughtful study supported it, right?

Critics of streetcars, including the Post editorial board this weekend, have linked over and over to a recent article by Matt Yglesias on Vox headlined, “Meet the worst transit project in America. This was probably the transit story with the most clickbait of a headline, and it’s worked.

But it’s worth looking at another headline in there, a section header near the bottom, which reads, “To improve transit, smash the car lobby.” That’s right — Matt Yglesias thinks that all you have to do to make progress on transit is “smash” one of the most powerful constituencies in the nation. Not only is there tremendous campaign funding that flows from road-building and car-selling industries, but it’s quite simply a cause that the vast majority of Americans identify with.

3. People who don’t support spending on transit

Many people who just don’t really care much about better transit. They might be okay with it in the abstract, but don’t want to spend much on it. A lot of people don’t want tax money to go to infrastructure they won’t use, especially in less politically-powerful South Arlington, as this satirical comment highlights.

Buses are somewhat inoffensive because they don’t get in the way of drivers or cost that much (relatively); they can even be decent transit, but break down in corridors where ridership grows really large, like Columbia Pike, DC’s 16th Street, and others.

In some parts of the country, politicians outright oppose transit. Around here, it’s popular enough that leaders don’t say they do. But any transit project does have to deal with voters who don’t want to spend the money, and it’s worse when it also gets flack from transit supporters on all sides who argue their particular transit alternative is better.

4. People who were confused

Peter Rousselot, the political operative behind the anti-streetcar campaign, and the two board members in his coalition, Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt, insist they support good-quality bus transit. But they really want the money to go elsewhere. Instead of outright opposing transit, they have won over many voters by spreading misinformation.

Arlingtonians for Sensible Transit, the group Rousselot helped found, continues to claim that Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) is an alternative to the streetcar. Yet the nation’s foremost authority on BRT, the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP), defines BRT as:

A high-quality bus-based transit system that delivers fast, comfortable, and cost-effective services at metro-level capacities ... through the provision of dedicated lanes, with busways and iconic stations typically aligned to the center of the road, off-board fare collection, and fast and frequent operations.

Busway requirements for BRT. Image from ITDP.

ITDP’s scoring system requires at least 3 km (about 2 miles) of dedicated lanes to even begin to qualify as BRT, and even then a line has to earn points in other categories. Yet AST’s page of BRT videos highlights the Snohomish County, WA “Swift” system which has 7 miles of dedicated lanes — not the entire route, to be sure, but a significant portion.

A video entitled “Does Bus Rapid Transit need a dedicated lane?” does not, at any point, answer that question. Instead, it just gives some advantages of regular, standard buses. ITDP’s older 2012 standard didn’t absolutely require dedicated lanes, but those were worth a lot of points; to get something to qualify as “BRT” without them would mean gold-plating every other aspect of the line, like the “million dollar super-stops” which AST roundly criticized as also too expensive.

The misinformation worked. Many residents now have said they look forward to Arlington speeding up the Crystal City streetcar (which is dead, too), or building Metro (without understanding the cost), or planning of the shiny Bus Rapid Transit systems AST has been talking about (which are, once again, not possible).

As Brian McEntee put it:

This is the dilemma that leaders face. They’d love to build Metro, but don’t have the money. They’d love to dedicate a lane, but can’t “smash the car lobby” as easily as Yglesias would like. And if they propose a streetcar which is less expensive but slower than Metro and doesn’t take a lane, someone will shout “boondoggle” and call to kill the project without a viable alternative to actually improve transportation or reduce car trips.

What is next? We’ll look at that in an upcoming post.

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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle.