Photo by J-Blue.

The H Street-Benning Road streetcar could become a reality as soon as the end of 2012, if the DC Council approves a reprogramming

gap budget capital proposal to fund construction of the line.

The reprogramming gap budget capital proposal, recently circulated around the Council, cobbles together $63 million in unused capital funds from the Great Streets program, fire station and other facilities modernizations, and capital funds designated for WMATA’s federal match which has been delayed due to FTA processes.

That money would fund the proposed streetcar line from 1st Street, NE along H Street and Benning Road to Oklahoma Avenue, including 6 streetcar vehicles and a maintenance facility. The line would go under the H Street “Hopscotch Bridge” north of Union Station, where there is an old ground-level passageway.

While the overall vision for a 37-mile system across the city carries a general target date of 2030, Councilmember Jim Graham and councilmembers around the H Street-Benning Road area have agreed to make that line the top priority. They also feel that a strong, immediate commitment from DC would help the streetcar system attract federal funds for future segments; to begin with, DC is seeking a federal grant to extend the line across the Anacostia River to Benning Road Metro.

DDOT has determined that it can replace local money with federal funds for the Great Streets program along Georgia Avenue, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Minnesota Avenue, and MLK Avenue/South Capitol Street, freeing up $20 million. Projects from the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, fire station modernizations, and school modernizations also are not ready to spend capital money; the proposal would reprogram move $28 million, $20 million to streetcars and the rest to a number of recreation centers and shelter energy efficiency.

That generates $40 million of the $63 million price tag. The remainder is proposed to come from the money set aside to match federal grants to WMATA, but which is delayed because of the way the FTA is administering the grant. DC had reserved $50 million in case the FTA gave WMATA all the money right away, but that’s not happening.

At the earliest, the FTA will start coughing up actual dollars in the first quarter of WMATA’s FY2011 fiscal year, July to September, which is the last quarter of DC’s FY2010 fiscal year. If that’s the case, DC would need to contribute $12.5 million in this fiscal year. But if it doesn’t, then DC won’t have to pay anything until its FY2011, whose capital budget contains another $50 million for that year’s capital match to WMATA.

Whether it’s $37.5 million or $50 million, that fund could cover streetcar construction. It might be better for WMATA to have the money to fix failing infrastructure, but DC won’t give WMATA millions unless Virginia and Maryland are doing the same, and the O’Malley administration is already trying to delay other existing capital commitments (which DC is still funding) and opposing new ones.

If the money isn’t going to WMATA (or, some would argue, even if it could), building the streetcar is the best project, and also the closest to the money’s purpose of improving transit. It will upgrade transit on one of the most overloaded lines in the District, the X2, and catalyze development along H Street which local residents are very eager to bring.

Depending on the FTA’s timeline, the fund could still have anywhere from $14 to $27 million left. Coming up next: What DC should do with the remainder.

Update: The Council’s Sarah Campbell has explained that technically this isn’t a reprogramming but a part of the proposed revised FY2010 budget. The Mayor submitted a new FY2010 budget because the current budget has a gap for the remainder of the current fiscal year, and this is part of it. It’s just a technical terminology difference, and affects the timing of the money by a few months, but doesn’t substantively affect the issue.

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.