Tough choices could be made easier

An ongoing planned light-rail project in Washington, D.C., demonstrates the need for legislators to pony up a bit more for the people

Brian W. Budzynski / May 08, 2019
Brian W. Budzynski

A few issues ago I got pretty snippy about the unnecessary complication of buying a transit ticket in Washington, D.C. This past January, I was again back in D.C., attending the Transportation Research Board’s Annual Meeting, and this time circumstance did not require me to use the city’s public transit offerings. (At this point, remember we were in the midst of the prolonged government shutdown, so the interesting stuff such as museums and so forth were closed to the public.) 

I had the opportunity more recently, just this April, of sitting in on a presentation made at APTA’s 14th National Light Rail and Streetcar Conference by Haley Peckett, transportation and systems planner for the D.C. DOT and Mass Transit Administration. Her talk focused on DDOT’s ongoing efforts to extend streetcar offerings. It was a presentation both hopeful and somewhat disconcerting.

The line in question is called the East/West Streetcar Line; at present a section connecting H Street to Benning Line has been in operation since February of 2016. Sections to the east—aimed at connecting Union Station to Georgetown—and to the west—a Benning Road Extension—remain mired in exploratory evaluation.

Why? Give you one guess.

Yup. Money.

Peckett stated that there is simply no money for the western portion of the expansion; the 3.5-mile eastern portion which runs through the ever-popular and ever-congested Georgetown area was given priority for, well, obvious reasons. As I said, this is both hopeful and somewhat disconcerting.

Among the points highlighted in Peckett’s talk, which focused on planning rather than implementation, were that off-wire technology for streetcars no longer needs to be an obstacle to progress; the trade-off that DDOT/MTA planners are making is an example of how funding should be prioritized (IMO, they are correct); and that a phased approach, which prolonged development is allowing, will ultimately lead to a successful implementation and increased safety. With regard to this last point, Peckett stated that dedicated space is presently being sought, and initial access may well be for buses and that this step could then lead into light-rail/streetcar dedicated lanes.

Where this situation steps into the shadows, to my mind, is the fact that such a choice need be made at all. It should be lost on no one that mass transit investment in our dense urban locales should be prioritized at the state, city and local levels. In a city such as Washington, D.C., there is no hope for added vehicular capacity—nor a desire, really. And so it should be the mission of legislators to focus their efforts, and their willingness to spend dollars, on transit development. It is the best and most direct means of producing equitable transportation offerings for all citizens.

Of course, cars aren’t going away, nor should they. And transportation network companies are likely going to make congestion even more of an issue. So the focus on handling and assuaging congestion will continue to be an enormous concern. Nonetheless, equal shrift should be paid to finding ways and means of being more aggressive with transit development.

Transit systems can only help densely populated communities. I don’t know that there is a downside. It is a shame to see planners such as those at DDOT/MTA have to make the decision to offer a better mode of transportation to one part of their community while starving another of the same benefit. After all, when mobility is stunted, most everything else, including (perhaps notably) business development, suffers in the wake of that absence.

Times are always tight—this is true. But the coffers can’t be that shallow. Legislators, scrape the surface. Find that gleam that suggests gold and put it where it belongs. Don’t build walls. Build connections.

About the Author

Budzynski is managing editor of Traffic & Transit.

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