17 Feb 2021

H Street:

Gordon Chaffin: “Technology has eclipsed the moment of the streetcar,” says Elissa Silverman DC Councilmember

Gordon Chaffin is one of the hardest-working independent reporters in the DC area. He is passionate about regional transportation and infrastructure. Although he no longer helms Street Justice, you can find Gordon here. – Maria Helena Carey

Still of a July 2020 Council of DC hearing with Councilmember Elissa Silverman. Courtesy of Gordon Chaffin.

DC’s FY2022 Budget season started this month with the Council hosting performance oversight hearings [Schedule]. I wanted to resurface a debate from last year’s budget discussion. The video above is clipped from a July 2020 Council debate where At-Large CM Robert White wanted to move money from the DC Streetcar extension project to DC’s public housing agency. These are capital budget dollars; separate from the operating funds more frequently cited. White — along with four other CMs who voted with him — are skeptical about the Streetcar and/or explained how badly needed repairs to DC public housing developments should get the funds instead. This budget amendment failed, with eight votes to preserve Streetcar money, but it may come up again this year.

This month Advisory Neighborhood Commission 7E (Marshall Heights/Benning Ridge/Capitol View) voted 4-2 to support the Streetcar extension project. Their boundary is adjacent to the planned Benning Road alignment. The new light-rail transit route would greatly improve East/West transit service. ANCs 7D, 7F, and 7C may weigh in soon. DC’s DOT has continued moving forward with the design and public outreach of the Streetcar extension and related improvements. They are all designed to be implemented together. If you’re interested in learning more and getting involved to support the project — a big investment in the historically overlooked Ward 7 — you can contact Michael Havlin (havlin.michael@gmail.com).

Silverman’s Comments

During the debate on this Streetcar vs. Public Housing amendment, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman made several pointed comments about the Streetcar, Ward 7 neighborhoods, and transportation policy. I want to address those.

First, Streetcar technology is not an antiquated thing of the past. That’s false. Transport nerds like myself argue the merits of trolley/streetcar tech in different applications, but it’s still a really good concept. In fact, fixed transit routes with overhead wires delivering electricity for motion are common in the most forward-looking transportation systems. Perhaps the best way to implement battery-electric buses is with real-time charging delivered via overhead wires. Like with any transit tech, streetcars work well or poorly depending on the fit with the situation and supporting infrastructure.

Folks like CM McDuffie think “the moment” of the Streetcar is over because DC fucked up the design and implementation. It’s a scapegoat, a punching-bag for justifiable skepticism of The Plan to gentrify DC’s lower-income, Black areas. Years of track-blocking double-parkers clearly showed it was a mistake to use a mixed-traffic curbside lane straddling on-street parking. Thank God the Streetcar goes to center-running lanes east of the Starburst intersection. It would continue center-running in the extension plans. As I explain in my H Street redesign, the Streetcar could be much better if we got cars out of its way while it runs curbside.

CM Silverman, who lives a few blocks off H, thinks the X2 Metrobus gets through the corridor faster than the Streetcar. Silverman’s neighbor, Ward 6 CM Charles Allen disagrees. Regardless, Streetcar ridership data seem to show the transit service attracting new riders — not pulling folks who used to ride the X2. There are clearly more potential transit riders who visit H Street and might have used a car or ride-hail if not for the Streetcar. That’s a high-priority objective of DC’s transportation plans: create more non-car options to reduce traffic congestion, reduce driving, improve air quality, and repurpose public space in the street for safer walking, community amenities like street dining, and beginner-friendly bike routes.

CM Silverman made several strange comments I found offensive about the neighborhoods along Benning Road. She seemed to suggest there’s not much for people to travel to in that Ward 7 corridor other than present and future proposed developments at the Minnesota Avenue intersection. It’s true the land-use is not transit-oriented (yet), but part of the point of the Streetcar project is that more frequent, reliable transit provides a powerful ingredient for employers, businesses, well-being services, and cultural amenities to form or relocate in Ward 7.

I also want to say too, as a Ward 5 resident, it’s really fucked up to be treated by politicians like your neighborhoods have nothing of value to visit, invest in, or have greater access to. I assume many in Ward 7 feel similarly to the way I feel about my home. We had large dangerous roads plowed through and socially undesirable land uses like industrial sites located nearby. We’re here for affordable housing and some green space that does exist, even though our air and water are more likely to be poisoned and our streets have many fewer trees.

I feel like someone powerful said to me, “I mean what is there even in Ward 5 east of the Metro tracks? Why do we even need bus rapid transit or protected bike lanes or parks along Rhode Island Avenue or NY Avenue or Bladensburg Road or South Dakota Avenue? What even is there to visit? The Riggs Road Walmart? The Costco? The Ivy City Nike Store?” That feels really shitty. And people do treat my community like that: DC prioritizes car traffic to Prince George’s County and freight traffic headed to B-W Parkway or I-95. People are moving to Brookland quadplexes and Michigan Park semi-detached homes because they’re affordable. We want jobs here, cultural amenities, health facilities, grocery stores. And that requires signals from the government that there’s shared buy-in for uplift. Grocery stores and other businesses need more people living and visiting there to survive. I know, because we’ve been fighting for a non-specialty grocery store in Brookland for a decade.

If I were designing a rapid transit line for H Street/Benning today from Union Station to the Benning Road Metro, it might be dedicated-lane bus rapid transit instead. I’d still want overhead wires for charging battery-electric Circulator buses. But, we got the current Streetcar and it works and it could work much better and it shouldn’t be left to terminate at Langston golf course or the Minnesota Avenue Metro station.

Above and beside all this development that gets understandably dubious in re gentrification fears: I care most about better transit services to the long-time residents of Marshall Heights, Benning Ridge, Capitol View, and many neighborhoods east of Fort Mahan Park. These folks have to fight WMATA every damn year to prevent bus route cuts. All of the other projects tied into this Streetcar extension are imperative, but I just want those people to have a one-seat ride to the Red Line. I don’t want DDOT cutting a Ward 7 circulator route (again) ten years from now to balance the budget.

Public housing facilities in DC need drastic improvement. However, we should not be pulling money from one necessary investment in poor Black communities for another necessary one that benefits primarily Black communities. That’s an unnecessary zero-sum.

VIDEO DESCRIPTION

On July 7th, 2020, the Council of DC debated the Fiscal Year 2021 Budget for the District, which would begin on Oct 1, 2020. At-Large Councilmember Robert White introduced an amendment to the capital expenses part of the budget that would pull money from the in-design and planning DC Streetcar extension to DC’s public housing agency.

The Streetcar extension project includes several badly needed improvements to roads, bridges, and bike/walk conditions along the Benning Road corridor in Ward 7. The existing Streetcar line from the Hopscotch Bridge to Oklahoma Avenue NE was waylayed with cost overruns and construction delays but serves a critical East-West corridor. It does a good job delivering better transit service in a congested street without dedicated lane space — a key ingredient to successful transit service. The Streetcar extension would take the current line and send it across the Anacostia River, connecting historically Black and Native Washingtonian neighborhoods to more jobs, wellbeing services, and cultural amenities. Moreover, Benning Road communities like Deanwood — where affordable homes are more easily found — would have a permanent transit fixture. Residents there have repeated had to fight against cuts to “collector” bus routes that have less ridership than main lines but provide neighborhood bus stops.

DC’s Public Housing Authority is also in critical need of large investment. As Councilmember White and others mentioned in this video, a dozen or more public housing projects like Greenleaf Gardens require extensive renovations. For many years, DC’s oldest and most-impoverished residents have endured unpleasant, unsanitary, and certainly unsafe housing facilities. With a need to invest in both better, more extensive public transit and improve the living conditions of Washington’s most vulnerable families, this amendment discussion is a good example of the tough choices the District has to make. Budgets are zero-sum conversations about priorities and DC’s Streetcar is perhaps one of the most easily targeted projects given its extremely poor implementation to date.


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