March 5, 2015 at 4:30 pm EST | by Mark Lee
Time to pull the plug on trolley folly

Trolley, gay news, Washington BladeTransit hipsters convinced the D.C. trendiness-sensitive public officials who once feared them to spend a trainload of cash on the equivalent of garage-sized vacuum-tube-driven punch-card-reading UNIVAC computers. In the 21st century.

Indications are newly inaugurated D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser is bravely inclined to pull the overhead electrical plug on the city’s ludicrously grandiose scheme to construct a nearly 40-mile network of streetcar lines threading through the District. She should, along with the D.C. Council.

Trolley-mesmerized transportation advocates, now mortified by the functional testing performance of an initial 2.2-mile streetcar line on the slowly revitalizing H Street, N.E., commercial corridor, are able to offer no more than a muffled whimper in protest.

In recent months their prior success in selling politicians on streetcars has evolved to an embarrassment, both for them and city officials. In the public mind the plan has come to symbolize the epitome of bad judgment and is a too-easy punchline about government missteps.

Frequent news reports of periodic trial-run crashes into cars, a recent trolley-top electrical fire, traffic obstruction and even blocking bus movement during an extended testing period only remind D.C. residents that the initial streetcar line along the typically narrow roadway in Northeast Washington has yet to provide transportation to a single passenger. Worse, there is no announced timetable to do so, despite a lengthy start-up testing phase and multiple missed service initiation deadlines.

Streetcars were sold to a passively skeptical public as partly a marketing tool to promote economic development in a long struggling and still somewhat tumbleweed tainted area that is on the verge of an explosion in additional housing construction and commercial development. At best, that’s what they have proven to be – a novelty gimmick to focus attention on a neighborhood poised for potential growth and business investment. Their actual intrinsic value is primarily attracting tourists and eventually encouraging bar-hopping at numerous and future bars and restaurants along a short stretch.

Confronting city officials are simple questions: Should this boondoggle be abandoned and the H Street trolley also dismantled? The answer to both is yes.

Other than serving as a moving monument to a retro-transit idea gone wrong and memorial to expensive mistakes easily made, there is little reason not to entirely end the thing. If nothing else, the streets would be made safe from the turtle-paced lumbering of fixed-position bus-like behemoths with slow response times and meager traffic reaction abilities.

Uprooting the tracks and dismantling this trolley folly would end the crashing into cars, blocking of vehicular traffic, delaying of business deliveries and screeching to a stop the bus lines more efficiently serving the area. Why should the city spend more money to maintain and operate a single short line that essentially connects to nothing and gets no one anywhere faster or more efficiently than existing expandable transit options?

Whether city officials have the courage to admit this mistake and utilize common sense will soon become apparent. D.C. Council members might consider replacing their Wilson Building dais with one of the streetcars to conduct their legislative sessions while peering out the windows. It would serve as a useful reminder to not fall prey to similar nonsensical proposals the next time they’re asked to imitate another trendy notion.

The absurdly astronomical cost of what little has been built, totaling upwards of $200 million, and the future expense of the envisioned network at a lot more than a billion bucks, would be a stupid choice. Especially given the urgency of improving and expanding existing transportation infrastructure, maintenance and operations.

The city needs to totally call it quits on trolleys.

D.C. needs to be more forward thinking in accommodating modern-era transit needs. Local politicians should also get smarter about the limited streetscape shared with cars, pedestrians, buses, bikes, taxis and trucks – and better at spending the limited funds available.

We can’t waste the time, or squander the money, to bring back the horse and buggy.


Mark Lee is a long-time entrepreneur and community business advocate. Follow on Twitter: @MarkLeeDC. Reach him at

  • Does the author think streetcars are just bad for D.C., or for all of the (many) cities around the world that have them?

  • The author keeps saying that the trollys are crashing into cars. The accident he is referring two was when a car actually crashed into the trolly. This has happened multiple times with the buses. Additionally, blocking buses, this would be because they use some of the same stopping areas, and the idea is for the Trolly to replace the buses. If there are other reasons the author doesn't want the system, great, but not sure why you would center it around these two that don't hold up under close examination.

  • Mark Lee has a reputation for hating public works in general, so this isn't really new. The fact is, until there is some kind of decent public transportation to the H Street corridor, I will not be patronizing the businesses there. Good public transportation infrastructure (which, yes, requires tax revenues to build and maintain) support local businesses. Not everyone can just hop in a car and go to H Street. There's not enough parking, and there are too many damn cars on DC streets anyway. When will this city really start taking the needs of those of us who never drive seriously, and work to decrease the number of motor vehicles on our streets?

  • Whne was the last time these clowns were drug tested it has taken the USA by storm necisiity not nostalgia is the order of the day Thank You very much

  • Was there an argument here? I read hyperbole after hyperbole, but nothing that resembled
    ∴ conclusion.

  • BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: "D.C. Streetcar Project Could Be Abandoned" (WashPost) – The new Director of DDOT DC announced at his DC Council confirmation hearing on Friday (3/6) that the entire DC Streetcar project, including the initial H Street NE line, may be scrapped. An outside review "will help determine whether there are 'fatal flaws' in the project" and if "it might not be in the public interest to move forward."

  • The same argument was made when Houston installed its transit train line. Usually by people driving oil tankers angry that the street wasn't totally their property anymore and had a couple extra traffic signals to learn.

    And again, as with Houston, the accidents were almost always people running into the train because they weren't paying attention to those signals, probably yacking on the damn phone or checking Facebook.

    Perhaps someone with some sort of education in mass transit or urban planning should have written this instead of a "business advocate".

  • Not that agree with Mark, I don't but also don't think you're not going to H street us going to hurt their economy neither. Take the damn bus.

  • While I certainly am disappointed and outraged at the waste of funds on this project, and the complete mismanagement associated with it. I can't help but think the author of this article sounds like an obnoxious Hummer-driving Republican! Okay so this project failed; that doesn't mean that street cars themselves are a failed mode of transportation! And what the author failed to note is that DC is a unique city in that there are restrictions about over-head wires, which meant the streetcar had to be built with electric and over-head capacity. That naturally made it more expensive and more prone to technical difficulties than a light-rail in Baltimore would be. Streetcars and light rail work great in MANY cities, including Portland, San Francisco, Baltimore, and even places like Minneapolis and Phoenix. There's no reason that it couldn't have worked for DC had the project been placed in more capable hands. The author also fails to suggest any better alternative to the transit needs of the city; likely because in his mind the only thing he cares about are gas-guzzling automobiles.

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