The District government first purchased bus-on-rails vehicles in 2004. Seven years ago the tracks were laid. Last Saturday the city finally transported passengers on the short streetcar span along H Street and Benning Road in Northeast D.C.
But the only-six-day-a-week “mobility” novelty shut down on Sunday, when service is not offered. The weekly disruption is partly due to those initial streetcar units having been left outdoors to rot in the elements after eventually being shipped from the Czech Republic five years after purchase. One was so badly damaged it awaits replacement parts to give agency officials adequate trolleys to rotate into running.
Longer than a decade and more than $200 million later, the long-delayed and much-maligned two-mile single streetcar stretch is now operational. Riding it will be free for at least six months, both to encourage so-far-sparse ridership and to allow the city long enough to figure out how to set up a fare payment system.
Spanning four mayoral administrations, the inauguration of streetcar operation in the District prompted more jokes than joy among residents. Local wags were prone to suggest it wouldn’t be real until the first car door was severed from a curb-parked vehicle. A streetcar sidelined on the first day due to a side panel dislocated from rubbing up against a rider platform failed to satiate common expectations of vehicular mayhem.
The real punch line, though, is that the streetcars move so slowly along the route from nowhere to nothing that the entire distance can be walked in the time it takes to ride the rail-bus. Standard buses carrying 16,000 passengers on an average day whiz by the lumbering streetcars by comparison.
Whether this nascent system will ever be expanded, or make an unlikely extension west across downtown to Georgetown, remains to be seen. Most residents are skeptical and many are now opposed to spending any more on the project, with the possible exception of elongating it east to spur access and development across the river in Anacostia.
Destined to essentially remain a disconnected stand-alone anomaly, the thing may become a moving monument to a massive mistake.
Coupled with the near-daily service meltdowns on the subway system and plummeting rail and bus ridership as a result, the potential humiliation heightens.
Maybe that is the lesson to be learned.
If government historically enjoyed a reputation for doing anything well, it was primarily physical infrastructure projects. Sure, such development tasks often utilized business entities to do much of the work, but are government-managed undertakings at their core. Now it seems like even that exceeds the capability of bureaucrats.
Has government devolved to the point that its proficiencies no longer allow even the essential ability to build brutish things?
What expectations should the citizenry retain regarding governmental capacity to scheme, formulate, plan and execute more complex objectives?
Should we anymore anticipate government as capable of substantially or effectively contributing to solving societal problems such as alleviating poverty or providing the unskilled and unemployed with appropriate and beneficial job training? The reality is that D.C. government performance on both of those, for example, makes this trolley folly look like a successful interplanetary mission sending humans to Mars.
If our local government can’t manage a tiny transportation project like a single strip of streetcar service, can we realistically expect them to successfully attempt doing much more?
Given the reality of inherent brokedownness, what confidence should we have as city officials continue shifting attention from actual and essential responsibilities toward private sector matters? What credibility conveys to a government unable to handle core functions whilst encroaching into micromanaging things that work better?
This D.C. streetcar fiasco instructs us regarding both the competency of officialdom and the advisability of a broadening of ministerial tentacles into enterprise through outsized regulatory control and over-reaching operational mandates.
A government unable to accomplish much on its own would be smart to leave business alone and to work.