March 4, 2016 at 1:28 pm EST | by Mark Lee
What the streetcar fiasco really says about D.C.
D.C. streetcar, gay news, Washington Blade

(Photo by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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

  • **What expectations should the citizenry retain regarding governmental capacity to scheme, formulate, plan and execute more complex objectives?**
    That’s easy, Mark. How about Mendacious Mendo’s and Sneaky McD’s Council setting up a new protection racket for 200 of DC’s violent criminals?

    They even expect Mayor Bowser to take the blame and public outrage for all the additional violence their crime encouragement scam will inevitably create.

    Council now wants to reward violent shooters, slashers and Metro muggers $9,000 each– AND– treat them for their ‘public health problem’ to boot.

    But how many younger teenagers who have never committed violent crimes will want DC’s $9,000 reward, too? And what happens when the $9,000 gets spent?

    **The New Protection Racket: Paying Criminals Not to Commit Crimes**
    **…the moral impact of such programs reward the threat of implied violence by paying cash to hold them temporarily in abeyance. Rather than incentivizing felons to demonstrate rehabilitation, we’re essentially paying them to be dangerous.**

    Of course if Mayor Bowser signs this crime-encouragement bill into law, it is SHE who will get the blame for the inevitable bloody crimes and killings Council’s wholly unproven extortion racket will produce.

    Mayor wannabe, Sneaky McD, knows full well that the mayor will be blamed more than Council for the additional bloodshed his racket will produce.

    Indeed, that’s what should result for any city executive who recklessly endangers the lives and public safety of the residents and businesses it is his or her job to protect.

    The mayor ought to honor her duty to save lives and prevent more terrorizing of DC crime victims. She ought to veto this dangerous bill– and without equivocation. Most throughout the city will applaud her for doing so.

    More on Sneaky McD keeping his secretive *protection racket* from public scrutiny…
    **”McDuffie Tries to Keep Reports on Anti-Crime Program Secret”**

  • If government functions so poorly maybe it’s because 50 years of right-wing propaganda has driven talented, caring people away from the public sector. Mark Lee’s ilk created this situation and if he actually cared, he would find ways to make the public sector work instead of constantly deriding it.

    • I’m not a “right-winger,” Kyle. I’ve been a Democrat all my adult life.

      But yours is a lame excuse for lazy, sloppy, and now, homophobic, urban governance in DC by COUNCIL hypocrites like Mendelson and McDuffie who call themselves “Democrats.”

      There are lots of Democratic-run cities that work very well, don’t have transportation boondoggles like the one Mark has highlighted here.

      And none of those cities — but one, whose protection racket scam has provably failed — encourage 14 to 17 yo kids, who have never committed a violent crime– to go out and do so, for a cash reward of $9,000.

      Riders on a slower-than-walking streetcar will make easy targets for those Council-recruited violent teenagers, too.
      If government functions so poorly maybe it’s because 50 years of right-wing propaganda has driven talented, caring people away from the public sector.**

  • I’m sorry, I seemed to have missed the gay angle in the article. Why is the The Blade publishing this?

    • 1) It is an opinion piece.
      2) A number of DC gay taxpayers who are Blade readers don’t appreciate having their taxes squandered any more than straight DC taxpayers do.
      3) A number of lesbian, bisexual and transgender readers may feel likewise.

    • Yea gay people are just their genitals. We aren’t 10%!of DC voters and we don’t pay taxes. We aren’t bashed so issues of gun control or police for example are irrelevant to us.

  • I rode the line a couple times last week and although on one occasion an X2 did pass while I was waiting I did not see any pass the streetcar while I was on it.
    the “guide” on the car said it was intentionally running fairly slow in the beginning to let folks get used to it being there and to check before opening car doors etc. they did say it was getting faster as folks got used to it. one of the problems folks hadn’t yet learned to push the button for the doors to open from the outside. and everyone was trying to get on the front door like a bus. there is a learning curve.

    one thing for sure. there sure is a lot of construction on H strreet..

  • I drove to H Street yesterday since the hike from subway to trolley at Union Station is a bit much for my old sick body, and rode the trolley to the end of the line and back to 3rd Street, NE. The cars moved slower than molasses. There are no disabled seats and unlike New York, no one among the busy young urbans seemed willing to give up their seat for the short ride. A policewoman — dispatched to issue tickets to cars, presumably — rides each trolley, and a DMV tow truck accompanied us. It made me think of the flagmen who rode their horses in front of early railway locomotives All that practice has made the operators know the spatial limits of their behemoths — we rode less than 2 cm from the sideview mirror of a parked Yukon. Seven years to come this far is outrageous.

  • “A government unable to accomplish much on its own would be smart to leave business alone and to work.”

    Yeah, because “business” never screws up and always meets the needs of the society (can’t possibly roll my eyes enough).

  • Kindly provide a source for your assertion that DC’s growing population is mostly due to federal government hiring. A link to a credible news site will do.

  • Thank the powers that be that Arlington voters sniffed this mess out before its County Board spent $300 million on a streetcar for Columbia Pike. The only way streetcars would work these days is if they had dedicated lanes just for them. As the DC debacle demonstrates, streetcars are inefficient and slow. You can walk faster than it moves. Arlington voters were ready to throw out the entire county board over their stubborn insistence on spending a half-billion dollars so well-off people did not have to lower themselves to actually ride a bus. What possible benefit does a 2 mile track give to DC? It looks pretty and maybe is fun to ride once in a while. But as part of a comprehensive transportation plan, it is a boondoggle – a waste of money and effort.

  • Regardless of what. DC was here before you came and DC will be here when you leave!

© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2021. All rights reserved.