D.C. Rail Fetishists Propose “Free” Trolleys

If you believe the “city of northern charm and southern efficiency” is geared solely toward imposing stupid, expensive directives on the rest of the country, think again–local D.C. government makes the feds look reasonable, measured, and intelligent in comparison. I mean, Marion Barry still serves on the city council.

Washington is also a town home to more glassy-eyed rail fanatics per capita than any other. The Washington Metro, the rail transit system that was presumably designed to serve wealthy suburban condo owners, is a notorious fiscal black hole. But the Metro system is controlled by the WMATA, a multi-jurisdictional regional transit authority, and not the city itself. Not wanting to be outdone by a bunch of Virginia and Maryland upstarts, D.C. decided to show WMATA a thing or two about absurdly wasteful transit spending–reintroducing streetcars in the District.

You remember streetcars, right? The antiquated 19th century transit technology that was supposedly murdered by the evil auto industry in the 1960s? Well, it’s been resurrected thanks to the persistent efforts of greensrailfans, and the bow-tie-wearing, criminalemploying Councilman Jim “The people of the District of Columbia want their trolleys back” Graham. To make things worse, officials are now seriously talking about forgoing fare collection on parts of the “$1.5 billion” (if only it would end up being this cheap when all is said and overrun) streetcar system:

“It is certainly possible that in certain areas of the city it would be free,” DDOT Director Gabe Klein tells WTOP.

“And we like that, because the point of this is to stimulate growth and move people between neighborhoods. So we are going to look at a structure where people feel comfortable hopping on and off, maybe many times in an hour.”

D.C. officials have closely studied the streetcar system in Portland, Ore. as a model for what to do in the nation’s capital. In Portland, riders who take trips in the “fareless square” do not have to pay for trips.

“In the downtown area, they make it free,” says Klein. “People literally hop on and hop off, sometimes at every stop. It’s great because it feels more like a people mover, than it does a bus or a streetcar.”

Keeping the cost low would encourage people to use the streetcars. [Emphasis added.]

Mr. Klein is certainly on the right track when he suggests that people might take advantage of a service more if they aren’t charged for use, but he should look up the definition of the word “free.” Something is not costless just because you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. But Klein really goes off the rails when he proclaims Portland, Oregon’s “silent but deadlyMAX transit system as something the District should be watching and learning from.

Oregonian Randal O’Toole, economist and noted transit scholar, throws cold water on the notion that the Portland model is something to emulate:

Portland’s story of spending $90 million on a streetcar line to get $2.3 billion of development, or $57 million on an aerial tram to get $1 billion of development, sounds attractive to officials from other cities. It might not sound so attractive if Portland admitted that it really had to spend $665 million, in addition to the cost of the streetcar line and tram, not to mention 10-year tax waivers on at least $100 million of development, to get that $2.3 billion worth of development.

Streetcars might sound “fun” or “cool,” but there are two very important reasons why they were scrapped 50 years ago: streetcar lines are much more expensive to operate and maintain compared to buses, and they’re unpopular (not in the “do you like the idea of trolleys?” sense, but in terms of actual ridership). Not to mention the obvious traffic safety problems with nearly-unstoppable, 40-ton fixed-line vehicles sharing the roads with automobiles and cyclists.

One good thing to come out of this flurry of unrestrained public transportation spending is that the District Department of Transportation put online a database where you can see when and how the city is wasting taxpayer dollars on transit boondoggles.