DC Should Use PPPs for Express Bus and Forget About Streetcars

Will the District of Columbia build its proposed streetcar network? The saga of the proposed DC H Street streetcar took another bizarre turn last month when former Mayor and current councilmember Marion Barry proposed blocking the streetcar. Last week Barry withdrew his disapproval resolution but made it clear that he has major problems with the project. According to dcist:

Councilmember Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) withdrew his disapproval to a $50 million contract needed for final work on the H Street NE late last week, but not before sending out a lengthy statement in which he criticized the project, saying that it is too expensive a project, will only serve “newcomers” to the neighborhood and is poorly planned.

Barry has hardly been a model public servant. His concerns are more related to politics than money, which is too bad because he actually makes several valid points.

The district has a strong transit system made possible in part by federal transportation dollars. However, transit service remains insufficient in many district neighborhoods. As a result, DDOT commissioned the 173-page DC’s Transit Future System Plan Final Report detailing the District’s ambitious transit plans. The plan recommends 8 express buses, 13 streetcars and 1 transitway. The report has several good recommendations including express buses and a K Street Transitway. However, the report also recommends streetcar service that the district does not need and cannot afford.

From a transportation standpoint, streetcars do not have a single advantage over an express bus or BRT line. First, proponents claim that streetcars increase ridership and transport more passengers than buses. But they are comparing apples to oranges. In cities where streetcars replaced buses and transported more people, they did so because other changes were made to the street. For example, San Francisco’s F-Market streetcars achieve better times than the buses they replaced because the Streetcar was given its own dedicated lane. Before the change, buses were slowed by car traffic. Buses stopped in designated bus pullouts and after they picked-up and dropped-off passengers they had to wait for traffic to pass before they pulled back into the travel lane. The Streetcar has its own dedicated lane where it does not have to compete with cars. It picks up passengers in that lane and does not have to wait for passing cars to begin moving again. Dedicating one lane of travel to the streetcar also had the effect of severely worsening traffic congestion that may have increased ridership. These changes would have increased ridership for the buses just as much as for the Streetcars.

Cities typically spend large amounts of taxpayer money inducing businesses to relocate next to streetcars, improving the street’s appearance and removing dilapidated buildings. These improvements would increase bus ridership as well. But while cities are reluctant to spend money to improve streets that buses serve, they are comfortable using substantial resources to improve streets with streetcar routes.

Second, proponents claim that Streetcars are faster. But real-world travel data does not support this claim. For example, in transit-happy Portland the city advises streetcar riders to expect an average speed of 7-12 miles per hour in the slow lane and 15-25 miles per hour in the fast lane. Buses travel between 10-20 miles per hour in the slow lane and 20-35 miles per hour in the fast lane. Buses can go around obstacles in the street, while streetcars have to wait for these obstacles to move.

Third, claims that Streetcars are better for the environment are also incorrect. WMATA buses run on clean natural gas, which is no worse for the environment than electricity, especially when that electricity is generated by coal. As buses travel on existing streets, no new infrastructure is needed. However, streetcars require electric wires, new tracks or both. Building this infrastructure generates pollution.

However there is one major downside to building streetcar lines that many advocates fail to mention—the cost. Buses have more seats than streetcars and can move five times as many people per hour. Streetcars cost almost twice as much to operate per vehicle mile and far more to build and maintain. When a proposed streetcar network in Austin was compared to a proposed bus network, the capital costs of the streetcar network were seven times higher than the bus network.

Earlier this week, DDOT added twist. The agency put out a request to transportation companies asking them to consider financing, building, and operating the streetcar (and operating neighborhood Metrobus routes). According to Greater Greater Washington:

Should a private company finance, build and operate the streetcar? Should it also take over neighborhood Metrobus routes from WMATA? Yesterday, DDOT put out a broad request to transportation companies asking them to weigh in on the possibilities.

Public-private partnerships only work if there is profit-making potential for the private side. Private companies have financing and efficiency advantages that are not available to the public sector. In PPPs each sector is able to use its strengths. While privatization is an excellent option for WMATA popular bus service, I remain skeptical about the streetcar prospects. The expensive to build expensive to operate streetcar seems as if it is a money-loser. For a PPP to work, DC may need to give the streetcar operator some form of crony capital. That is not the way to develop a PPP. The better option would be a cost-effective, environmentally friendly, flexible bus. Using a PPP agreement for existing and new express bus and bus-rapid-transit service is a better choice.