District considering private firms to fund streetcars, buses

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Photo - D.C. is weighing privatizing city buses -- including Metrobus and the D.C. Circulator -- and a proposed streetcar system. (Examiner file photo)
D.C. is weighing privatizing city buses -- including Metrobus and the D.C. Circulator -- and a proposed streetcar system. (Examiner file photo)
Local,DC,Transportation,Kytja Weir

The District is considering privatizing the city's buses and proposed streetcar network to infuse them with funding, a reversal of a decades-old policy switch that brought struggling private transit companies into the public sphere.

The District Department of Transportation said Tuesday that it has issued a request for information for companies to share ideas about creating a public-private partnership to take over Metrobus service in the city and the D.C. Circulator while jump-starting the streetcar network. The move is not a contract, nor a commitment, according to DDOT.

"We're just testing the waters to see what ideas are out there and to see if we could provide better service," DDOT spokesman John Lisle said.

A boomerang for private money in local transit?
Interestingly, in the District, the original streetcars and bus services were run by private companies. The last streetcars ran in the city in 1962, replaced by buses. But Metro took over the routes in 1973, as the four remaining bus companies struggled to stay afloat, saddling the proposed rail system with an operation it never intended to run. To this day, some Metrobus lines still reflect the old naming from the former system.

The city has planned a 37-mile, eight-line streetcar network, but even the first two lines have been delayed multiple times. Just last week, Ward 8 Councilman Marion Barry questioned how the city planned to fund the system and tried to thwart a $50 million contract to finish the H Street-Benning Road line slated to open in July 2013.

The new proposal calls for a public-private partnership that would run a 22-mile network of the three streetcar lines that the city thinks are key for a streetcar system to work. It would include the One City Line that extends the in-progress H Street-Benning Road line to Georgetown and the initial Anacostia Line extended across the 11th Street Bridge and along M Street Southwest. It also would have a line running north from the waterfront up Seventh Street and over 14th Street in Northwest, Lisle said.

But transportation officials also are seeking funding help with the bus systems, likely for the next 30 years.

The city has five Circulator bus routes with plans to expand the system. "Our ability to expand is limited by the availability of funding," Lisle said.

Meanwhile, the city said, Metro runs 23 Metrobus routes for the city, not including separate routes for schools.

The District now pays $31 million to Metro each year for the Metrobus services and another $17 million to manage the D.C. Circulator for the city, administering the contract with operator First Transit, according to Lisle. DDOT staff are trying to determine if such service could be provided cheaper with a private operator, and allow the city to expand it faster. The city would not give up complete control.

Public-private partnerships have been embraced around the country in recent years as a way to add service or fill gaps when public money is scarce. Virginia is notably using it for its HOT, or high-occupancy toll, lane project on the Capital Beltway. But Chicago has been trying to unravel a controversial parking meter deal that is costing the city.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kytja Weir

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner