Opinion

Examiner Local Editorial: Streetcars are D.C.'s 'Stumptown Slug'

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Opinion,Local Editorial

D.C. officials are finalizing plans to complete the much-ballyhooed H Street/Benning Road streetcar line by the end of this year. According to the District's website, the $50 million project will "link neighborhoods with a modern, convenient, and attractive transportation alternative." But each one of those claims is dubious.

Streetcars are hardly modern. Fifty years after the city ripped out more than 200 miles of antiquated streetcar tracks, nostalgia has set in, and few city residents remember the downsides of this 19th century form of transportation. Chief among them is the fact that streetcars operate on the same roads as cars and cyclists and thus pose a safety hazard to all.

Streetcars are not convenient either, as a recent race between a Portland streetcar and the Oregonian's Joseph Rose demonstrated. After noticing how poky his city's streetcars were, Rose decided to see if he could walk faster. He won "by a good 13 minutes," adding that "after lacing up my $50 sneakers and going toe-to-track with the $8.5 million-a-year Portland Streetcar, I'm thinking the city's oh-so-generally named trolley system should be rebranded the Stumptown Slug."

Portland uses the same streetcars that Washington has purchased, made by Oregon Iron Works' United Streetcar. So District residents can look forward to hitching a ride on a $50 million trolley, or they could get to their destination faster by just walking there.

Attractive? Ugly overhead power lines will mar the beauty of the city designed by Pierre L'Enfant, which is why the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, the National Park Service and the Capital Planning Commission all objected to them.

And there's virtually no chance the three streetcars the District ordered from United Streetcar, which is manufacturing the first domestic streetcars in 60 years, will be delivered in October as planned. The company is months behind delivering the five Portland ordered. Its prototype, built from plans purchased from the Czech Republic, has serious glitches in its braking, air conditioning and lighting systems and has yet to be certified for public use.

"In a nutshell," Portland transportation expert Randal O'Toole noted, "United Streetcar got a $4 million federal grant to build a prototype ... and after spending the $4 million they still didn't have a working model."

Marion Barry, D-Ward 8, the only member of the D.C. Council to initially disapprove of this $50 million "poorly planned" boondoggle "that won't go anywhere", got it right the first time.

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