Good news: Washington DC is thinking of scrapping its streetcars, which have been in service for just two years and whose ridership is still so poor — about 3,000 weekday riders — that the city is afraid to start charging fares.
Bad news: City officials are only thinking of scrapping the streetcars and not the tracks; instead, they wants to replace the streetcars with brand-new ones because it’s so hard to get spare parts for the ones they have. Each new 30-seat streetcar would cost roughly ten times as much as a 40-seat bus, but cost is no object when you are playing with other people’s money.
The modern streetcar craze, which was only partly fueled by federal funding (Portland, Tacoma, and Washington purchased their first streetcars without federal support), provides a lesson for the writers of Trump’s infrastructure plan. They hope that giving local, not federal, politicians the authority of where to spend money would result in better decisions. In fact, local politicians are just as willing to waste money on gleaming new urban monuments as federal ones.
As noted in an op-ed on CNN earlier this week, politicians, whether federal, state, or local, would rather spend money on highly visible projects than on basic needs. Are streets in Portland and Washington DC falling apart? Build a streetcar! Are roads congested because rail transit hasn’t taken any cars off the road? Build another light-rail line! Is your subway line breaking down daily? Build a new branch of the line!
The best thing Washington DC can do is sell its streetcars to some other
sucker city, tear out the rails and sell them for scrap, and use the money it wants to spend expanding the streetcar system to fix its streets and coordinate traffic signals. Unfortunately, Washington is run by politicians, not people responding to market demand, so that probably isn’t going to happen.