DC takes the wrong track in revitalization bid with streetcar
© Getty Images

As chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight, I see a lot of government boondoggles. One of the worst is the Washington, D.C. Streetcar. Much (but not all) of this boondoggle was financed by D.C. taxpayers. They really got taken for a ride on this project, but so did you.

After more than a decade, $200 million in spending, and a few accidents, the Streetcar finally opened its 2.2-mile route to the public in 2016. It has lost money ever since. How do I know? Because though the city intends to charge riders, no one ever figured out what that price should be, so it has been free for two years while a decision is made.


In February, we learned that just two years after launching, the D.C. Streetcar could be getting ready to retire six cars from its fleet. You see, in 2004, with little in the way of plans and not a foot of track laid, Washington bought the cars for this ill-fated venture. Now they are out of date, and parts are hard to come by. I say it sounds like time for D.C. to cut its losses on this one.

Unfortunately, those losses are everyone’s, because, as my Waste Report on “A Streetcar Called Waste” noted two years ago, the U.S. Department of Transportation ponied up $1.6 million for the D.C. Streetcar. Amazingly, though, it was not for the 2.2-mile first phase of the project, but to fund preliminary expansion studies. As we said in our Waste Report, “Only the federal government would shy away from investing in a troubled venture, while at the same time providing funding to help expand the same troubled venture.”

It almost sounds like that old Simpsons episode, “Marge vs. the Monorail,” where a fast-talker comes to town to sell Springfield on building a monorail – which promptly fails while the swindler tries to escape with the taxpayers’ money. Like The Simpsons, bad streetcar ideas come from Oregon. In 2001, Portland became the first city to open a modern streetcar. It was part of a plan to revitalize an area known as the Pearl District, transforming a depressed industrial area into a vibrant hipster community.

As Wired magazine put it, “Blame Portland, Oregon, for streetcar fever.” D.C. was inspired by Portland, but so were many other cities across the country, and the federal government was happy to pour more than $300 million into Detroit, Dallas, Tampa, and other cities for streetcars. They also have helped fund repeated expansion in Portland.

But streetcars are not a panacea to urban renewal. Many streetcar success stories, including in Portland, begin with regulatory and tax relief that spurred revitalization well in advance of trains. Not to mention that for every Portland, there is a Tampa, or Little Rock, or D.C, where the streetcar continues to suck up money with little benefit. I like how Gizmodo said it, “Streetcars are the Great Urban Gimmick of Our Time.”

Countless studies have shown that stadiums and casinos do not truly cause revitalization. Undoubtedly, future studies will say the same of streetcars. We know what spurs growth both in urban and rural areas - free-market economics. So let’s stop playing games and wasting taxpayer money on gimmicks.

We can start in D.C.

Paul is the junior senator from Kentucky.