The Taxpayers’ Tab for the D.C. Trolley

Washington, D.C.’s taxpayers will be hit with a $3.5 million bill for the first year the District’s two new streetcar lines operate. That’s on top of the $100 million it cost to build them. Unlike the Metro with 79 percent of ridership costs covered by fares, the trolley system is only 30 percent dependent on fares. D.C.’s streetcars will be fueled by subsidies. For the District’s Department of Transportation (DDOT) that’s another way of saying the rail line might be free in some parts of the city. (Based on Portland, Oregon’s “fareless squares”)

Why is D.C. getting a heavily-subsidized transit system that was phased out mid-20th century? The DDOT beleives the planned 37 miles of 8 separate rail lines will connect people with neighborhoods and spur revitalization. The agency cites the effect Portland, Oregon’s streetcars had on property values. According to Randal O’Toole, the trolley revival is an effort by smart-growth planners to push American cities back to the pedestrian era. As he puts it, “Why should we design our cities for the 1.6 percent of people who take transit?” And of course, there’s the fact that it isn’t profitable. That’s another way of saying there’s not enough demand at the price it costs to operate. The D.C. trolley will cost $1.5 billion to complete and become a permanent fixture of D.C.’s budget. The price of trolley nostalgia is permanent taxpayer subsidies.