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It began, as so many budget fights do, with a line of jargon. “The Council’s plan,” explained the D.C. Council’s Committee of the Whole in its report last week on Council Chairman Phil Mendelson’s budget proposal, “adjusts the upcoming proposed streetcar paygo transfer from a fixed to a floating base year.”

That adjustment, inscrutable to all but the wonkiest budget types, led the mayor’s office to accuse Mendelson of “taking a page out of the Koch brothers’ manual,” brought counterattacks from the Council charging Mayor Vince Gray with political grandstanding, and threw the future of D.C.’s long-planned streetcar network into question.

D.C. streetcars, extinct since 1962, were supposed to have returned to H Street NE by now, but the opening date has been pushed back again and again. The city’s plans call for that inaugural line to be extended through downtown to Georgetown, and joined by two others—one linking Anacostia and Buzzard Point, and another running from Buzzard Point to Takoma—before expanding to a 37-mile network that’s still in early planning. According to the mayor’s office, the Council’s recent actions could undo that ambitious design.

The Council voted 11-2 to approve Mendelson’s budget, with a variety of tax cuts funded in part by the streetcar change, which would, in layman’s terms, reduce the streetcar’s funding from a projected $884 million to $400 million over the next six years. (The “paygo” business refers to the mechanism for calculating the streetcar funds: Gray proposed setting aside 25 percent of all revenue increases over a 2015 baseline for the streetcar, while the Council preferred 25 percent of increases in each year over the previous year. That may not sound like a huge difference, but it amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.)

Gray spokesman Pedro Ribeiro says this will effectively kill plans for a citywide streetcar network. Instead of a 22-mile priority system completed in the mid-2020s, he says, with the Council’s budget we’d get a “much smaller system that wouldn’t operate until the 2030s or 2040s.” The full 37-mile network, scheduled to be done by 2030, would take 60 to 70 years, according to District Department of Transportation estimates, if it gets done at all, Ribeiro says.

“You can’t be a vocal proponent of streetcar and then kill its budget,” Ribeiro continues, calling out councilmembers David Grosso and Mary Cheh, who voted for Mendelson’s budget. “You don’t get to claim that you’re a transit progressive and then cut the funding for those projects.”

Cheh counters that “throwing many, many more millions of dollars at something” doesn’t make you a transit advocate. Grosso accuses Gray of pandering with “a budget that was created to try to win an election”—never mind that the budget proposal wasn’t released until he’d already lost the April 1 Democratic primary—and adds, “I think he has a spokesman who’s completely off the handle. I don’t think the mayor’s actually fighting for this.”

When it comes to the streetcar, emotions are running as high as the cost projections. It’s for this reason that it’s actually pretty hard to suss out who’s right. After the Council’s vote last week, Gray’s office released a map showing just how decimated the streetcar network would be—gone are the north-south line between Takoma and Buzzard Point and substantial portions of the other two lines. Cheh, Grosso, and Mendelson say that’s nonsense, and that the system can be built just fine under the Council’s budget. But given that most major transit projects run wildly over budget, it’s almost impossible to determine just how much money will be needed to build out the streetcar, and who’s correct here.

The mayor’s office says the 22-mile network will cost $1.3 billion; the 37-mile network, plus the remainder of the city’s planned “Integrated Premium Transit System,” which also includes buses, will cost $3.1 billion. But Mendelson argues that Gray’s proposed method for funding those costs will result in a wild escalation of streetcar funding.

According to figures from the Council’s budget director, Jennifer Budoff, the mayor’s and Council’s proposals would allocate similar funding for the streetcar in 2015 and 2016. But while the Council’s budget funding would rise slowly, totaling $587 million between 2015 and 2020 (including some federal funding and the rebuilding of the Hopscotch Bridge on H Street), the mayor’s version would boost funding much faster, setting aside more than $500 million per year after 10 years. That’s likely more than the annual revenue increases, meaning that it could cut into discretionary spending on programs like education and affordable housing.

The Council may be right that this funding mechanism is unsustainable and excessive. The trouble is that the D.C. government now appears to be sending mixed messages. Ribeiro says the city may have to rescind and reissue its January solicitation for a firm to design, build, operate, and maintain the Integrated Premium Transit System now that the funding structure has changed so substantially. And if the Council doesn’t make clear its commitment to building the full system, it’ll be harder to find top-notch operators willing to take control.

Part of the Council’s reluctance toward lavish streetcar funding is the city’s track record on the streetcar thus far. “You see how poorly they’ve laid out the [long-delayed] H Street line,” says Grosso. “You want me to pour $3 billion of paygo money into this?”

Mendelson, Cheh, and Grosso also charge that the city hasn’t spent more than $100 million that was allocated for the streetcar, and thus shouldn’t be handed hundreds of millions more without additional accountability. According to Ribeiro, that figure fails to take two factors into account: funds that will be spent between now and the end of the fiscal year this fall, and the money already obligated through contracts for the streetcar barn, the operation of the H Street streetcar, the purchase of right-of-ways for the Anacostia line, and other expenses. Each of those, says Ribeiro, amounts to about $40 million, bringing the streetcar expenditures to 90 percent of the money allocated.

Ribeiro agrees that DDOT hasn’t handled the streetcar rollout perfectly. “The time frames that they had put out were far too aggressive,” he says of the long-delayed H Street streetcar opening. “I think if they’d been more realistic in their timelines, you wouldn’t have this issue.” (He doesn’t mention that Gray himself promised passenger service on H Street “starting in January, not later than early February.”)

But the idea of dedicated funding and a solicitation for a company to run the system, he says, is to avoid the mistakes of the past. “We don’t want DDOT to be doing the day-to-day management,” he says. “We wanted to bring in an outside partner, someone who has experience building an integrated system like this, which would address some of the delays we’ve had.”

The members of the Council who voted to cut the streetcar funding insist they’re still supportive of the streetcar program. “This should not be a subterfuge to try to kill the streetcar,” says Cheh. “If someone wants to kill the streetcar, that should be an open debate, and not under the cover of the budget. That’s what I asked Mr. Mendelson, and he said, ‘No, we remain committed.’”

But Cheh still isn’t dead set on building out the full streetcar network. “Let’s say the public decides they want to go in a different direction, or the new mayor does,” she says. “That’s fine”—although she stresses she still wants to complete the Anacostia line.

There’s plenty of reason to think the streetcar program, as designed, should never have been started. The H Street route largely duplicates the X2 bus line and won’t run any faster, since it doesn’t have its own lane and can get stuck behind double-parked cars or delivery trucks. While streetcars often bring development benefits, H Street was developing before the streetcar plans were announced, and studies have shown bus rapid transit to be an equally effective development tool if done right. (It’s much cheaper, too.)

But now that the streetcar project is underway, much would be lost if the government pulled the emergency brake. On a practical level, if the system were left with just a couple of partial, disjointed lines, the city would have a hard time moving cars from one line to another—in the event of a soccer game at a new D.C. United stadium at Buzzard Point, say (though the Council is resisting Gray on that too). On a psychological level, the lack of a connected system would make the streetcar harder for tourists to understand and for locals to work into their routines.

Most important, the likely victim would be the line that has yet to see any construction, or even to have a defined route: the north-south line, expected to run on Georgia Avenue NW. This is the line that would probably see the most regular commuter traffic: As of 2012, the most recent year for which WMATA has published ridership figures, the Georgia Avenue bus lines in the 70s are the city’s second busiest, averaging over 17,000 weekday riders, behind only the 16th Street NW S buses. But 16th Street has few retail spaces and isn’t well suited to the kind of pedestrian-friendly development a streetcar can bring. By this metric, Georgia is arguably the corridor best equipped to capitalize on streetcar-related benefits.

Of course, the city should try to make Georgia succeed where H Street has fallen short. Streetcars should be more than a novelty, and if they’re to bring real transit benefits, they need to move people quickly and efficiently than buses do. If the Council is truly committed to the streetcar but wants to make sure it’s built responsibly, this is where it should step in: by ensuring that the busy north-south line has a dedicated lane wherever possible. What Georgia would lose in car speeds, it would more than gain in pedestrian-friendliness, transit convenience, and a more vibrant street life.

Yes, the streetcar has stumbled thus far. But the first step in any major project is the hardest, and the city ought to learn from its mistakes and do a better job of managing both construction and expectations on the future lines. And so while the Council should continue to ensure that the process is moving forward efficiently and sustainably, it also has to make sure the process keeps moving forward—by making clear its commitment to seeing this thing through.

Photo from DDOT