- The Washington Times - Monday, July 12, 2010

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday announced $293 million in federal funding for six transit projects - primarily streetcars - in Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas. D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty was snubbed in his request for a share of this handout, but the setback is likely to be only temporary. White House nostalgia for obsolete transportation modes is so great that the $1,548,000,000 price tag on Mr. Fenty’s trolley scheme will be seen as economically sensible.

“This investment by the Obama administration in our nation’s communities will create jobs, boost economic development and recovery, and further reduce our dependence on oil,” Mr. LaHood said in a statement on the streetcar funding grants. “Our goals are to provide cleaner, safer and more efficient ways to get around.”

Unfortunately, trolleys fall off the tracks on all three counts - especially safety. On Wednesday, a Long Beach, Calif. police officer spent 30 minutes pinned in his squad car after it was rammed by a Metro Blue Line light-rail car. Preliminary investigations suggest the officer had the right of way. In March, a Houston MetroRail streetcar slammed into a bus and injured 19 people. One month before, a similar collision sent nine to the hospital. The latest Federal Transit Administration data show that streetcars killed 34 people last year. On a vehicle-mile-traveled basis, trolleys are far deadlier than automobiles.

The danger is obvious, considering that streetcars run at high speed on the same roads as automobiles but lack the ability to stop in time or maneuver to avoid a collision. Electric streetcars made sense when they first appeared on Washington’s streets in 1888 under permission Congress granted to the Eckington and Soldiers’ Home Railway Co. to operate on New York Avenue. The District’s 21st-century trolley will operate on the same 19th-century overhead power-line technology. According to the District’s own analysis, it will cost 26 times more to build a streetcar line than it would to create an equivalent bus line because trolleys require tearing up streets, relocating utilities, reconstructing bridges and a number of other expenses. Once built, streetcar operations cost $206.10 per hour, compared to $90.86 for a bus line. So much for the “efficiency” promised by Mr. LaHood.

Streetcars are no more “clean” than buses. Slightly more than half of the electricity consumed in the District comes from coal-burning power plants. Touting electric propulsion greenwashes the reality that the scheme merely transfers emissions from the tailpipe to the smokestack. Moreover, Mr. Fenty envisions that 37 miles of Washington’s streets will be cluttered with ugly overhead power lines - an annoyance that more enlightened city leaders banned in 1889.

Streetcars are a disaster from environmental, fiscal and safety standpoints. For both Mr. LaHood and Mr. Fenty, that does not matter. Both are dead set on forcing more people onto centrally planned transportation modes that give bureaucrats the power to decide when and where the public can travel. America’s 203 million licensed drivers shouldn’t have their fuel-tax funds redistributed into such boondoggles.