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Marion Barry, Closet Conservative?

12:41 PM, Jun 20, 2012 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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The Washington Post reports that D.C. councilman (and four-time mayor) Marion Barry has “launched a last ditch effort to slow or derail the city’s planned streetcar line on H Street, arguing it’s not been well-thought out and is too expensive for the number of riders it will serve.”

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The H Street streetcar, which will serve a rapidly gentrifying area of the nation’s capital, will cost $200 million to build and require an annual $8 million subsidy – yet it will serve fewer than 2,000 riders each day, according to the D.C. District Department of Transportation. It’s the first line in a planned $1.5 billion, 37-mile streetcar network – this, despite the fact that D.C. already has extensive Metro and bus services.

Barry rightly points out that H Street is already well served by frequent bus service. (I took it this morning, actually.) His objections to the streetcar point to the key, unacknowledged fact of light rail development: It has little to do with moving people from Point A to Point B. Rather, light rail and streetcars are increasingly seen as a tools of economic development, with advocates claiming that rail organically spurs commercial development. Of course . . . that isn’t true. And what’s worse, cities like Portland, Oregon, which have invested heavily in rail, are punishing commuters by cutting bus service and raising fares to pay for their lavish “investments.”

The D.C. council looks likely to ignore Barry though, and will probably continue throwing money at the streetcar. After all, opposing rail and streetcar development has become a “third rail” in municipal politics across the country. Even Phoenix (Phoenix!) has built light rail. But you know urban politics are messed up when Marion Barry is the one making sense.

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