Denver is using a private partnership to build its airport rail line.
DC is considering turning over construction of 22 miles of proposed streetcar lines to a private company. The idea is that the company would build the lines using its own money, more cheaply and quickly than DC could following the cumbersome government process. Over time the company would make its money back in fares, and DC would more heavily subsidize operations once the streetcars are running.
Nobody has ever done anything quite like this before in the DC region. And so there is a lot of skeptisicm, which is totally healthy and correct. There’s no such thing as free money, so DC should absolutely tread carefully.
But tread carefully doesn’t necessarily mean dismiss the idea outright. Depending on the specifics of how the private sector responds to the city’s inquiry, privatizing streetcars could turn out to be a good deal. It could also turn out to be a loser, of course, but the key will be to consider the responses and not be dogmatic.
The Denver example
Although it’s true that nobody has used a public-private partnership to build a rail transit line in DC, the idea has worked in other cities. The most notable current example is Denver, where they are building a huge 122 mile rail network from scratch, and are using a private partnership to build some of the corridors. The private deal is called the Eagle P3 Project, and it is under construction now, on schedule to open in 2-3 years. In the future, when you take the train from Denver’s airport to its downtown, you’ll be riding on something built and operated much like this streetcar deal proposes for DC.
The Virginia example
Virginia is using the same process to build billions of dollars worth of HOT lanes on I-95 and the Beltway. While it’s true that those projects have been controversial, the private investment has been a key aspect of funding and management.
This is definitely an idea worth exploring. It may or may not be worth doing, but it doesn’t hurt to consider options.