The failure of DC’s streetcar

(Flickr / Ted Eytan)

(Flickr / Ted Eytan)

“If at first you don’t succeed, spend millions more of taxpayers’ money.” That should be the new motto of the “DC Streetcar” recently opened in the nation’s capital.

The DC Streetcar finally opened last month, after a long history of broken promises. The Washingtonian documents eight missed delivery dates of the streetcar over the last four years, with politicians guaranteeing each time that the project would be done in just a few months.

The history of the cars themselves is laughable. “After the city first bought three streetcars from the Czech Republic in 2004, officials left them outside, unprotected, getting battered by the elements,” writes Michael Laris, a reporter for the Washington Post. “They were so damaged that one is not ready for service now.”

But now that the streetcar is finally done, most District residents and journalists are left scratching their heads – what’s the point of this thing anyway?

For starters, the streetcar operates on a completely redundant route, already covered by the Metro’s X2 bus – except the bus goes faster, travels further, and runs more often.

The Economist’s blistering critique of the streetcar in its “Gulliver” column sums up the central question: “Washington’s planners seem to have been so fixated on the low price tag that they have not asked themselves the central question that should guide any transit plan: will it actually be useful in moving people?”

Riding the streetcar will be slower than the bus, writes Laris. Although some cities have streetcars that get up to 25 or 35 mph, the District’s shiny red vehicle will max out at around 15 mph. It’s so slow that a group of runners started an annual event to race the streetcar up H street. (It was an easy win for the runners.)

After more than a decade of sinking money into the streetcar, the District doesn’t even plan to charge people for rides in the first six months – which is probably smart, since no one would pay much to ride it anyway. Once fares do kick in, it will be interesting to see whether ridership numbers create any semblance of sustainability.

Frustratingly, the streetcar won’t even accept the Smartrip cards used on the DC Metro subway and bus systems, instead relying on an “honor system” where people buy tickets and enforcers regularly check them, according to the Washington Post. Having to buy a separate streetcar ticket in addition to reloading a Smartrip card will make a long commute more complicated than it’s worth for most people.

The most infuriating part of the whole streetcar boondoggle is that the District desperately needs repairs and reforms to its public transit system, and the money could have been put toward something that actually benefited people throughout Washington, DC.

DC residents know all too well the Metro’s constant delays because of mechanical failures. Several people have died over the last few years in particularly devastating incidents. The $200 million should have been used to renovate the oldest stations, permanently fix the constantly-broken escalators, and replace the ancient subway cars.

Just this Wednesday, the entire Metrorail system shut down for an entire day to conduct emergency inspections on more than 600 cables. This is the first time the entire system shut down for a day since 1976.

The streetcar is the perfect example of what happens when politicians run something as important as public transit. Concerned with flashiness instead of efficiency, the District spent $200 million on a useless streetcar running a redundant route instead of making the much-needed improvements to the bus and subway systems that cover the entire city.

The District could have kept the Streetcar’s lanes open for vehicles, added a few more X2 buses on the H Street route, and achieved the same improvement the streetcar brings for 1/200th of the cost. But that wouldn’t make for nice photographs.

Published on Opportunity Lives