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A Free Streetcar No One Desires

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A Free Streetcar No One Desires

February 27, 2018

At a hearing before the D.C. Council today, which is also the two-year anniversary of the first passenger trip of the D.C. Streetcar, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) will testify about a new challenge for the system. In responses prepared in advance of the hearing, the Department discusses problems acquiring replacement parts for the fleet of cars. These problems will require additional maintenance costs to D.C. Streetcars. D.C. should end this costly free program that few riders choose to use.

The D.C. Streetcar system currently has one small segment in operation, from Union Station to the H Street corridor. Construction costs for this segment were about $200 million and annual operations cost another $8 million, but the Streetcar is free to riders.

Even without fares, ridership has disappointed and remains confined to people in the narrow geographic area where the Streetcar operates. Since it began operation, total monthly passengers peaked in October 2017 at about 115,000 in total ridership, but this has fallen back to less than 88,000 in January 2018. Average weekday ridership was only about 3,000 in January. Even these lackluster numbers are artificially high due to ridership during the Women’s March that took place that month, which was the system’s second-busiest day ever.

Despite the lackluster performance and high cost in terms of resources, the D.C. Streetcar has multiple planned extensions. The most immediate would be an extension further east to the Benning Road Metro station, which is currently expected to be in service in 2024. This extension would reportedly cost more than $200 million when related costs for roadway and bridge alterations are included. Eventually, the line would be expanded further west all the way to Georgetown, with an estimated price tag of $400 million. These additional expansions would take multiple years and add significant costs, for little actual benefit.

The problems with ridership and costs were anticipated even before the system was in operation, as previous articles for E21 made clear. The issues with fleet maintenance and repair reveal a new potential source of trouble for the streetcar system.

The new problem identified in the D.C. government’s testimony is the difficulty in obtaining the parts needed to repair and maintain the six cars in the current fleet. Three of the cars were procured from an international vendor, and the other three from a supplier in Oregon that is no longer in business. This could mean that the DDOT will not be able to acquire the parts it needs to maintain and repair its fleet.

Due to these constraints, in its testimony the Department states that over the long term it will explore strategies that consider “the feasibility of disposal of the current fleet.”  Streetcars are designed to be in service for multiple years, to it is possible that the current fleet will be able to continue to operate for some time even with the procurement problems.

The draft DDOT Streetcar Spending Plan would require $35 million for the acquisition of new streetcars beginning around 2020 to service the planned streetcar expansions. If the DDOT determines that part acquisition for the existing fleet is going to be a substantial problem, it might need to replace those cars sooner than anticipated, which would add millions more to projected procurement costs.

Despite these new problems, the DDOT confirmed it had no immediate plans to do something as drastic as introducing a fare for the streetcar and charging people to use it, as is the case with almost all other forms of transportation. Even the Georgetown line of the D.C. Circulator, a bus that services Georgetown and surrounding neighborhoods, costs $1. The DDOT does not want to charge users for maintaining and operating the system so as to encourage more ridership, which remains stubbornly anemic.

Instead, the Department would only consider developing a strategy and timeline for fare collection closer to the rollout of the Benning Road extension, which is not projected to take place for another six years.

Even with a fare collection system in place, the low ridership, which would likely fall further in response to the introduction of a fare, likely means that streetcar operating costs would continue to be a drain on the District’s finances.

The costs spent on the Streetcar cannot be recouped, but that does not mean that the DC government should sink more funds into an unnecessary project. The government should close the Streetcar and focus on the Metro, which is in dire need of repair.

The District’s problems should serve as an object lesson to other places. Even before the Streetcar was operational, Arlington County canceled its own planned streetcar project that would have cost approximately $500 million. The latest in the series of problems plaguing the D.C. system should give other places another reason to think twice before moving forward with their own streetcar plans.

The District faces significant resource constraints and real transit needs, as do many places throughout the country. They would all be better served if they avoided diverting scarce resources to expensive, ineffectual streetcars.

Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes.

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