D.C. Streetcar's Future Uncertain

For years now, officials in Washington, D.C. have been pursuing and promoting the idea of a streetcar that would unite the east and west sides of the city while reducing congestion from cars and buses. But after traffic incidents, funding concerns, and months of delays, there are serious questions about the project's viability.

Back in October, we wrote about some of the problems that plagued the streetcar's 2 mile test run in northeast D.C. At that time the project had already caused additional traffic congestion and accidents in its preliminary stages, and the question of how to fund the $5.1 million annual operating cost lingered (based on ridership projections, a $1 fare would only cover about 9 percent of that amount). In spite of those problems, then-Mayor Vincent Gray planned to have the streetcar fully operational by the end of 2014.

Fast forward six months, though, and not much has changed: the car is not yet operational, there have been several more accidents along the test track (including a flash fire on one of the cars), and the District has spent nearly $200 million on the project so far. In January, the city's new mayor, Muriel Bowser (D), appointed Leif Dormsjo to head the District's Department of Transportation (DDOT) and oversee the project. Dormsjo has made it clear that all options are now on the table, including pulling the plug on the project entirely.

As reported in The Washington Post, Dormsjo has said "I'm trying to prudently and responsibly prepare the service to be started. But if I can't get to that point, I'm not going to be enchanted by some philosophy of transit that leads me to do something that doesn’t make sense ... at the end of the day, it has to work, it has to be safe, it has to have utility.'" The new administrator and his team will need to decide if the benefits of operating a street car are worth the costs of its expansion, and if so, where and when the city should expand its service. Dormsjo is bringing in a team of inspectors from the American Public Transportation Association for inspections and evaluations, with a report on the system's safety expected within 45 days.

Although the costs to date have certainly been significant, they represent only a fraction of the total $3 billion projection. Taxpayers concerned with the project's direction so far should welcome its review.