Department of Transportation

D.C. Struggles to Get Replacement Parts for Its Disastrous Streetcar

City officials have suggested replacing current vehicles might be necessary.


Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Newscom

The District of Columbia's streetcar has been nothing but a headache for local officials—and taxpayers—ever since it was proposed nearly two decades ago.

At the time, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) envisioned a 7.2-mile line servicing the low-income neighborhood of Anacostia. Instead, the city ended up building a 2.2-mile line servicing the bars and shops along H Street.

Now, on the two-year anniversary of the streetcar's much-delayed opening, city staff foresee increased trouble getting their hands on the spare parts they need to maintain their current fleet. One of their vendors has gone out of business and the other is located outside the country, so "parts availability will continue to be limited in the future," according to the officials who testified to the city council's Transportation and Environment Committee yesterday.

These supply chain problems may require the system to reverse-engineer parts and create new supply chains, which DDOT officials say would be a "costly endeavor." As a result, the department will explore a "strategy for future vehicle acquisition that also considers the feasibility of disposal of the current fleet." In other words, they might junk their current set of streetcars.

The typical streetcar should last at least 25 years, according to the Federal Transit Administration.

DDOT spokesperson Terry Owens tells The Washington Post that the department has no present plans to scrap its fleet. It is, he says, considering the purchase of new vehicles for planned extension lines (the city plans to expand its current 2.2-mile line west to the city's Georgetown neighborhood and east out toward Benning Road), and it is "evaluating the vehicles currently in service to determine the best fleet management approach to achieve the system's performance goals."

Should "best fleet management" lead D.C. to replace its current vehicles before they reach the end of their useful lives, it would be another black eye for a streetcar system that has faced continual delays, cost overruns, and constant goalpost shifting.

The initial setback came in 2002, when plans for the 7.2-mile line in Anacostia were scuttled after promised financial support from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Agency (WMATA) fell through.

In response, DDOT downsized its ambitions, instead proposing a 2.7-mile "demonstration line" along existing freight rail tracks owned by the rail company CSX, to be completed in 2006. This plan also faltered when negotiations with CSX reached an impasse.

In 2008, DDOT took another bite at the apple, attempting to build a line at street grade from Bolling Air Force Base to a Pennsylvania Avenue stop in Anacostia. This plan fell apart when both the military and WMATA took issue with DDOT's plans, resulting in the department spending $20 million on .8 miles of unusable track.

Undeterred, in 2009 DDOT announced plans for a whole 37-mile streetcar network with lines running throughout the entire city. It also decided to shift the initial construction of the line from Anacostia to the H Street corridor. Since roadwork in the corridor was already underway, officials reasoned that it would be easier to lay tracks at the same tim, and have the streetcar up and running by March 2012.

This decision proved costly, as the district rushed forward with construction before designs for the H Street line were finalized. The result was yet more delays, cost overruns, and minor accidents, as test streetcars—placed very close to existing street parking—hit parked cars, including a police car.

That March 2012 deadline slipped to late 2012. That date proved too ambitious as well, with the H Street line not opening until 2016.

Some $200 million was spent building the line, which carries roughly 3,000 weekday riders.

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  1. DC just saw that that million dollar bus stop in Arlington and figured it could do better.

    1. So they built A Streetcar Named Quagmire, amirite?

      1. Christian, this should have been your title.

      2. giggity goo

    2. DC has a few of those, actually.

  2. Turn the cars into giant mobile flower beds. Throw some more money at WayMo to automate them so they can show the poor what flowers look like, rambling around at odd hours of the day and night. But make sure there’s enough flowers to keep would-be freeloaders off.

    1. The streetcar doesn’t go past any poor people. Its route, or at least the part of it i saw a few years ago, is lined with nothing but hipster bars.

      1. Mobile bars?

      2. A Streetcar Named Bright Skinny Jeans Attire?

        1. Hmm. At least with killing bicyclists we’re doing something productive….

      3. That neighborhood was utter shit about 10 years ago, but then it got gentrified. It’s still kind of shitty in spots though.

    2. Ah, hell. Just turn it into a neighborhood beer wagon to service late night crackheads after the bars close.

  3. Dear DDOT, it’s okay to say you made a mistake and to now scrap the whole thing. Every city has boondoggles, and you can demonstrate some contrition by no longer throwing good money after bad.

    Not a D.C. Resident, But C’Mon

  4. When you elected corrupt and incompetent morons like Marion Barry and Muriel Bowser to run your city, you end with streetcars to nowhere with no replacement parts and trains that catch on fire and explode.

    But by all means, keep right on voting in these clowns DCers and see how it works out for you. There’s nothing else to tell you other than you’re fuckin’ stupid.

    1. To be fair to DC, the Metrorail spontaneous combustion problem is a shared responsibility with Maryland and Virginia.

    2. It’s clowns all the way down, no matter who you vote for.

  5. It wasn’t “disastrous” if it got built and produced six figure public sector salaries to manage it.

  6. “At the time, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) envisioned a 7.2-mile line servicing the low-income neighborhood of Anacostia.”

    So the city officials assume that this will always be a low-income neighborhood?

  7. Just get a bunch of the people to drag them around by human power. Pay them $20 an hour.

    1. A living wage! Bicycle power at least. Unless that is appropriating rickshaw culture.

  8. It’s a small area. Let’s do a test and price rides according to actual costs – the whole enchilada – construction, salaries, bonds, M&O, everything. Get the riders to pay the actual costs. You know, for the children….

  9. This is what happens when politics controls technology. Wrong choices and projects that cost much, much more than it should and will never be used to anywhere near the degree it was said it would and the cost per rider will be outrageous for the life of the project.

    1. “This is what happens when politics controls technology. Wrong choices and projects that cost much, much more than it should and will never be used to anywhere near the degree it was said it would and the cost per rider will be outrageous for the life of the project.”

      Governor moonbeam does NOT approve of this message.

  10. Well, you can’t fix stupid, but the gummint can force you to pay while they try.

    1. I looked up this fiasco on Wikipedia. The still-existing vendor is Skoda, in the Czech Republic. The one that failed is United Streetcar, a project of Oregon Iron Works — which contracted to build the Skoda design. The Skoda cars were delivered on time, then sat in storage for so long that the warranties ran out.

      The United Streetcar design was messed around with, substituting Siemens motors for Skoda motors and Rockwell Automation control systems for the Austrian-designed controls. This was done on streetcars for Portland, in a effort to up the American-made content, but it meant that United Streetcar had no experience with a consistent design. All of their product had teething problems.

      It’s hardly surprising that Oregon Iron Works shut them down.

      1. Skoda s one of the worst cars ever managed. Wonder how low that low bid was.

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