How Washington D.C. spent $200 million over a decade on a streetcar you still can’t ride

December 7, 2015 1:43 pm

streetcar is repaired at the District of Columbia’s Car Barn Training
Center. Environmental work, additional features and labor costs have
pushed the Car Barn’s price up. Photo / Jabin Botsford

The District of Columbia is spending three or four times what
other cities have to build a maintenance facility for its fledging
streetcar (tram) system, a reflection of the flawed planning and
execution that have dragged down the transit start-up for more than a
The “Car Barn” project was originally designed as a
simple garage and rail yard for light repairs and storage, with some
offices for staff. But it has ballooned in ambition and nearly tripled
in cost – to $48.8 million. It will now include a number of pricey and
unusual features, including grass tracks for parking the fleet of six
trams and a cistern for washing them with rainwater.
At the same
time, a short stretch of track that the city built in Washington’s
Anacostia neighbourhood, never reached its intended destination and has
been all but abandoned, leaving the city with a multimillion-dollar,
eight-tenths of a mile monument to good intentions.

The expanding Car Barn and the discontinued Anacostia line
are mirror images of a dysfunctional transit project that has cost the
city US$200 million and is nine years late.
Since 2014, operators
have been shuttling the bright-red trams back and forth without
passengers, each trip underscoring questions about the District’s
ability to get big things done.
In the early 2000s, an ambitious
band of city officials set out to cut through the bureaucratic mire and
launch a vast tram network that would be a model for the nation,
eventually running 30 to 60km or more.
The first leg was supposed
to open in 2006. But as 2015 comes to a close, officials are scrambling
towards their latest goal of opening a diminished, 3.5km tram line east
of Union Station after the latest tests are finished early next year.
lines have faced challenges across the country. The projects are often
designed to spur development as much as to move people. They have
sometimes been spearheaded by agencies with minimal experience building
or running rail transit systems, leading to rosy assumptions on costs
and timelines, comparative studies have found.
But in Washington,
the problems have gone deeper. Officials working with a succession of
mayors failed to keep a tight handle on the sprawling effort, marked by
poor management, hasty designs, construction problems and political
infighting, according to internal project documents obtained through
public-records requests and interviews with current and former
The peculiarities of streetcar systems – with their
local political histories as well as varied costs for real estate and
for moving gas and electric lines – make broad comparisons challenging.
narrower comparisons illuminate deep disparities. Take maintenance
facilities. The District says it will spend US$48.8 million on its Car
Barn and maintenance yard, which is projected to open in 2017 after long
delays. Tucson spent US$13 million. Cincinnati’s was US$11.5 million.
Seattle’s came in at US$11.1 million, plus – at most – US$500,000 for
track and overhead wires in the yard, officials there said.

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