Can DC's streetcar system be saved?

More troubles for the District's long delayed streetcars.

The city is considering whether the system can be fixed or should be scrapped. Today, a team of outside transit experts began a review of the streetcar system's safety.

"Right now it's premature to determine from my perspective what the line can do from a passenger perspective… I wanted to make sure everyone is aware that we're going to determine the future of streetcars based on the facts," said Leif Dormsjo, acting Director of the District Department of Transportation.

The 2.2 mile line built on H Street and Benning Road Northeast has already cost the city $200 million. They've been running simulated service for months but have yet to carry a single passenger.  The ill-conceived design, so close to parked cars, has led to numerous accidents. Cars parked too far away from the curb stops streetcars in their tracks.

Mayor Muriel Bowser (D-DC) doesn't believe the city is at a point to declare the system dead, but that remains a possibility. "If I had to tell taxpayers that I inherited a system that was not safe then that would be my job to tell them that. But nobody wants us to move forward with a program that isn't safe," said Bowser.

A team of experts with the American Public Transportation Association began a top to bottom review of DC's streetcars. They'll be riding the simulated service, reviewing records and talking with DDOT staff. The review is expected to take two weeks and the city expects to receive a list of recommendations within about six weeks of completion.

Dormsjo has said it's a system that's been plagued from the start. "The streetcar program was organized somewhat backward. Acquiring the vehicles early on installing the track early on before the system was adequately designed has created issues," he said.

The Federal Transit Administration has also issued a series of recommendations after conducting its own safety and security review in February, September and October 2014. The FTA made 24 recommendations, seven of those remain outstanding.

Scrapping the system would be costly but so would moving forward with a system that doesn't work. "It's better than spending $3 billion chasing that $200 million," said DC Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3).

Cheh says the streetcars haven't been a complete loss for the city.  When the project was first announced years ago, it led to a revitalization of the H Street NE corridor.  The question is whether that would continue if the streetcar project gets killed.



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