As Barrett Touts Streetcar, Washington, DC Considers Scrapping Theirs

Talk about poor timing. Within hours of Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett using his annual “State of the City” Address to sell the latest progress on his streetcar boondoggle to the city, the one in our nation’s capital faced an uncertain future.

Only operational for two years, the streetcar operating in Washington, D.C. is already in trouble. As first reported by radio station WTOP, the DC city council is expected to get an earful Tuesday night on the litany of problems the $200 million streetcar project has.

Only two years after the D.C. Streetcar launched, the District is already seriously considering a plan to replace its vehicles.

In responses prepared for a D.C. Council hearing Tuesday — which happens to be the two-year anniversary of the first passengers’ trips down H Street NE — the District Department of Transportation said there have been problems already with getting spare parts to complete repairs in a timely manner. One manufacturer is out of business, and the other is overseas, so the issues are likely to continue.

“Long term parts availability will likely require reverse engineering parts,” DDOT officials wrote to the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment. The agency said it is exploring a strategy of acquiring vehicles in the future that “considers the feasibility of disposal of the current fleet.”

Federal Transit Administration guidelines set a streetcar’s typical lifespan at 31 years. Even if the current fleet runs for another five years, it would still have only been in service for seven. The cars arrived a few years before the line opened for passenger service.

Washington’s streetcars are made by two companies, one American, the other located in the Czech Republic. Its American manufacturer was United Streetcar, an Oregon-based manufacturer which went out of business in 2015. With the Czech company the Washington streetcar’s only option for parts, repairs have become problematic and costly.

In addition to the parts issue, ridership has been lacking. According to the city’s Department of Transportation, even with free fares for riders, only 3,000 people take advantage of the system daily. Strong numbers, but nothing compared to the DC Metrorail system which handles over 615,000 riders a day.

Meanwhile in Cincinnati’s streetcar has showed continual issues operating in cold weather and where its streetcar manufacturer, CAF USA once owed the city hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Despite the concerns over cost, delays, weather, and ridership levels, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett continues to tout the streetcar coming to his city as though nothing wrong could come of it.

This summer we’ll see the opening of the new Bucks arena. And, within a month, the first streetcar vehicle will arrive in Milwaukee and as anyone who comes downtown can see, we’re making great progress in installing tracks and building streetcar stops. The Hop, presented by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino, is what we’re calling our streetcar and if you haven’t heard already, passengers will ride free for the first year.

Thank you to Potawatomi Hotel & Casino CEO and General Manager Rodney Ferguson for your generous support and thank you for the continued support from the Forest County Potawatomi.

When we were first deciding to build a streetcar I traveled to Portland where they told me it will be controversial until it’s built, and they were right. But they also told me that once it’s built, everyone will start asking when it will come to their neighborhood and that’s what’s happening here.

The city’s streetcars, made by Pennsylvania-based Brockville Streetcar, were initially scheduled to begin arriving in 2017 with all arriving by mid-to-late 2018. At the current rate they should all arrive either in late 2018 or early 2019.

The project, rebranded as “The Hop” when corporate sponsorship was added in 2017, is slated to cost $128 million when completed with an additional $3.2 million in annual operating costs. How the city will pay for that remains to be seen; but if it operates as other streetcars have across the country, it won’t.