A Streetcar Named Misfire

The DC Streetcar project has been an ongoing boondoggle for a long time, but it may finally be coming to something close to an end. The system will open for business on February 27, or at least something close to “for business.” In what appears to be a rush to get the streetcar running before some arbitrary date, a few unfortunate choices have been made.

  • The car barn at Spingarn High School isn’t ready. I suppose DDOT has had some way of maintaining the cars during the test runs that have been going on for the last year or two, but that was under non-revenue service. With all of the cars running and carrying passengers, maintenance becomes more critical to safety and performance. I hope they’ve figured out what to do in the interim.
  • There will be no Sunday service at launch; it “may be phased in at a later date.” This reeks of cost-cutting, and is unfriendly to customers, as well as the businesses along H Street that have moved in anticipating the streetcar – now they’ll only get its benefits six days out of the week. (Update: Sunday service started on September 18. Great job!)
  • The biggest problem is that the streetcar, when it does start charging fares (it’s free for a limited time) will not accept SmarTrip. The justification is that Metro is planning to move on from SmarTrip… some day. The contactless payment pilot last year reportedly did not go well, and given Metro’s current sorry state of business and operational affairs, I wouldn’t expect them to move forward with this plan any time soon. Yet DDOT has decided to trust Metro to get things done, and rejected the single form of fare payment that is otherwise almost universally accepted across this region. It’s unfortunate, and could be a shot-in-the-foot decision.

As I said in the opening, this looks like a decision to just launch some kind of service with what’s ready now in order to meet some self-decided deadline or keep some promise to someone, not a ready-for-prime-time opening. How hard would it have been to keep at least some Sunday service? Or to get a few of the handheld SmarTrip readers that MTA light rail ticket inspectors carry?

I suppose after the perpetual “Charlie Brown and the football” situation that has dogged the streetcar for years, this is still some kind of progress, but it still feels like Lucy yanked the ball away again. This is no way to run a customer-friendly, sustainable business.