Compounding its other problems, the streetcar caught fire last month.
Compounding its other problems, the streetcar caught fire last month.

After years of missed deadlines, city officials have grown wary of setting a timetable for the long-anticipated start of streetcar service on H Street NE and Benning Road. Leif Dormsjo, the new director of the District Department of Transportation, has shied away from any such pronouncements, saying a month ago that it could be “ready to go in two weeks, or two months or two years.” (Two weeks have more than passed; two months are already more than halfway up with no opening in sight. But two years are still well within reach!) The entire project, beyond the inaugural 2.2-mile line, is on hold pending further review.

Next month, however, we should finally have some more information on the perpetually stalled project. In its response to questions from the D.C. Council in advance of an oversight hearing today, DDOT writes, “As of this response, DDOT and the [executive office of the mayor] are currently reevaluating the direction of the streetcar program to determine the best service delivery for the residents and visitors to the District of Columbia. We anticipate having a more detailed plan and approach by the end of March.”

The response also shed some light on a yet-unresolved issue for the streetcar: how it will collect fares from riders. When the H Street-Benning line launches, rides will be free “for an initial startup period,” according to DDOT. After that, the system will transition to ticket vending machines on the train platforms, which DDOT says will be similar to the Parkmobile machines for street parking. It’s not yet clear, though, how fare payment will be enforced. In 2017, Metro plans to launch its electronic payment system, allowing payment by smartphone, and the streetcar will incorporate that system.

Even before the streetcar begins carrying passengers, it’s costing the city plenty. According to DDOT, the city is paying contractor HDR Engineering $27 million from September 2014 to September 2015. Among other expenses, it’s also paying $174,059 for streetcar insurance from October 2014 to October 2015. That’s probably not a bad investment, for a vehicle that’s already caught on fire. Dormsjo says the cause of that fire remains unknown.

Photo courtesy of Will Sommer