They are dent-free, air-conditioned and without the scrapes and smears that serve as a trademark of sorts for the District's ragtag fleet of war-torn trash trucks.

But arrival of the city's 28 new, bright orange trash packers comes only after a three-year drama that city officials acknowledge serves as an unwelcome reminder of the excessively complicated and delay-plagued process of purchasing big-ticket items in the District.

Poorly written bid documents, ethically questionable actions by city employees and legal challenges by disgruntled bidders all contributed to the delays. The process translated into hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of extra repair bills, overtime costs and compromises in services including trash pickup and snow removal.

In the end, the city wound up purchasing an unusually expensive type of trash truck from an Oklahoma-based manufacturer that is the subject of an ongoing investigation in New York City after it sold the city a fleet of trash trucks with defective steel frames.

District officials say that so far they are pleased with their $3.4 million purchase, rejecting suggestions that they paid too much or did anything improper. But no one argues the process was trouble-free.

"It took too long," said D.C. Fleet Services Administrator Ronald S. Flowers. "And when we don't have the equipment we need, we are not providing the services we should be to taxpayers."

The vehicles at the center of this saga, known as "trash packers," are perhaps the most important pieces of non-safety-related equipment the city owns.

Nearly 120,000 District households rely on them for trash pickup. They are also an essential part of the city's street- and alley-cleaning efforts, carrying off tons of litter, tires, mattresses and other junk each week. In the fall, they are stuffed with leaves, and in January they cart off Christmas trees. When snow starts falling, they at times join the plows clearing city streets.

A decade ago, the District had 100 packers for trash collection. At the end of last year, the fleet was down to 52.

The decline occurred in large part because of the District's fiscal crisis in the early 1990s. As deficits mounted, high-priced equipment purchases were put on hold. Meanwhile, little maintenance work was done on the aging fleet.

This was all supposed to change with the creation of the D.C. financial control board in 1995. The Public Works Department won authorization to start buying new trash trucks by early 1996. Yet only now is its first large order of new packers coming in.

Bills Pile Up

The delay has had widespread impact.

At the start of this year, the average District trash truck was eight years old, three years beyond normal retirement. On an average day last year, the city could put only 32 packers on the road, with the worn-out fleet dropping at times to 24.

The 40 trash crews showed up at 6 each morning, and many had to wait hours at the city garages for a truck. The holdups were particularly frustrating during summer months, when workers would be sent out just as the temperatures peaked and would have to stay on the road until 8 or 9 at night. Even with overtime, trash at times went uncollected and was left out overnight, a treat for rats.

"It was hell," said Thomas A. Duckett, solid waste collection supervisor. "By the time the crews got onto the road, they were already tired out. At times, you could not get them to work the overtime."

Repairing the old trucks and paying the overtime bills each month also cost the city nearly the equivalent of three new trash trucks: In May 1998, for example, the city spent $199,000 on overtime for trash collection. In an average month last year, the city spent $132,000 a month on packer repairs, up from $35,000 a month in 1995.

Last year, the desperate shortage of trash trucks forced the city to hire a private contractor to pick up leaves in the fall and Christmas trees in January, a $600,000 contract. Those subcontractors sometimes did not know their way around the city, so bagged leaves sat on curbsides for weeks and some Christmas trees were not picked up until February.

Delays and More Delays

The District first moved to buy new packers in early 1996, but protests surfaced soon afterward.

The bid specification, several competitors alleged, favored an Oklahoma-based truck manufacturing company, Crane Carrier Co. Three city officials, the competitors alleged, had improperly taken a free trip to Crane Carrier's Tulsa headquarters before the bidding began.

The bid specification "reeks of a payoff," said a protest filed to the District Contract Appeals Board in June 1996 by Jim Baikauskas, president of Baltimore-based B&B Equipment Co.

City officials do not dispute that they had exacting specifications.

The city request for bids called for a low-to-the-ground cab that eliminates the need for the driver to climb steep stairs. The city, Contracting Officer Kevin A. Green said, also wanted extra heavy-duty materials so that more trash could be packed into each truck, cutting the number of trips to unload. But these features drove up the price and narrowed the list of possible manufacturers.

"Let's face it. The [trucks requested] reflect a champagne appetite [by a city] with a beer pocketbook," said a second protest filed in 1996 with the Contract Appeals Board by Washington Freightliner President William O. Fenwick. "Change the specs--let us all bid--and save the D.C. government money."

Allegations by bidders on municipal contracts of unfair specifications are common, but in this case, after a quick investigation, city officials concluded the claims were justified. The trip to Oklahoma at Crane Carrier's expense was improper, the corporation counsel's office said. And the specifications had too many references to features offered only by Crane Carrier, the city acknowledged.

"The actions of several employees of DPW seriously compromised the integrity of the procurement," said then Corporation Counsel Charles F.C. Ruff, in a July 1996 letter to the city's inspector general. He informed the city that it should cancel the bid, redraft the specifications and solicit a new round of bids.

But the second time around, the results were not much different. District officials "noticed some discrepancies and inconsistencies in the bid specifications," according to a January 1997 internal city document. A year after the city first started to buy new trash trucks, it had to start all over again.

The city did manage to purchase two trash trucks in late 1997, but they were small units rarely used on residential routes. It was not until February 1998 that the city tried again to purchase trash packers. But eight times after the bid specifications were released early last year, the city amended them, responding to still-continuing complaints that the District was favoring Crane Carrier. Each amendment meant more delay.

When the bids finally were unsealed in June 1998, the lowest offer came from a Bridgeport, Pa., truck wholesaler, at a price $422,000 less than the Crane Carrier distributor offered. But the city rejected this low bid, saying these trucks were too long and had improper seating. Instead, the contract went to a Crane Carrier distributor from Maryland, as the competitors had predicted it would.

Appeals poured in again, including one by the rejected low bidder. While these debates dragged on last summer, New York City disclosed that two of its Crane Carrier trash trucks had collapsed, another 23 had cracks in their steel frames and nearly 675 more needed structural repairs. The truck model was the same one the District was about to buy.

Green, the D.C. Public Works' chief contracting officer since 1997, said he was unaware of the New York problems until asked about them recently by a reporter. The District had never inquired about the matter before its own fleet of Crane Carrier trucks started to arrive.

Crane Carrier Vice President Glenn Pochocki said last week that changes have been made in the truck's design to address the flaw. Green added that he remains confident the District's new trucks are well built, and he disputed arguments by losing bidders that Crane Carrier was given special preference.

"This process has been fair and aboveboard. There is no special favor here," Green said.

Fourteen new trucks, as well as improvements in the District's fleet maintenance shop, already are having a noticeable effect: This spring, more than 80 percent of the city's trash has been collected without overtime, up from 61 percent in May 1998. The city fleet is now up to 64, from its low of 52 last year.

Yet even once the contract was awarded, the delivery of the trucks has been rocky.

Only a few weeks before the first trucks were scheduled to arrive, city officials realized they had forgotten air conditioners. Fearful its drivers would suffer heat exhaustion in the summer, the city agreed to pay an extra $1,850 a truck, bringing the final price tag for each of the 16-cubic-yard trucks to $122,185. (Baltimore, by comparison, paid $76,977 last year for a similar-size trash truck, although it does not have air conditioning, a snowplow mount or a low-entry cab.) Then, when the first truck arrived, city officials were shocked to find crew members' seats faced the passenger door, meaning an uncomfortable ride.

Finally, despite a purchase order that set a delivery deadline for the end of March, it now looks likely the final truck will not arrive until late summer.

These last-minute flubs did result in one definite action. A Public Works procurement specialist, Wayne D. Thomas, has been removed from his post. His new assignment: ensuring the agency survives the Year 2000 computer glitch.

CAPTION: Driver Elliott Russell shows how high the cab is on the city's old trash trucks. After three years of hangups, the city has new trucks--complete with lower cabs.

CAPTION: Elliott Russell, a 31-year veteran of the sanitation department, is shown in the cab of a new trash truck, which is air-conditioned and up-to-date.