The District is spending three or four times what other cities have to build a maintenance facility for its fledging streetcar system, a reflection of the flawed planning and execution that have dragged down the transit start-up for more than a decade.
The “Car Barn” project was originally designed as a simple garage and rail yard for light repairs and storage, with some offices for staff. But it has ballooned in ambition and nearly tripled in cost — to $48.8 million. It will now include a number of pricey and unusual features, including grass tracks for parking the fleet of six streetcars and a cistern for washing them with rainwater.
At the same time, a short stretch of track that the city built in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood never reached its intended destination and has been all but abandoned, leaving the city with a multimillion-dollar, eight-tenths of a mile monument to good intentions.
The expanding Car Barn and the discontinued Anacostia line are mirror images of a dysfunctional transit project that has cost the city $200 million and is nine years late. Since 2014, operators have been shuttling the bright-red streetcars back and forth without passengers, each trip underscoring questions about the District’s ability to get big things done.
In the early 2000s, an ambitious band of city officials set out to cut through the bureaucratic mire and launch a vast streetcar network that would be a model for the nation, eventually running 20 to 40 miles or more. The first leg was supposed to open in 2006. But as 2015 comes to a close, officials are scrambling toward their latest goal of opening a diminished, 2.2-mile streetcar line east of Union Station after the latest tests are finished early next year.
Streetcar lines have faced challenges across the country. The projects are often designed to spur development as much as to move people. They have sometimes been spearheaded by agencies with minimal experience building or running rail transit systems, leading to rosy assumptions on costs and timelines, comparative studies have found.
But in Washington, the problems have gone deeper. Officials working with a succession of mayors failed to keep a tight handle on the sprawling effort, which was marked by poor management, hasty designs, construction problems and political struggles, according to internal project documents obtained through public-records requests and interviews with current and former officials.
Streetcar boosters have argued that despite the project’s fits, starts and shortcomings, the results will speak for themselves and build momentum for expansion. As criticism mounted last year, Ralph Burns, one of the city’s longest-serving streetcar officials until his departure earlier this year, seemed to crystallize the view of advocates.
“There are going to be times when we get beat up on this and people want to talk about shutting it down,” Burns said. But “10 years from now, people are going to look back and say, ‘God, that was brilliant.’ ”
Earlier this year, in a sign of that confidence, District officials said they plan to spend hundreds of millions more to extend the tracks past high-powered K Street offices downtown and into historic Georgetown as well as into neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River that badly need a lift.
The peculiarities of streetcar systems — with their local political histories as well as varied costs for real estate and for moving gas and electric lines — make broad comparisons challenging.
But narrower comparisons illuminate deep disparities.
Take maintenance facilities. The District says it will spend $48.8 million on its Car Barn and maintenance yard, which is projected to open in 2017 after long delays. Tucson spent $13 million. Cincinnati’s was $11.5 million. Seattle’s came in at $11.1 million, plus — at most — $500,000 for track and overhead wires in the yard, officials there said.
In a statement, the District Department of Transportation said that a midstream decision to declare the Car Barn site historic — it is adjacent to a former African American high school — led to the increases. The city’s own environmental rules also became tougher just as the department was redoing the project’s plans, officials said. Initially, the facility didn’t need to be certified as a “green” building, according to DDOT. But later, it had to be certified LEED silver, an environmental design standard.
“This, in combination with the requirements from the Historic Preservation Review Board, increased the cost and expanded the timeline of the project,” according to the DDOT statement.
But that’s the end of the story. To understand how the Car Barn — and the streetcar project — went awry, it pays to start 2,300 miles to the northwest.
Back in 2001, Dan Tangherlini was taken with Portland, Ore.
It had just opened its first streetcar line, which linked the heart of the city to the sagging Pearl District beside the Willamette River. In Washington, planners were focused on trying to redevelop the city’s distressed Anacostia and southwest waterfronts and link richer and poorer parts of the city.
“We thought the streetcar would be an effective, visible and cost-effective way to literally connect east to west,” said Tangherlini, who was then the District’s transportation chief and later spent nearly three years as the Obama administration’s head of the General Services Administration. “This idea of the streetcar . . . really captured all of our imagination.”
Tangherlini tapped the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for its resources and rail-building expertise, and planners proposed constructing a streetcar line on old freight railroad right of way.
Backers believed that using the railroad bed would get the line going quickly, with easier construction and less political friction. They would run it for three years, and if it was a flop, they would kill it, Metro planners said.
Officials moved swiftly to buy three Czech-made streetcars in 2004, with Metro using Portland’s streetcar contract to speed the purchase. “We thought we’d better hurry up and get that going, because it’s a lot faster to build the tracks,” Tangherlini said.
Then the plan to acquire the right of way fell apart — a deal couldn’t be completed with the CSX freight railroad.
That meant the streetcars would have to go in the street.
Supporters promised that running tracks through downtown Anacostia would bring energy and renewed development. Neighborhood skeptics — eventually to include longtime mayor and council member Marion Barry, who soured on the project — worried about snarled traffic and lost street parking and promised a fight. Either way, the city’s fast track was gone.
The city pressed on. It parted ways with Metro and hired a contractor in late 2008 to construct the Anacostia line in the street. But the plan to build a 1.3-mile line from what is now Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling to the Anacostia Metro station floundered.
City officials failed to secure the necessary sign-offs from the military and Metro, which had a concern about the spot the District expected to use for a turnaround. Security became a sticking point with the military. A maintenance facility stalled after objections by water and sewer officials.
“The original design was so deficient, and construction so problematic, that DDOT deleted both ends of the tracks,” according to an internal DDOT memo obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. “During several progress meetings, the Contractor and its subcontractors referred to the project as ‘the streetcar to nowhere.’ ”
The city ended up with a stub of a line that wasn’t usable for moving people. Part of it was later rechristened a “test track.” The effort cost more than $20 million.
And because the city hadn’t built a storage and maintenance facility, its three Czech streetcars were parked in a Metro rail yard in Greenbelt, Md., becoming damaged by the elements.
“When they were just sitting there, water found its way into the cars and dripped through,” said Carl Jackson, a former streetcar official. Crucial electrical components became corroded, rubber door pieces dry-rotted and cushions had to be replaced. “They didn’t look good,” Jackson said.
Even before the Anacostia effort began to unravel, city planners had been pushing for a network of streetcar lines to connect and redevelop neighborhoods between Metro stations, including along the H Street and Benning Road corridor in Northeast.
Proponents saw, and seized, a chance to move that idea forward.
Working with then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), Tangherlini and other officials decided to add streetcar tracks to a pair of existing road and sidewalk improvement projects along H and Benning. If the streets were going to be torn up anyway, they argued, the city would be better off laying the rails at the same time. “The view was, measure twice, cut once,” Tangherlini said.
Some officials said the move would save money.
To speed the process, the District imported elements from Portland’s track layout, officials said. But construction began even as design work was still underway, said Steve Zike, a former DDOT safety official.
“That whole concept was kind of crazy,” Zike said.“They hadn’t gotten that far along in their design criteria before they started laying it down.”
Though there would be consequences later, the main tracks went in. Other key pieces needed to run streetcars, including additional track on both ends, an overhead power system and a maintenance yard, were to come sometime in the future.
But as the problems and skepticism multiplied in Anacostia, restless officials decided that they would jump ahead with completing the H/Benning line instead.
“There wasn’t a real champion for the line in Anacostia. It seemed like the streetcar project was dying on the vine,” said Tommy Wells, a former social worker and city council member who saw a chance to improve a struggling swath of his district. “So I got H Street to be the priority, before the Anacostia line.”
Officials weren’t sure where the line would end or where the Car Barn would go, and the rush to get moving anyway helped slow the project and cost taxpayers more.
The design shortcuts left the tracks squeezed against parking spaces on H Street, which years later would mire the streetcars in conflicts with drivers.
As for the Car Barn, officials working for then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) announced plans to cut a hole in the Hopscotch Bridge behind Union Station and put the maintenance facility under there.
But Amtrak, which operates nearby, opposed the idea.
Officials went about finding a new location and settled on city-owned land at the east end of the streetcar line beside Spingarn High School.
Built in the early 1950s, Spingarn was Washington’s last black high school constructed during segregation. Civil rights activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois came for the dedication. Across the street sits historic Langston Golf Course, another segregated facility from the 1930s that had become a point of community pride.
Nearby neighbors from the Kingman Park Civic Association said they didn’t want what they considered an industrial facility dumped on their community.
They sued to stop the Car Barn but lost.
In the fall of 2012, the association tried another roadblock: They applied to get the school site, which now encompasses the Car Barn, declared historic. Later that year, the District announced that Spingarn, beset by shrinking population, would be shuttered along with some other schools. Nevertheless, the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board deemed the site historic.
But instead of blocking the Car Barn, the board said the plan could go forward after a major overhaul.
Gretchen Pfaehler, the chairwoman of the board, told streetcar officials that given the area’s “picturesque landscape,” they would have to protect green spaces and views. The structure “could be a very exciting civic architecture teaching tool” exploring the importance of design, transportation and the environment, Pfaehler said, particularly given Washington’s history of having more elaborate Car Barns as part of its original streetcar system, which shut down in 1962.
While that exploration may occur, the building has also become a teaching tool for how public projects can be saddled with immense new costs.
The historic designation “prompted an immediate six-month stop-work order,” DDOT said, and required, along with the green building rules, numerous upgrades. Those included using stone and brick materials; adding a saw-toothed roof with skylights; and hiding a streetcar power supply under photovoltaic cells and behind “green screen walls.”
In Seattle, officials achieved a LEED gold environmental certification, but at a fraction of the cost.
The District’s building, officially dubbed the Car Barn Training Center, also will also have a floor of classrooms for community gatherings and possible electromagnetic engineering training for students.
Among the other major additions was an intricate system of turf tracks and paving stones that allow rainwater to drip into an underground vault for storage and filtering before flowing toward the city’s storm-water pipes.
“There are little concrete block pavers that have round holes in them, and grass grows out of them,” said Ronald Garraffa, a senior engineer with the city’s streetcar’s program management consultant, HDR Inc. “When people look at it, they see this grass field. They don’t realize it’s actually a railroad track.”
It is difficult to precisely trace how the city’s price tag grew. DDOT, citing confidentiality rules in working with construction contractor Dean-
Facchina, declined a public-records request to provide an item-by-item breakdown.
But the trajectory is clear.
Given uncertainties about plans for the Car Barn, and an eagerness for streetcars to begin testing in spring 2013, officials had split the Car Barn project into two parts.
In 2011, under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), the District estimated it would spend $6.2 million on a maintenance yard and a temporary shelter — basically, a big tent. Then, with the temporary tuneup location in place, the permanent building, additional track and other work in the yard would be finished for an additional $10.7 million.
But city delays helped throw off those plans, prompting procurement changes that opened the project to price hikes. Then came the historic designation.
The yard-and-tent total grew to $10.4 million, DDOT said, including environmental work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep some Dean-Facchina workers on the job 12 hours a day, six days a week to speed things up.
By last year, estimates for the second phase, including the permanent Car Barn, had risen to $24 million. In July, the city agreed to spend $38.4 million on this phase, bringing the total to $48.8 million.
Among the unforeseen costs listed by DDOT are $1 million in storm drainage and $824,000 in “indirects.” Building a permanent facility up against an active temporary one adds complications and expense, as will tearing down the tent and digging up asphalt to make way for turf tracks.
While it remains in place, the towering white tent has proven an awkward work space. Trailers were added as it became clear that plans for a months-long stint in the temporary digs would turn to years.
The District’s State Safety Oversight Office has noted that the maintenance pit in the tent has filled with several inches of water after storms and ordered fixes to protect workers using electric tools.
Joseph Roscher, a project executive for Dean-Facchina, said the rise in costs “has to do with the scope of the project,” although he declined to provide details. Concerning the leaking pit, he said, “keep in mind that it was just temporary. It’s not permanent.” He referred additional questions to DDOT.
The city’s budget for Dean-Facchina’s broader construction contract — which included the Car Barn project, the streetcar power system, added tracks and other work — totaled $50 million in 2012. It reached $79 million in 2013. In July, it was raised to $102.6 million.
While the Car Barn effort has continued to snowball, the overall streetcar project has been melting away.
A $1.3 billion, 22-mile system was scaled back sharply last year to eight miles after cuts in planned spending. Under Muriel E. Bowser (D), the fourth mayor with a direct hand in the program, plans were narrowed further to about seven miles. But just trying to get the first 2.2 miles open has been all-consuming.
“The project was developed in a very piecemeal, inefficient, discombobulated way. There’s a cost to that,” Leif Dormsjo, Bowser’s transportation chief, said shortly after taking control of the project. “That’s not the way I would build a railroad.”
Among the enduring problems: One of the streetcars purchased in 2004 to jump-start the system was so damaged by the rain that it remains out of service and probably won’t be ready when the system opens.