A District streetcar rolls along H Street on Wednesday. Washington’s streetcar system is expanding service to Sundays starting this week. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The District’s streetcar system is adding Sunday service and running trains more frequently starting this week as part of an effort to boost modest ridership.

While passenger counts have outpaced early estimates, underlying problems remain after years of poor planning and missteps.

Just six months in, the District is spending more for each passenger it carries than do many other streetcar projects. It incurs $9 in operating expenses per rider, compared with $2 in Kansas City, Mo., $3 in Portland, Ore., $4 in Tucson and $8 in Atlanta, according to a Washington Post analysis of federal data and city figures.

District officials cite the varying circumstances of each system and point to the higher cost of living and working in Washington, but they say they are trying to cut spending.

District officials say that since the city has already spent significant sums on the streetcar system — more than $200 million so far — it makes sense to expand the system into a true commuter resource. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

With no current plans to charge fares — and talk of potentially waiting five or more years to do so — the streetcar remains one of Washington’s real transit bargains, at least for riders who want to make the 2-mile trek along H Street and Benning Road NE.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, are left to cover multimillion-dollar annual subsidies. And as the city pushes to expand the system east of the Anacostia River and west through downtown to Georgetown, questions about costly future investments — in building new tracks and retrofitting or replacing the city’s fleet of streetcars — are beginning to bubble up.

At a time when basic bus service could use a boost and technologists are promising massive changes in urban mobility, with fleets of electric robot cars or other innovations moving passengers more cheaply and easily, the question is whether streetcars make sense in the nation’s capital.

Part of the answer comes down to whether the District is making a good transportation investment. With the streetcar’s $7.8 million annual operations and maintenance expenses and average weekday ridership of 2,500 (and 3,000 on Saturdays), some are skeptical.

“The bottom line is, it’s just not cost-effective. That’s glaringly obvious,” said Jeffrey R. Brown, a professor at Florida State University who has studied the economics of streetcars around the nation. “They’ve just got a very high cost structure.”

In a paper published last year, Brown and his colleagues cited a wide range of costs per passenger in systems operating from 2008 through 2012, with some cities, including Portland, outperforming others, such as Little Rock and Tampa. “In most of the cities, they’re not primarily about transportation. They’re primarily about urban redevelopment, which, from a transportation perspective, explains some of the silly decisions that got made,” Brown said.

In the District’s case, the early lure of redevelopment and hunger to jump-start a new transit system gave way to planning and management problems over several mayoral administrations, leaving the streetcar system burdened by its past.

The city bought streetcars more than a decade before it opened the H Street/Benning Road line, leaving them outside to be damaged by the elements. Construction of the line began before officials knew where its maintenance garage would go, opening the door to contract changes and soaring costs, and leaving maintenance staff working out of a big tent. The $48.8 million Car Barn and maintenance yard, which cost three to four times what other cities have paid, is set to open next year.

Streetcar’s sunk costs

District officials say that since the city has already sunk significant sums into the effort — more than $200 million thus far, with millions more to come — it makes sense to expand the system into a true commuter resource rather than simply maintain it as a limited neighborhood attraction. The first step is to extend east to connect with Metro, they say.

“Until we’re at Benning Road Metro, we don’t really have a system. We have a partial service,” said Leif Dormsjo, director of the District’s Department of Transportation. “So we’re going to try to get the most out of the service we have now and then try to expand the system.”

Even in an era of changing technology, and even considering the project’s troubled past, Dormsjo said the streetcar model still makes sense for Washington — as long as it’s extended.

“It needs to be a legitimate transportation option,” Dormsjo said. “That makes it worth it. We’ve made an initial investment. It’s a down payment, the completion of the starter line. But to not extend the line any further and capture more riders and more benefit — and extend the success story of H Street to other parts of the city — would be a huge mistake.”

H Street, once the site of riots yet now filled with eateries and entertainment venues, began its ascent long before the streetcar opened, though supporters credit the transit project for playing a role in the transformation.

On some measures, the District has trailed other cities. Kansas City, which opened its streetcar line in May, is projected to spend $3 million less than the District on operations and maintenance, but so far has twice the average weekday ridership and nearly quadruple Washington’s Saturday numbers, according to figures provided by both cities.

Many factors affect the amounts spent per rider in different cities. Portland has economies of scale that come with a bigger, more established system. Kansas City runs four cars rather than Washington’s six. And the District says the higher cost of working out of a temporary maintenance tent will go down over time.

Dormsjo said the locations of the lines, the presence or absence of nearby attractions, and economic fundamentals are key.

“The costs of doing business in the District of Columbia are higher than other places,” he said, citing the costs of real estate, fuel, professional services and labor. “The only other places where it’s more expensive to do business are Boston, New York and San Francisco.”

Also, the cost-per-passenger ratios will look better with more passengers. “Candidly, we need higher ridership,” he said.

The District is coming in about $1 million under budget and seeking other reductions, Dormsjo said, even as it adds Sunday service and starts running trains every 12 minutes instead of every 15 minutes.

One potential revenue source he does not plan to tap, for now, is riders. He cited the case of Atlanta, where service was free last year. Ridership dropped by half, to an average of 1,100 per day, after fares were imposed early this year. Dormsjo plans to revisit the fare question at the system’s first anniversary in February, but given the investment that’s already been made, he wants as many people as possible to actually ride it. In 2010, ridership was projected to be 1,500 daily. Now, Saturday totals are twice that.

“I’m leaning toward emphasizing ridership over every other measure of success. It’s there. It’s sunk cost,” Dormsjo said. The apparatus for collecting fares is itself expensive, and it’s possible the city may not begin collecting them until the line is extended, he said.

Dormsjo declined to provide cost estimates for expanding the line in either direction, saying they are part of a rigorous planning process that stands in sharp contrast to what had been done previously in the city.

Laying further plans

In addition to costs, planners are weighing environmental impacts and making intricate judgments about the precise routes of new lines, Dormsjo said. The goal is to come out of the environmental process ready to compete for federal funds.

The line currently ends near the Langston Golf Course and an RFK Stadium parking lot. One central issue is whether to run the streetcar farther east down Benning Road’s median or to do so along the curb.

There are trade-offs with each, Dormsjo said. Stations along the curb are convenient for passengers, but having them there can lead to conflicts with parking cars.

On H Street, the current line runs along the curb. Because of flawed planning, the tracks were laid too close to the street’s parking spaces, frequently leaving streetcars stuck behind open car doors, poorly parked trucks, double-parkers and other obstacles.

But Dormsjo noted safety considerations with putting the line in the median, since riders have to cross traffic lanes to get there. Such decisions need to come on the front end and will be released, along with cost estimates, by year’s end, he said. Riders should not expect to board for at least five or six years, Dormsjo said.

The move west through downtown to Georgetown, perhaps in streetcar-only lanes, is fraught with even more complexity but has an even bigger potential upside in terms of ridership, Dormsjo said. Connecting to the Benning Road Metro station would, in rough terms, probably double current ridership, adding perhaps 3,000 new riders a day, he said. But for the Georgetown line, the change would be “just an order of magnitude, we’re talking about 15,000 to 25,000 new riders,” Dormsjo said.

There are also major challenges, including federal limits on overhead wires. City transportation officials are looking into buying a new fleet of hybrid streetcars that can run on battery power for long stretches to minimize the use of overhead lines.

Another option would be outfitting the current fleet of six streetcars with big batteries in addition to buying other hybrid vehicles. But some of the current cars were made years ago in the Czech Republic, while others were built more recently in Portland, making things more complex, Dormsjo said.

“It’s been very promising so far. But we’re not all the way there in terms of understanding exactly what that fleet profile looks like in five or 10 years,” Dormsjo said. “These are the questions that should have been asked a long, long time ago.”