News & Politics

The DC Streetcar Isn’t Dead Yet, But Rand Paul Is Ready for It to Be

"Providing a stretch limo to run up and down H Street would be cheaper," the Kentucky Republican says.

Senator Rand Paul: Streetcar hater. Photograph by Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

The DC Streetcar isn’t actually being demolished, but for a few hours on Monday, it almost seemed that way after WTOP reported that the District government may scrap the current fleet of trolleys just two years after they entered service. The fate of the two-mile streetcar line, which runs along Benning Road and H Street, Northeast, was thrown into speculation when transportation reporter Max Smith discovered DC Council documents stating that the city government is already contemplating the streetcars’ eventual disposal. In actuality, the District Department of Transportation quickly clarified that it is merely starting to think about how it will replace the initial fleet.

Still, the brief confusion was enough of a window for jokes about the streetcar line, which has a reputation as a bit of a boondoggle thanks to its long gestation and $200 million development cost.

One person who was really ready for the streetcar to be over: its No. 1 hater, US Senator Rand Paul. The Kentucky Republican has periodically voiced his loathing for it, including it in his office’s annual “Waste Report” (a roundup of federally backed projects he finds wasteful), and railing against it during a floor speech earlier this month that caused an hours-long government shutdown. And when it seemed on Monday that the streetcar might be doomed once and for all, Paul didn’t hold back.

“I am rarely surprised at the incompetence of wasteful government funding,” the senator, beginning with a bit of libertarian boilerplate, told Washingtonian. “The DC Streetcar project was ill-conceived from the beginning. Providing a stretch limo to run up and down H Street would be cheaper than the proposed streetcars. This project is destined for failure.”

Despite DDOT’s defiance that the streetcar is sticking around, time may favor Paul’s prediction. While the streetcar only began passenger service in February 2016, the vehicles were put on regular test runs starting in December 2013, more than four years after the first arrived in Washington. The idea of a streetcar revival in DC goes back to the late 1990s, during then-Mayor Anthony Williams‘s first term. Construction was supposed to start in 2004, but didn’t get underway until 2009. By then, the District had already taken possession of three Czech-made streetcar vehicles, which then sat immobile as rails were laid in H Street and Benning Road (sometimes to the consternation—and injury—of cyclists who got their wheels stuck in the tracks). A $400 million extension along K Street, Northwest, into Georgetown is still planned, but the city’s unlikely to select a contractor for that project before 2020. The Georgetown section’s projected opening in 2025 seems just as rosy, and the kind of prediction that could lead to another long-running guessing game about when it would actually be completed.

In the mean time, the current streetcar vehicles—while still well short of their expected 31-year lifespans—are maturing. But the DC Streetcar system faces hurdles in keeping its existing equipment in working order. The Oregon firm that manufactured two of the five cars went out of business in 2015; the builder of the other three cars is in the Czech Republic. “Long term parts availability will likely require reverse engineering parts,” DDOT told the DC Council, WTOP reported.

Limousines and their replacement parts, however, are far easier to obtain.

Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.