Eno Reviews the Governance of DC’s Contracted Circulator and Streetcar Services

After nearly 15 years in operation, the DC Circulator is now an integral part of the city’s transportation system. The Streetcar has been operating for several years and is expected to be extended eastward. But competing priorities, new transportation options, and poor performance have chipped away at ridership. In light of this and of reports of safety and maintenance issues, District leaders are questioning whether the services need an overhaul.

Eno was tasked with reviewing the governance of both systems and providing suggestions on how to improve them and their outcomes. Eno research has increasingly focused on the governance and reform of the institutions that manage our transportation system. A Bid for Better Transit evaluated how transit agencies around the world interact with private service contractors. The Pocantico Workshop examined broader institutional reform at the federal and state level.

In our newest report, Delivering Better Outcomes: Recommendations to Improve the Governance and Oversight of DC Circulator and Streetcar, we make several recommendations that would overhaul maintenance facilities, boost workers’ rights, and improve transparency to provide wide-ranging benefits to riders, workers, and taxpayers.

DC began running Circulator buses in 2005 in an effort to supplement local Metrobus service and improve how residents and visitors get around the city. Circulator has expanded routes since then, and in 2016 the District began operating a streetcar service on H Street Northeast. For both, DC contracts out the operations and maintenance to private contractors. In theory, the contractors are supposed to meet strict operational targets or suffer financial penalties. But performance of the Circulator system in particular has declined over time.

Initially, Circulator contract oversight and service operations were conducted by WMATA, as DDOT did not yet have the capacity to perform these tasks. In 2018, the DDOT brought on a new private contractor and took over contract oversight. It is too early to know whether new management and direct oversight will bring better outcomes, but a close review of the governance and performance targets is a healthy exercise for any transit system. The report’s recommendations were informed by the existing body of knowledge for best practices in contract administration as well as interviews with more than 30 regional stakeholders.

The paper reviews four alternative and feasible governance options for the District. After considering incentives, independence, redundancies, and costs, the paper recommends maintaining the current structure of DDOT oversight and contracted operations but making several important improvements. DC must boost transparency and strengthen oversight. The DC Council should legislate labor protections to ensure fair treatment of workers. And the District must invest in adequate bus maintenance facilities, as the current ones are far too inadequate to properly run the system.

But ultimately the District needs to figure out what it wants from its Streetcar and Circulator. Interviewees, all whom have a direct stake in the future of the services, articulated very different visions for the future of the services. Investing and expanding either will consume significant local resources. Paring back or changing the service might mean a loss of a transportation service for those who have come to rely on it. As the transportation landscape changes, the future vision for the District’s own bus and rail lines need to be solidified and put into action.

This report is Eno’s most recent installment of improving transportation through better governance.


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