News & Politics

Streetcar Service Unlikely Before Middle of 2014

Construction on the first streetcar line is scheduled to be completed by December, but then comes an extended testing period.

Testing... Testing.... Photograph courtesy District Department of Transportation.

“We’re definitely in the last four minutes of the fourth quarter,” said Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson, the chief engineer of DC’s streetcar system, comparing the project to a football game. But based on the latest foggy estimates of when the system might start running, DC’s first streetcars in half a century are still well outside the goal line.

Just a few months ago, the District Department of Transportation was telling city residents to prepare for streetcar service along H St., Northeast, as soon as December. But now, that’s the target for the beginning of a long testing phase of a transit line that has been worked on for more than half a decade and already cost $161 million.

Before residents can start riding between Union Station and Anacostia, DDOT will have to put the streetcar tracks and trolleys through months of exhaustive testing, making it unlikely that passenger service will begin before late spring or early summer. Ron Garraffa, the streetcar system’s deputy director for engineering and construction, said the 2.2-mile line along busy streets—trolleys will be competing for space with cars, buses, and bicycles—will take longer to approve than light-rail systems in other cities. Garraffa compared the DC line to one in Tampa, Florida that opened in 2002 after nearly four months of testing.

If Garraffa’s example holds up, the testing phase for DC’s streetcar line could last well into the spring before it obtains local and federal safety approval. From there, it would be up to another 30 days before the cars start running.

“I’m going to be very cautious,” Nicholson told reporters. “Our goal is to complete the system and get it safe.” Nicholson’s hedging about giving a firm date contrasts with previous updates from DC officials, who for years have been promising streetcar service at various dates, only to later inform the public about more delays.

One of the latest hiccups is the historic preservation of Spingarn High School, forcing DDOT to redraw its plans for a car barn there and adding another $29 million to the streetcar system’s cost. There are also questions over how many cars will be rolling on the tracks when the system finally opens for public use.

DDOT is aiming for five cars, which would arrive at stations at 10-minute intervals, but is still waiting for delivery of several cars, which will then need to be inspected and put through tests.

Since July 2009, when crews started digging up H St. to lay down the first lengths of rail, the streetcar line has sputtered toward completion. The next addition, possibly beginning this week, is the erection of catenary poles to carry the overhead wires that will power the cars.

DDOT also has a hefty public relations campaign on its plate, as it will need to figure out how to prevent cars from double-parking on top of the tracks, warn pedestrians about jaywalking when streetcars are approaching, and accommodate businesses that say delivery schedlues will be impeded by passing trolleys.

But Nicholson defended the slow, bit-by-bit approach. “I think we did this right,” he said. The system’s riders and the neighborhood’s residents will determine that, whenever the streetcar opens.

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.