News & Politics

The DC Streetcar Is Still a Long Way From Opening

It'll happen, eventually.

White whales come in red and gray. Photograph courtesy District Department of Transportation.

Don’t plan on riding the streetcar in the near, or even medium-term future. The chances of DC’s long-long-long-awaited trolley line actually opening for passenger service in 2014 are very slim considering the District Department of Transportation’s latest update.

Posted Wednesday morning, DDOT’s advisory tells eager streetcar riders the cars that are currently testing the rails on H Street and Benning Road, Northeast, are being moved back to the agency’s testing site in Anacostia until mid-July for maintenance and upgrades. While that detail sounds like an inane bit of news, it actually fortells a long wait.

After the streetcars move back to H Street in mid-July, DDOT will next need to train the 22 operators it has hired to run the 2.5-mile line, who each require at least 30 hours in the cockpit to be certified, says Cherie Gibson, a spokeswoman for DDOT.

The streetcar line is also several steps away from being structurally complete, DDOT says, and the agency is reluctant to give any firm estimates on when construction will be finished. “We’re getting closer toward bringing streetcars back to DC,” says spokesman Reggie Sanders, invoking the DC government’s usual refrain.

When construction is done, the streetcar line will finally move on to the safety certification phase to determine if it meets Federal Transit Administration requirements for light rail. That process does not have a specific time frame either, but DDOT officials have said they expect it to take between 90 and 120 days. Ron Garraffa, one of the streetcar system’s engineering leads, told reporters in November that he expects the certification process to be on the longer end of that estimate. Expect another 30 days after that before the first passengers can get on board.

That puts the first public rides on the streetcar in early winter, if in 2014 at all.

“We’re definitely in the last four minutes of the fourth quarter,” Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson, DDOT’s former chief engineer, said last November. A more accurate sports analogy is that the streetcar is headed toward double overtime.

In the epic race between Washington’s long-delayed rail projects, it appears Metro’s Silver Line, which could start taking passengers by the end of July, is the winner.

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.