News & Politics

A Brief History of the DC Streetcar Being Almost Ready

Well, at least it's something to look at. Photograph via iStock.

The streetcar line running along H Street and Benning Road, Northeast, could enter passenger service soon, the District’s transportation chief says, teasing a conclusion to one of DC’s longest-running dramas.

“We are kind of in the homestretch here,” Leif Dormsjo, the director of the District Department of Transportation, tells WTOP.

Since March, DDOT has been working through a list of 18 streetcar fixes recommended by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), which concluded former Mayor Vince Gray‘s administration left much work unfinished before leaving office January 2. Dormsjo did not give WTOP a date when residents of Northeast DC can expect to finally ride the streetcar that has been promised to their neighborhoods since 2002. Even after the APTA-recommended fixes, the streetcar will still need to undergo more testing and be certified by both the State Safety Oversight Office (a division of the DC Fire and EMS Department) and the Federal Transit Administration.

Even though Dormsjo says he doesn’t “want to get out ahead of” Mayor Muriel Bowser on announcing the beginning of streetcar service, he might still want to tread lightly in promising delivery of a transit system that has vexed the city’s last four mayors. There have been many promised start dates before, making Dormsjo’s “homestretch” assessment a bit shaky. Here are some historical statements Dormsjo’s predecessors made about the project’s delivery, so that contemporary DC residents might avoid another bout of streetcar fever:

April 2, 2009

Promised delivery date: late 2012

Although the streetcar was first studied in 2002 under then Mayor Anthony Williams, it wasn’t until 2009, with Adrian Fenty in charge, that the tracks actually started to be installed along H Street. “The District’s much-anticipated streetcar project is running behind schedule, pushing plans to run a red-and-gray trolley in Anacostia from late this year to sometime in 2012,” the Washington Post reported at the time.

Was it an accurate prediction?

As of late 2012, the DC Streetcar did not offer passenger service.

August 22, 2011

Promised delivery date: mid-2013

By mid-2011, the District had finished laying down the tracks and taken delivery of several cars and started building the raised sidewalks that may one day serve as streetcar stations. Next up were turnaround junctions on the eastern and western ends of the route and a car barn, “that will enable H Street/Benning Road line to open no later than mid 2013,” a DDOT press release read.

Was it an accurate prediction?

As of mid-2013, the DC Streetcar did not offer passenger service.

July 2, 2013

Promised delivery date: December 31, 2013

The streetcars were still not operational in mid-2013, but then DDOT Director Terry Bellamy told reporters there was a “two in three chance” that the would by the end of that year. “In gambling terms, a $1 bet that the streetcar will be running will pay out $1.50 if the system is operational on or before Dec. 31,” DCist reported.

Was it an accurate prediction?

That was a sucker bet: As of December 31, 2013, the DC Streetcar did not offer passenger service.

November 14, 2013

Promised delivery date: January 2014, early February at the latest

Perhaps the biggest reason the streetcar didn’t start running by the end of 2013 is that it wasn’t until mid-December that the first one was actually moved from the test track to the actual H Street line. About a month before that, however, Gray said in a television interview that “we’ll have passenger service probably starting in January, not later than early February.”

Was it an accurate prediction?

As of early February 2014, the DC Streetcar did not offer passenger service.

July 15, 2014

Promised delivery date: November 2014

By summer 2014, test runs on the H Street and Benning Road tracks were a regular sight, as were parking tickets for people who didn’t move their cars out of the way. An unnamed project source told WAMU’s Martin DiCaro that the streetcar would open to the public “the first week of November at the earliest.”

Was it an accurate prediction?

As of the first week of November 2014, the DC Streetcar did not offer passenger service.

December 31, 2014

Promised delivery date: January 19, 2015

After more than a year of officials trying to give the vaguest possible estimates for when the streetcar would open, Gray, on his second-to-last day in office, said it would start running the week of January 19, even though just weeks earlier DDOT had been cited for shoddy record-keeping on the then-12-year-old project. “And while we know that the first day of service is going to be a great day for District residents, we don’t want to rush for the sake of rushing,” Gray said.

Was it an accurate prediction?

As of January 19, the DC Streetcar did not offer passenger service, but on January 8 it did manage to hit a car.

October 19, 2015

Promised delivery date: December 31, 2015

A few days after his bold prediction to WTOP, Dormsjo told the Post that while he wants to avoid “arbitrary deadlines” for the streetcar entering service, he’s got a date in mind. “I think we are on track to be wrapped up here by the end of the year,” he said. While Dormsjo conditioned his estimate on further delays for testing and safety approval—the “facts on the ground,” he said—”by the end of the year” sounds a lot like a deadline.

Was it an accurate prediction?

UPDATE, December 4: It was learned that the streetcar still can’t even start its “pre-revenue operations,” a 21-day phase that will begin after oversight officials approve DDOT’s safety documentation, a goal that remains uncertain. Passenger service in 2015 is now mathematically impossible.

February 11, 2016

Promised delivery date: February 26, 2016

The State Safety Oversight Office, the unit of the DC Fire Department responsible for the streetcar’s final testing phase, wrote in a letter to DDOT that the streetcar will be ready to go “on or after February 26,” pending a final check from the Federal Transit Administration.

Was it an accurate prediction?

UPDATE, February 18: It appears to have been accurate! Mayor Muriel Bowser announced this afternoon that the streetcar will begin passenger service on Saturday, February 27, which satisfies the “on or after February 26” statement made earlier in the month. Which brings us to…

February 18, 2016

Promised delivery date: February 27, 2016

Bowser, in a press release, says she and Dormsjo will inaugurate the streetcar on February 27 in a ceremony near the stop at 13th and H street, after which the public will finally get to ride this thing.

Was it an accurate prediction?

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.