DC Streetcar: Still Track for a Historic Return

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By K. Levek

DC Streetcar PhotosIt’s not a bird or a plane, but a sleek red, grey, and yellow streetcar flying into the District of Columbia after a fifty-year absence.  It is set to make a debut on the H/Benning corridor by mid-December.   This Department of Transportation (DDOT) project officially has been in the plans for more than five years and has spanned two city administrations.  With further design adjustments and construction work needing to be done, at the eastern turnaround and the Car Barn Training Center and Maintenance Facility, it could very well seep into a third mayor’s bucket list (pending Mayor Gray’s decision to run again and the outcome of upcoming 2014 elections).

While the streetcar will be present on the H/Benning corridor, the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) predicts that it will need roughly two more months of safety testing.  This deadline is a pretty ambitious one considering the industry standard for testing the safety, operations and maintenance systems of a new streetcar line can take anywhere from three to six months.  To contribute to meeting this due date, three of the vehicles for the line have been individually commissioned over the past several months at the DC Streetcar Testing and Commissioning Site located at 2860 South Capitol Street SE.

DC Streetcar and its Design-Build Team have implemented a number of strategies to prepare residents and businesses near the line for project completion.  The first efforts included providing a 24/7 hotline for anyone to call with construction related concerns. The project field office, located at 1005 H Street, implemented public drop-in hours of Mondays from 9:00 am to 12 noon and Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 1:00 pm to 2:00pm.

Secondly, the project team instituted public education outreach, which have included visiting all the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner’s (ANC’s) meetings and civic and community-based organizational meetings.  These meetings allow the outreach team to go into the community where the streetcar will run and hear the resident’s concerns and feedback about the project.  Further, the engagement team has held several large public meetings for residents to come out and learn about the construction impacts.  These impacts have included, but have not been limited to plans and studies that allow the streetcar team to learn about the community where the streetcar will be placed through a series of meetings, like environmental studies and plans.

The third way the streetcar project has begun preparing the public for its coming is through dry-run testing of a hi-rail vehicle, which is a rubber tired vehicle that also has metal flanged wheels that can be lowered onto the tracks.  Recently, the project began dry-running the hi-rail vehicles to test driving patterns and behaviors.  These dry-runs have shown that the business stakeholders along this corridor who received deliveries from large trades will be greatly affected, but not left out.  Understanding patterns and working to mitigate these potential problems through viable solutions has been a key commitment of the project.  Although the purpose of streetcar cars is to provide a transportation alternative, the project also hopes to be a catalyst for more revenue for existing businesses and to attract new businesses to the H/Benning corridor.

The city plans to roll out a 22-mile network of streetcars all over city. The hours and cost of the streetcars will be similar to Circulator buses in the city, and you’ll be able to use your SmarTrip card.  DDOT officials have noted that the bus and metro systems will continue to run at their regular schedule and the streetcar is an additional transit option.

H Street Main Street Executive Director Anwar Saleem said, “I’m setting my sights for spring time.  I would love to have a nice parade and grand opening in December… but certainly in the spring.”

This isn’t the first time the streetcars have been delayed. A “contracting error” kept the city from rolling the cars out in 2012.  DDOT spokesman Ronaldo Nicholson said despite the setbacks in the official launch date, “We are committed to bringing this service safely within the federal and local requirements as soon as we can.”

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