Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C.'s streetcar debut may be 'a symbol of failure'

February 24, 2012 - 08:28 AM
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(Photo: DDOT)

The D.C. streetcar is creaking toward its vaunted debut. Here's the problem — DDOT fumbled in procuring its new streetcars, and the fumble may impact the number of streetcars the system opens with if it sticks to its hyped mid-2013 launch date.

Yesterday's D.C. Council hearing on the streetcar provided a terrible window into how the proposed 37-mile system is coming along. Consider the language that D.C. Councilmembers used as they heard a progress report from Terry Bellamy, District Department of Transportation director. Councilmember Cheh says that the DDOT has appeared to be "muddling along" with developing the H Street/Benning Road line, the first of eight and primed for a mid-2013 launch, according to Mayor Vince Gray. She referred to "anxiety" that she and stakeholders she's talked with feel. "I'm worried we're moving at too slow a pace to put this in order," she remarked. Councilmember Tommy Wells says what he heard "undermines confidence" and that the issues raised were precisely those he feared and tried to keep from the press.

The D.C. government already possesses three streetcars for the H Street line and expected two more as part of the $8.7 million contract canceled in December. Initial scenarios imagined five or six streetcars as part of the  2.2-mile H Street line, which would have allowed for good, regular service. The city already made predictions about headway and fare costs at its big December 2011 press events. But DDOT's Bellamy appeared much less sure of any details this week. What will the headways be?

"At this time, we don't know the headways," Bellamy told the Council. "We've been saying between 10 and 15 minutes but actually we don't know yet."

If the H Street line starts with three streetcars, the headways will be 18 minutes, Bellamy said.

But can they still start with fix or six, as planned, rather than operating with two or three? DDOT appeared unsure but hoped to. If they, as DDOT's procurement officer said, "piggyback on an existing contract," the city may have two new streetcars in 18 months if they successfully act now. But 18 months? That time frame wouldn't land us our new streetcars until the end of summer 2013, at least, around August (and nearly September) of next year. Would such a launch still be considered "mid-2013"?

"If you start it with only two or three cars, then I'm not with you," Wells told Bellamy. "You're on your own ... [This] is kind of one of my worst fears coming true. This is really a big deal."

To Wells, there's no point in starting the service without at least five or six cars to keep service frequent enough. He imagined a scenario in which the streetcar operated like a grotesque tourist feature, days where only one or two of the cars could operate and then with significant delays. There's gonna be problems, he told Bellamy, because these are brand new streetcars.

Bellamy's testimony revealed the greater unknowns that dictate the frustrations so many have felt about the proposed streetcar network. DDOT may have just brought on its new director of progressive transportation, Carl Jackson of Greenville, but it lacks the direction the overall system will need presently. The lack comes not only from DDOT but from the Council and Mayor Gray and other officials involved. "Are we talking 37 miles [of streetcar] over 10 years or 37 miles over 20 years?" Bellamy asked the Council. Good question, but shouldn't the government have a better plan for that less than a year and a half before the first line debuts? The business implications have already stirred developers but no one knows when to expect the imagined benefits. These officials still have no clear idea what governing entity should control the 37-mile network or how. Wells sighed as he imagined the H Street line's clunky failure if it begins with fewer than a full set of cars and called such a possibility a mistake.

"It will be a symbol of failure for this administration that it does not need," Wells declared.

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