Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. races to secure enough streetcars for mid-2013 launch

April 6, 2012 - 09:08 AM
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(Photo: DDOT)

D.C. has chosen Oregon Iron Works, Inc., headquartered in Clackamas, Oregon, to build the District's fourth and fifth streetcars intended for use on the debut 2.5-mile H Street/Benning Road streetcar line. This H Street line will be the first of eight proposed lines stretching 37 miles across D.C. and has been expected to open in mid-2013, a date the mayor, the District Department of Transportation, and others have attempted to stick to. But despite rejoicing yesterday, D.C. hasn't written a formal contract with the manufacturer.

"We really need to get that contract," said Chandra Brown, vice president of Oregon Iron Works when asked about a possible timeline. "I don't have a Notice to Proceed yet. The [D.C.] Council has to approve it."

How long will building two streetcars take? Until Oregon Iron Works has a formal contract, the company couldn't even begin to guess.

In yesterday's announcement, DDOT curiously avoids saying "mid-2013." DDOT says the H Street streetcar line will be "beginning in 2013" in contrast to phrases we once saw. Like this one, from last August: "to open no later than mid 2013." DDOT explains that the "proposed Cooperative Purchase Agreement sent to the Council utilizes an existing contract for streetcar vehicles between Oregon Iron Works and the city of Portland, Oregon" and on Twitter, DDOT adds that the $8.7 million proposed contract requires delivery within 545 days of a Notice to Proceed but that the agency will try to expedite the delivery. As DCist explains, this agreement cleverly sidesteps the mess that botched the contract from months ago (the Czech company that made the first three streetcars wanted to bid on the second two). Recall that contentious D.C. Council hearing from February? Councilmembers feared the streetcar would open with its three existing cars rather than the full five the city hoped to feature. Without five cars, the streetcars first customers would find themselves waiting at least 18 minutes, DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said then.

One ominous thought was that if there wouldn't be five streetcars by mid-summer, then the streetcar shouldn't even launch then at all.

So might that mean a delay until fall if DDOT can't get these final two cars in time? Probably. DDOT, for its part, has apparently attempted to rectify the situation with speed. Brown describes the agency as moving forward "quickly" in recent months to secure the new streetcars. But many unknown factors, from financing to contracting to governance to how 37 miles of streetcar track will coexist with the rising population of bicyclists (perhaps with more bike lane coordination?), stand as challenges facing this new form of transit. Now the Council needs to act before the Oregon manufacturer can do anything. 

"We're super excited," Brown remarked. "We want to get started."

In Greenbelt, meanwhile, where the existing three streetcars have sat idle for years, D.C. has begun tests. "Over the past two weeks technicians from the manufacturer Inekon have been testing and assessing the condition of the streetcars to make sure they are ready for service next year," DDOT announced with the release of the following video:

And remember, the city will hold its next quarterly meeting on the streetcars Thursday, April 12, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Spingarn High School—Cafeteria, 2500 Benning Road, NE.

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