Streetcar delayed to late 2012; funding still secured
The new streetcar line on H Street and Benning Road will start running in late 2012. Despite this delay from the originally planned Spring 2012 launch date, the funding for the entire line is still secure.
In fact, Scott Kubly, who directs DDOT's streetcar project, applauded the mayor's proposed 2012 budget, which adds an additional $99.3 million to spend over the next 6 years for planning and construction beyond this initial segment.
Mr. Kubly and ANC 6C06 commissioner Anne Phelps thanked the mayor for proposing such a robust commitment to the future of the citywide system.
Though the Anacostia line is still in the planning phase and will start after the H-Benning segment, this summer DDOT will start planning H-Benning's westward expansion from Union Station to Washington Circle.
H Street's streetscape project, in which the streetcar was just one element, will be "significantly complete" by June 30. At that time, all sidewalks, road lanes, and parking spaces will be open.
The streetcar, however, is another matter. Though the District owns a set of streetcars, DDOT is still working out an agreement with Amtrak for access to the old H Street tunnel under the rail yard at Union Station. This tunnel (schematic below) will serve as the western terminus and connection to Union Station until the city rebuilds the Hopscotch Bridge (H Street) in 2015 with the new tracks on the bridge deck.
When the line first opens, the streetcars traveling westbound on H Street NE will enter a new portal in the middle of the bridge Hopscotch Bridge and continue at-grade on a single track toward the old tunnel under the railyard. The Union Station stop will be a single platform just before the tunnel's western portal (yet to be reopened) at 1st St NE.
Schematic of the maintenance yard (left), 1st Street NE (center), the Union Station stop, and tracks toward H Street (right). Image from DDOT. Click to enlarge.
Mr. Kubly stated that the District and Amtrak are working out details such as how to accommodate Amtrak's current use of the tunnel for employee parking and access under and across the wide railyard.
Though Mr. Kubly was confident the city could reach an agreement with Amtrak for the tunnel, he said the current approved funding plan budgets for contingencies in the unlikely case the agency is unable to route the streetcar under the railyard. The two parties must reach an agreement this summer in order to keep the late-2012 opening date.
When the Union Station terminus opens in late 2012, passengers will walk a short distance down 1st Street NE to Union Station's side entrance.
After the stop opens, DDOT will start construction on a pedestrian passageway to connect the western terminus to the Union Station Metro mezzanine.
The streetcar stop will also include elevators to connect passengers to the Circulator stop two levels up at the bridge deck.
In 2015, DDOT will start reconstruction of the Hopscotch Bridge with the goal of carrying the streetcar line onto the deck of the bridge permanently. The elevators will then ferry passengers down from the streetcar stop to the passageway to the Metro mezzanine. The original track will become a non-revenue access track to the storage and maintenance facility that will remain under the bridge's western approach.
The streetcar system will borrow features of other transit systems in the area. It will run the same hours as Metrorail and will charge the same fares as the Circulator and will accept SmarTrip payments.
When the line opens in late 2012, five cars will be devoted to the H-Benning segment in order to provide 10-minutes headways. Bus service will remain the same.
DDOT is finishing up its RFP to private companies to run and maintain the system. Mr. Kubly stated that they are writing in performance guarantees to ensure the operator provides a basic level of service. For instance, the city will require that the operator tow a broken-down streetcar in a timely manner so the system can keep operating.
This sort of contractual performance guarantee is similar to what DDOT and Arlington require of Alta, the private company that maintains Capital Bikeshare. The District assesses penalties to Alta if any station remains entirely full or empty for more than three hours.
On one issue, though, Mr. Kubly's answer disappoints. The local X buses, which stop nearly every block on H Street, will frequently hold up tailing streetcars since streetcars will only stop every few blocks. Since the buses will stop in the shared rail lane, there will be no way for a streetcar to maneuver around a stopped X bus while passengers slowly board, alight and pay.
One should be skeptical of Mr. Kubly's explanation that these cases won't happen that frequently as any frequent bus rider knows that vehicles bunch up quite often. Ideally, DDOT will work out an agreement with WMATA so that when a bus driver notices that he will delay a streetcar, he will pull aside to let the vehicle pass.
DDOT is also working on adding transit signal prioritization to the traffic lights on H Street. Such a system holds green lights for approaching buses and streetcars to prioritize their movement along a given street. Mr. Kubly stated that Councilmember Tommy Wells (D - Ward 6) has been pushing hard for prioritization along H Street NE.
The lack of signal prioritization is painfully obvious on Portland's streetcar, which frequently approaches traffic lights just as they turn red. It looks as though DC won't repeat Portland's mistake.
As for data openness, Mr. Kubly promised to release all data to the public for integration into custom applications such as real-time maps, arrival predictions, and performance measurement. This is a stark contrast to WMATA's foot-dragging on Google Transit integration.
Residents near H Street NE are happy that the street reconstruction is nearly finished. When the streetcar opens late next year, the final act of the street's physical transformation will be complete.
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