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Posts about H Street Tunnel


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.

Photo by the author.

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.


Owner of H Street tunnel not so eager for streetcars

In April, DDOT presented an exciting plan to run the planned H Street streetcar through an existing tunnel under the H Street "Hopscotch" bridge. However, one obstacle still stands in the way of that vision: the current owner of the tunnel, Potomac Development Corporation.

H Street tunnel. Image from DDOT.

The current tunnel runs under the H Street bridge and the Amtrak tracks, and is about the width of a 4-lane road. Currently, the center two lanes are kept clear for ingress and egress, and Amtrak uses the side lanes for parking.

PDC, which also owns the REA Building at 900 2nd Street, NE, adjacent to the tunnel on its eastern end, also has a parking garage that opens onto the tunnel and a loading dock just outside it.

DDOT hopes to run streetcars on the center lanes, to a single-track station connected to an existing tunnel to Union Station Metro, with a track connection then across First Street to a maintenance facility under the bridge's western end.

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.

On May 7, PDC President Richard Bell sent a letter to DDOT Associate Director Scott Kubly saying they opposed using the tunnel for the streetcar:

After reviewing sketches and meeting with DDOT on three occasions, we are convinced that running streetcars through the H Street tunnel will unreasonably interfere with our use of said tunnel and the adjacent public space, which is critical for access to our garage and loading dock, and essential to the operation of our building.
Even if you could find ways to minimize interference with our uses once operations begin, the construction phase is likely to be especially disruptive. And, according to a DDOT employee at one of the meetings, you anticipate replacing the H Street Overpass in approximately five years, during which time we expect to suffer interference with out use of the tunnel. We see no reason to subject ourselves to such interference twice.

Furthermore, according to you, DDOT ultimately intends to run the streetcars over the Overpass. As taxpayers, we object to the District building this two-block run of the streetcar line twice. Please instruct your personnel and contractors that we will no longer provide access to our portion of the tunnel.

DDOT replied, making a number of points. First, on operations, other vehicles can continue to use the tunnel as well, just as the streetcar will operate in mixed traffic. DDOT plans sliding gates at each end to prevent other vehicles or pedestrians from going into the tunnel, and the platform will have gates as well so people waiting don't venture into the tunnel.

DDOT argues the tracks are not duplicative because, even once the streetcars go over the overpass, the track segment would still be used to access the maintenance facility.

As for construction, DDOT says they "are committed to minimizing" disruption to PDC and Amtrak. Moreover, Kubly said DDOT believes the project will increase the value of PDC's property (the tunnel) by providing ventilation and fire suppression which are not currently present, improving drainage, and creating a streetcar stop next to their building.

Later in the PDF, DDOT responds to engineering concerns that Amtrak has raised about attaching the overhead wires to the underside of the underpass, operational concerns about the long-term use of the tunnel for loading access to Burnham Place, the development project planned atop the railyards, and more.

When Phil Mendelson raised objections to the streetcar project, saying it has "no beginning and no end," he was partly talking about this issue. Mendelson told Eric Fidler that he's not satisfied DDOT has determined the full costs of building this end and what is required to secure the necessary easements.

He makes a good point, and DDOT needs to work out these issues. However, it's not a reason to delay getting started on the entire streetcar project for years. When Metro was being built, plenty of operational issues arose during construction. They had to retrofit for elevators, and the Park Service refused to allow a Farragut transfer station under Farragut Square. They worked around them.

Likewise, DDOT can work around these issues if they can't work something out with PDC. They have other options for the siting of the maintenance facility and how to turn the streetcar around on the western end. Those aren't as ideal as using the tunnel, which would hide the facility in otherwise unused space under a bridge and which would get the terminal station right to Union Station Metro, but they can happen. And in the long run, the streetcar will go over the bridge anyway and stop in front of the new Burnham Place with a connection to the Metro station.

It's also odd that PDC has so firmly closed out consideration of. Perhaps PDC's letter is simply a negotiating position. But especially with the last paragraph "as District taxpayers," it sure sounds as though they are opposed to the streetcars in general.

This is a genuine issue and one DDOT should keep the public up to date on whatever solution gets worked out. It also would have been nice for us to have found out about it sooner. However, any project hits plenty of small hurdles, and this won't be the last.

Under the final Council budget decision, DDOT can go ahead with car purchases, but has to present detailed plans to the Council. That's a sensible approach that will ensure the issues are thought through while also letting this important project move forward as quickly as possible.

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