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Now that it's open, 7 takeaways from the H Street streetcar

DC's H Street streetcar has been open two and a half months. With two extensions on the horizon, now is a good time to look back at what's worked and what hasn't. Here are seven takeaways from the streetcar's first season running.


Photo by StreetsofWashington on Flickr.

1. Dedicated lanes matter for reasons beyond congestion

Streetcars on H Street are too slow. Not nearly as slow as walking, but too slow nonetheless. But H Street isn't a particularly congested road compared to many in the region. Were it only for congestion, the streetcar should be faster than it is.

Parking is a big part of the problem. Streetcars are rarely seriously delayed due to actual lawbreaking double parkers, but have to slow to a crawl frequently for drivers legally pulling into or out of parking spaces.

Even when every car is parked correctly within its space and nobody seems to be coming or going, there's so little room between tracks and the parking lane that streetcar drivers have to poke along, for fear of driving into an opening door or for scraping a slightly wayward mirror. If the tracks were better separated from the parking, streetcars could move faster.

On Benning Road where the streetcar runs in the middle rather than along the outer curb, parking isn't a problem. There's still friction from turning cars, but it's not as bad.

2. Traffic signals need special attention

The biggest cause of delay on almost every streetcar trip I take is the 3rd Street traffic light. That's where the streetcar crosses over traffic to get from the curbside along H Street to a dedicated lane in the middle of Hopscotch Bridge.

Getting into that dedicated lane takes forever. The streetcar can't simply go with the green light because it's crossing over traffic. It needs a dedicated signal phase. But because of how the signals are timed, waiting for that phase can take forever.

DDOT is looking at changes to that light to help speed streetcars through. That's great. But signal priority for streetcars where they need it should be the rule, not the exception.

3. The streetcars are legitimately more comfortable than buses

The streetcars really are are comfortable, smooth, and quiet. Rumbling over broken asphalt in a crowded diesel bus is a loud, uncomfortable prospect. Not only are the streetcars noticeably smoother and quieter, but their spacious interiors rarely feel cramped, even when there are a lot of riders.

That matters. Not as much as basic operations, but it does matter. It draws riders and it helps make transit a nicer place to spend time.

4. The streetcars bunch way less than the X2

It could just be because the line is short, or maybe it's because DDOT does a fantastic job with headway scheduling. It could also be that although the streetcar is slow, it's fairly predictable.

Whatever the reason, I have yet to see streetcars bunched closely together.


Photo by Malcolm K. on Flickr.

5. Streetcar stops and bus stops would be better together

With both buses and streetcars on H Street, many riders would theoretically be happy to take whichever comes first. But streetcars and buses have different stops, usually a block apart. Depending on the location, riders sometimes have to commit to a stop before knowing which mode will arrive first.

Meanwhile, since bus stops and streetcar stops are staggered, buses and streetcars get in each others' way all the time, while one is at a stop and the other moving. Buses can go around, but obviously streetcars can't.

If they shared stops, long enough for both a bus and a streetcar to pull in at the same time, there'd be fewer delays and riders would have more freedom to choose their ride.

6. It's nice to have a stop on Hopscotch Bridge

The connection from the streetcar's Hopscotch Bridge stop to Union Station is hardly wonderful. But it is present, which is more than can be said for the X2. It makes connecting to longer distance transit easier on the streetcar.


Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

7. We need more trams

15 minutes headways aren't good enough, given the short length of the line, the slowness of the streetcars, and the frequency of the X2. Unfortunately, DDOT needs more railcars before they can increase the frequency, and getting those is not a quick process.

DDOT could add Sunday service, though. More riders use the streetcar on Saturdays than any other day. Meanwhile, the X2 runs least often on Sundays. There's clearly a niche for weekend streetcar.

Given the vehicle limitations, adding Sunday service might require cutting back some other day, either not running at all one weekday, or running for fewer hours on weeknights. It's probably worth it to try and see how things go.

What would you add?

Are you a regular streetcar rider? What would you add? What works, and what doesn't?

Read more from today's streetcar mega-feature:

Transit


Taking the streetcar is, in fact, way faster than walking

When the DC Streetcar launched in late February, there were a few claims from media around town that it was barely faster than walking. That isn't true, and it's important to set the record straight.


Faster than walking. Photo by Kevin Mueller on Flickr.

"On the day the back-to-the-future transit system launched passenger service," wrote Post reporter Michael Laris just after the streetcar opened, "it took the streetcar 26 minutes to make its way end-to-end on the two-mile line. It took 27 minutes to walk the same route on Saturday, 19 minutes on the bus, 10 minutes to bike and just seven minutes in a Uber."

Media all over the region sang a similar tune about how the streetcar is slow and walking is fast:

The immediate thing to point out with that first Laris article is that of course the streetcar ran slowly on opening day‐ there were hundreds of onlookers at the celebratory kickoff, clogging the streets and the tracks. Times from that day shouldn't be considered typical.

But beyond that, nobody walks from Union Station, where the streetcar route's western edge is, to its eastern terminus at Benning and Oklahoma in 27 minutes! Doing so would require walking at an average of 4.5 miles per hour; the average walking speed is about three miles per hour, while the average jogging speed is about six miles per hour.

I'm an avid walker who lives less than a block from the Oklahoma Avenue station, and I've walked from my house, up Benning and H Streets, then to western the terminus at Union Station, probably 25 times. It usually takes about 40 minutes. Google Maps says it should take 38, which is actually a little generous—stop lights, like at Starburst Plaza (the intersection of 15th Street, Maryland Avenue, and Bladensburg Road) as well as those along H Street, often make trips take longer than mapping apps predict.

As for the streetcar's speed, more recent articles say it's taking an average of 18-20 minutes to get from end to end. In fact, in the inaugural "Running of the Streetcar", many runners couldn't outpace the Streetcar, even when starting with a small lead.

I should acknowledge that I'm writing this slightly after the fact—the articles quoted above came out when the streetcar opened in late February. But this is still important because if we don't correct the inaccuracy, people will keep saying it.

The fact of the matter is that people have underestimated how much time it would take to walk the streetcar route, and overstated how much time it takes the streetcar itself to travel it. Really, taking the DC Streetcar is about twice as fast as walking.

In the inevitable future political battles over the Bowser administration's promise to extend the line both east and west, the public should be aware of the facts, both good and bad.

The mismanagement leading up to the opening of the route has been well documented, which is appropriate. However, now that the streetcar is up and running, we should be aware that it is providing a functional and efficient alternative mode of transportation on one of the city's busiest transportation corridors.

Transit


Here's a closer look at what's in store for Union Station

Plans for renovating and rebuilding parts of Union Station are well underway, the aim being to better connect train, bus, pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicle traffic to accommodate a surge in ridership over the next 25 years and beyond. On Wednesday, the public got a closer look at some of the possibilities.


Photo by David Jones on Flickr.

Union Station houses DC's busiest Metro station, is the hub for both of the region's commuter rail systems, MARC and VRE, and is both the second-busiest intercity train station in the country and the second-busiest station in Amtrak's system. In anticipation of rising demand, planning started last year for a $10 billion, four-year expansion project that could triple station capacity.

Several hundred people attended a Wednesday night meeting to hear what the Federal Railroad Administration, which owns Union Station, has in mind for the overhaul. While plans for expanding the area where passengers wait to board trains surfaced Wednesday morning, this meeting was about telling the public about the need for renovating and rebuilding virtually the entire complex, from parking areas, bus terminals, taxi stands, and train platforms to the original station building and the space above the tracks just north of the station.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

With Union Station being in its 109th year of service, some of the project's literature refers to the project as the "Second Century Plan."

Here are some of the functional features the project team said it's looking to bring to Union Station:

  • A more efficient way for taxis and car services (including ridesharing programs) to pick up and drop off passengers. Taxi drivers typically have a 30-45 minute wait in the taxi queue at the station today.

  • A more bike-friendly environment. There's currently too little capacity for both bicycle parking and bike sharing to meet even current demand.

  • Wider train platforms, as the ones there now aren't compliant with ADA standards, and also do not meet standards for an emergency evacuation. Widening the platforms will actually mean a decrease in the number of tracks at the station, from 20 to 19. But planners also emphasized that intercity rail capacity will increase because the platforms will be significantly longer-- nearly a quarter mile in some cases.

  • Larger, more open concourses that can handle the expected tripling of passenger demand by 2040.

  • A safer bus terminal, where there's less of a chance that people and buses will need to use the same space. Also, a more visually appealing bus terminal.

  • A complex that meshes well with the H Street Bridge, which will be rebuilt in the next several years.

Architecture, parking, and air space

One thing the FRA is putting significant emphasis on is the aesthetic appeal of the new station. The current building is on both the National and Washington DC Register of Historical Places, and its key features, such as the great hall, will remain unchanged. Presenter Paul Moyer reviewed examples of other stations around the world that are both functional and attractive, to use as an example.

While demand is maxing out for just about every mode of transportation that passes through Union Station, there's one mode where it's not: driving. Usually, only 70-90% of the parking spaces Union Station's garage are full at peak times, and nearly a quarter of those are leased out on a monthly basis, meaning they're likely used by workers in surrounding offices not directly tied to the station.

Rather than increasing the number of parking spaces, the planners are simply looking to make a more visually appealing parking facility. An architecturally renowned garage in Miami was cited as a possible inspiration.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Also, having empty railyard just blocks from the US Capitol is not the most economically stimulating use of space. Therefore, the air rights over the tracks were sold to Akridge, who will develop a project called Burnham Place, a mix of offices, retail, hotel, and residential that will sit above the tracks. Because the air rights begin at the current height of the H Street Bridge, designers will not be limited to a claustrophobic experience like what travelers experience at New York's Penn Station.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Federal Railroad Administration (and the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation), Amtrak, Akridge, DDOT, WMATA, and the National Park Service all own different portions of the affected site, and will need to sign off on the plan, as will various historical review boards and federal interests.

Community engagement

While at least some of what was presented is very likely to happen, nothing is a done deal yet. The official purpose of the meeting was to solicit input from the community before developing formal proposals.


Image from the Federal Railroad Administration.

Community members were shown a scale map of the study area (roughly, the current station footprint, including the parking garage, plus the tracks as far north as L Street), and asked to place cardboard templates representing possible concourses, bus terminals, and other features in various places on the map, to gather feedback on possibilities.


Photo by the author.

The strongest sentiments at both this meeting and the last one, which was in December, were about how the Union Station project will affect surrounding neighborhoods.

The business community is looking for better intermodal connections (between Metro, Amtrak, bus, and streetcar), and local residents is looking for better connections to the neighborhood itself, such as through the long neglected entrance off of H Street, and to have many of the nearby Metrobus routes actually stop at the station, rather than blocks away.

Because the projects are dependent on one another, both local residents and the business community asked that the required environmental reviews for Burnham Place and the rest of Union Station will be done at the same time. This is not guaranteed, because the process for each project is different.

If you would like to view the presentation from the FRA, it is posted here, and comments are still being accepted on the site. The next public meeting, where project alternatives will be presented, is scheduled for this summer. Once the project is approved, construction is expected to last about four years.

Meta


Thank you for a great 8th birthday party!

Thanks to all of you—our readers, friends, and donors—who celebrated our 8th birthday last week!


Our 8th birthday bash crowd interacting with founder David Alpert and managing director Sarah Guidi as they say "thanks" to everyone at the party. All photos by Aimee Custis unless otherwise noted.

More than 100 of us gathered last Tuesday evening at Vendetta Bocce Bar and Tavern on H Street NE for cake, drinks, trivia and mingling.


Randall Keith Benjamin and Aimee Custis.

We were so excited that the streetcar opened in time for our party! Many of our guests arrived in streetcar style.


The only possible way to roll to a @ggwash meetup on H Street: @DCStreetcar, preceded by @bikeshare.—<wbr>Rob Pegoraro (@robpegoraro)

Thanks to all the local elected officials, agency heads, and planners who came out to support Greater Greater Washington, including DC councilmembers Elissa Silverman, Brianne Nadeau, and Charles Allen, DDOT director Leif Dormsjo, and WMATA General Manager Paul Wiedefeld!


Lynn Bowersox, David Alpert, Paul Wiedefeld, and Dan Stessel.


Shaun Courtney, Jess Zimbabwe, and Karina Ricks.

While the party was on H Street in DC, we had representatives from across the region, like some of our Montgomery County friends including Planning Board chairman Casey Anderson.


Pete Tomao, Casey Anderson, and Joe Fox.

About 20 people participated in trivia. Winners went home with Capital Bikeshare memberships, smart growth books, as well as transit-themed books and mugs. Thank you to all of our sponsors who donated these prizes and made contributions to help keep Greater Greater Washington going strong this year.


Trivia winners went home with awesome prizes generously provided by goDCgo and Capital Bikeshare, Island Press, and Transit Oriented.

If you weren't able to join us for this year's party, we hope you can join us at an upcoming Greater Greater happy hour. In the meantime, thank you for being a part of our eight years (and counting)!

Transit


Here are the answers to whichStreetcar

On Tuesday, we celebrated the opening of the DC Streetcar line with a whichStreetcar contest. Here are the answers. How did you do?

We got 26 guesses. Nineteen got all five. Great work!


Image 1: Union Station/Hopscotch Bridge

The first image was taken at the Union Station streetcar stop. The main clue here is the "no clearance" striping along the barrier wall opposite the platform, which is only present here. The buildings in the background and the hopscotch art also should have helped you get this one.

Twenty-five got it right.


Image 2: Oklahoma Avenue

The second image shows a sign at the end of the Oklahoma Avenue stop. The clue here is the construction in the background, which is the streetcar carbarn. Another clues is the fact that the stop is in the median, which is the case for stops along Benning Road only.

Twenty-four figured this one out.


Image 3: 3rd Street NE

The third image was, coincidentally, the 3rd Street stop. Clues included the "Giant" sign reflected in the streetcar windows and the track switch allowing streetcars to cross over to the exclusive streetcar lanes on the H Street bridge.

Twenty-five got this one correct.


Image 4: 19th Street NE

The fourth image shows the platform at 19th Street. Again, the median location of the platform limits this to a Benning Road stop. The smokestack in the background should have helped you narrow this down to 19th Street.

Twenty-three guessed 19th Street.


Image 5: 8th Street NE

The final image shows a streetcar at the 8th Street stop. Really the only clue here is the Bank of America branch in the background. Using Google Street View could have helped you narrow this down, which may have worked for the twenty-two of you who got it right.

Thanks for playing!

Transit


Think you know transit? It's time for whichStreetcar

On Saturday, DC's newest transit line opened, heralding the return of streetcars after five decades. Let's see how well you know the new line. Can you identify the five pictured stations?


Image 1


Image 2


Image 3


Image 4


Image 5

To help you, here's a map of the line:

We'll hide the comments so the early birds don't spoil the fun. Please have your answers in by noon on Thursday.

UPDATE: The answers are here.

Transit


DC Streetcar's exuberant opening day, in photos and video

DC Streetcar is open and carrying passengers, following a festive opening day on Saturday. Enjoy this photo tour reliving the fun, and see even more at GGWash's opening day Flickr group.


Passengers boarding the streetcar. Photo by Dan Malouff.

The party began at a 10:00 am opening ceremony at 13th and H NE, where a huge crowd gathered to celebrate.


The opening ceremony crowd. Photo by Dan Malouff.

After years of delays and frustration with the streetcar, the crowd's jubilant emotion was a sight to see. Supporters waved pennants, the Eastern High School marching band entertained, and at least one awesome kid brought the day's best costume.


Band and streetcar cosplay. Photos by Malcolm Kenton and Dan Malouff.

Mayor Bowser, DDOT's Leif Dormsjo, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and DC Council members Charles Allen and Yvette Alexander all spoke happily about the project.

Most notably, Mayor Bowser declared we "gotta" extend it east and west.


Bowser and Dormsjo. Photos by Brett Young and Dan Malouff.

The crowd was far too big to fit in a single streetcar. But DDOT was prepared. They queued up four trams all in a row, to carry as many riders as possible.

After the speeches, VIPs boarded onto the first two streetcars, and off they went. Cheers erupted as the first passenger trip took off towards Union Station. It was railcar 202.


Streetcars queue, and the VIP-only first trip takes off. Photos by Malcolm Kenton and Dan Malouff.

The third streetcar to leave was the first open to the public. It was car 201, and when it pulled out, the streetcar became officially in service.

Here it is, the first public streetcar, pulling out of the station for the first time.


Video by Kelli Raboy

The GGWash contingent made it on that first public streetcar.


The GGWash contingent, boarding and riding the first public streetcar trip. Photos by Dan Malouff.

One amazing rider named Nathaniel Jordan says he was also on the first-ever Metrorail train, way back in 1976.


Nathaniel Jordan. Photo by Dan Malouff.

The first streetcar wrapped up its first trip at Union Station before turning around and heading back the other direction.

Streetcars approaching Union Station stop midway up Hopscotch Bridge, amid a short section of dedicated lanes.


Hopscotch Bridge / Union Station stop. Photo by Matt Johnson.

Inside Union Station, bright wayfinding signs point the way through the parking garage to the streetcar station. It's a long walk from the station's interior to the streetcar platform, but it's nonetheless an improvement over the X2 bus, which doesn't stop on the bridge at all.


Union Station wayfinding and passageway to the streetcar. Photos by Matt Johnson.

At the other end of the line, at Oklahoma Avenue, the platform is more simple.


Oklahoma Avenue station. Photo by Dan Malouff.

Near Oklahoma Avenue station, union members demonstrated in favor of the streetcar workers. Next door, the permanent streetcar car barn rises under construction.


Union workers and the car barn. Photos by Dan Malouff.

Streetcar trips continued up and down H Street all day, where crowds continued to pack on for the novelty of a first day's ride.


Photos by Brett Young and Malcolm Kenton.


Photos by Matt Johnson and Malcolm Kenton.

It was a great day. Hopefully we'll do it all again in a few years as the system expands east of the Anacostia River and west into downtown. If that happens, DDOT's plans call for a dedicated transitway on K Street.


Proposed K Street transitway. Image from DDOT.

Transit


The DC Streetcar starts service on Saturday. It took a wild ride to get here.

When DC's H Street and Benning Road streetcar opens on February 27, it'll run on rails that were first installed almost seven years earlier. We've been talking about this project since 2008, with hundreds of posts. The following is a little walk down memory lane to look at everything that's happened.


Photo by mariordo59 on Flickr.

Forty years after streetcars vanish, efforts begin to bring them back

Streetcars used to ply DC's streets until 1962. In 1956, following a strike, Congress forced the streetcar's operator to shut down all streetcars and replace them with buses.

But decades later, the Metro was under construction and rail transit was coming back. Metro wouldn't serve all parts of the city, however. A 1997 long-range transportation plan from the Barry administration called for new streetcar lines, including on H Street and Benning Road.

In the early 2000s, the DC government was trying to find a way to get a streetcar system started cheaply. An unused CSX track that runs through Anacostia seemed like a great spot. DC jumped on a Portland streetcar contract in 2004 to purchase three Czech-made cars. But DC couldn't get the rights to use the line, and the cars sat in the Czech Republic, unused.

2008: Anacostia? H Street? Both?

A political fight also was brewing in the DC Council about where to start the streetcar project. A line from Anacostia Metro to Bolling Air Force Base wouldn't have served many people. DDOT agreed to plan a route through Historic Anacostia as well, but many residents were not enthusiastic. Meanwhile, H Street businesses, residents, and Councilmember Tommy Wells were eager for the line on H Street.

DC had recently finished designing several corridors around the city in a program called "Great Streets." H Street and Benning Road, NE was one. Since a streetcar line was in the city's plans, to avoid having to reconstruct the street a second time, the decision was made to install tracks during the project.


Photo by Ralph.

2009: DDOT gets serious about a streetcar, but questions remain

The streetscape program yielded visible progress, but many details of the streetcar itself were not yet worked out. Besides sticking rails in the ground, what exactly was DC going to build? Where would the streetcar turn around? Where would maintenance happen? And what would power the cars?

Gabe Klein, then head of DDOT, decided to make the project a much higher priority, and in late 2009, the administration followed through with a bold vision to build eight lines in all wards of DC. He also moved the three streetcars across the ocean from the Czech Republic.


Phase 1   Phase 2   Phase 3   View larger version (PDF)

At the time, officials estimated the whole system could be built in 7-10 years for a cost of $1.5 billion. Mostly, they planned to put them in mixed traffic rather than dedicated lanes, except for a few segments on Rhode Island Avenue, M Street SE, and K Street NW.

There were already some signs that DDOT wasn't thinking everything through. WMATA sent a letter worrying that the platforms, high enough to roll right onto a streetcar, would be too high to board the X2 buses, which run along the same street. Would they conflict?

Unless you've got power

One of the big questions was how cars would get power. A law prohibited overhead wires in the L'Enfant city, including H Street NE. Some groups were gearing up to oppose the streetcar not based on its function, but based on the aesthetics of having any wires above the street.


Bombardier Primove. Image from Bombardier.

While insisting that modern wires look much less intrusive than many of the old-fashioned ones in some cities, DDOT promised to look into wireless technology, especially hybrid approaches that could use some off-wire segments along curves (which require more wires) and across important view corridors.

Groups like the Committee of 100 were pushing for a fully wireless approach, but experts said that was not feasible without major extra cost and maintenance headaches, at least not today.

2010: The Great Overhead Wire Battle

To get people excited about the project, in May 2010 DDOT brought the streetcar down to the parking lot that's now CityCenterDC. People could touch the vehicle and climb on board. They could also see two other DDOT vehicles: a newer Circulator bus and a bicycle for the soon-to-be-launched Capital Bikeshare.


Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Opposition from the Committee of 100 and other groups continued. It focused on two streams: first, opposition to overhead wires; and second, an argument that there needed to be more planning before moving ahead. In retrospect, they were absolutely right on the second point, but the first one overshadowed it and unfortunately made the more prescient warnings less credible.

May is the time the DC Council finishes its budget, and many chairs have unveiled a final budget late the night before the deadline for a final vote. At 2 am on May 26, 2010, then-Chairman Vincent Gray, and also a candidate for mayor, cut the streetcar funding in his final budget. We and others sounded the alarm, and residents flooded Gray's office with calls asking to restore the funding. By that afternoon, he had worked out a deal with councilmembers to do just that.

Gray always maintained that his move to cut streetcar funds wasn't an attempt to kill the project outright, but stemmed from a belief that it needed more planning first. At a later campaign town hall, he said, "I support streetcars; let me make that clear. ... We have a commitment" to build out a 37-mile system.


Photo by Dan Malouff.

Soon after the budget fight, the council took a step to amend the overhead wire ban to allow wires on H Street (and elsewhere once the council approves a citywide streetcar plan and DDOT studies off-wire options). All councilmembers except Phil Mendelson cosponsored the bill.

As Ken Archer explained to the council, beautiful historic cities like Prague have trams using wires and still maintain their historic charm.


A streetcar wire in Prague. Photo by Isaac Wedlin on Flickr.

The National Capital Planning Commission wasn't so excited about wires. Its chair, Preston Bryant, threatened to ask the federal government to reject grants to DC if the District continued with its efforts, and then followed through on his threat. DC officials called that "bureaucratic blackmail."

The Federal Transit Administration indeed rejected DC's grant application, though sources said NCPC wasn't the reason as the winners had been selected well before Bryant's letter.

Planning and promises

In October 2010, DDOT released a more detailed streetcar plan that said:

  • Service on the H Street/Benning Road line and in Anacostia (to start with, south of the Anacostia Metro) would start in March 2012
  • A train would come every 10 minutes on H Street and every 15 in Anacostia
  • Rides would cost $1
  • There would be a proof-of-payment system instead of paying on board
  • DDOT would buy three more streetcars in addition to the three it already had
In December, Gray, by that time mayor-elect, continued his support for the program in a budget proposal. His transition report, however, sharply criticized DDOT for mismanagement in a number of areas. His first official budget allocated $99 million to streetcars.

Studies continued about how to route the streetcar through Historic Anacostia, but growing numbers of residents raised opposition to the project entirely.


Tracks under construction in Anacostia. Photo by John Fuller.

2011-2012: Setbacks

In April 2011, the completion date for the H Street/Benning Road line slipped to "late 2012." It wasn't the last delay.

The streetcar plan had long called for tracks on the local span of the new 11th Street bridge, then under construction, to get the streetcar over the Anacostia River. But in October 2011, the Federal Transit Administration blocked DDOT from installing tracks on the bridge. According to DDOT sources, the move was fine with the Federal Highway Administration, but FTA suddenly stepped in.


11th Street Bridge construction. Photo by DDOT DC on Flickr.

If it seems ironic that the federal government's transit agency would be the one pushing against transit, it's not a new refrain. Then-FTA administrator (now head of Seattle's transit agency) Peter Rogoff argued FTA had little leeway, but many other transportation professionals privately argued they could have allowed it.

Another, even bigger hurdle popped up. Since the 2010 plans, DDOT had expected to put the Union Station stop and a maintenance yard under the "Hopscotch Bridge" which carries H Street over the railroad tracks. One property owner didn't want to go along, but DDOT officials kept predicting they could work out all necessary approvals.


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.

That didn't happen. Instead, Amtrak rejected the concept because it wanted to use the space for other purposes. (The next year, it released a master plan for Union Station that used that passageway as a concourse.)

By early 2012, there had been procurement problems that meant DC would almost surely not have the 3 extra streetcars promised, meaning not enough to run at 10-minute headways. In mid-2012, Councilmember Marion Barry tried to block another contract for the H Street line.

Mayor Gray's commitment didn't wane, however; he budgeted $237 million over six years to construct multiple streetcar lines.


Spingarn High School in 2009. Photo by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

Spinning wheels on Spingarn

DDOT had been planning a maintenance facility on the Spingarn High School campus, but that had been a longer-term piece of the puzzle; with the area under the bridge unavailable, this was now blocking further progress.

Nearby residents also asked to designate Spingarn as a historic landmark, forcing any plans to go through far more extensive historic review. Then-DDOT Director Terry Bellamy said this would delay the project further; by now, it was delayed to late 2013 at the earliest.

It also had become clear to many by this time that DDOT's claims were not credible. DDOT had proposed the underpass maintenance yard idea without having buy-in and then couldn't get it. It had planned tracks on the 11th Street Bridge and didn't get those. Now, it hadn't started working on Spingarn nearly far enough ahead of time, and like too many other streetcar pieces, plans for the maintenance facility weren't publicly available at first (and when they were turned out to be meh until later getting better).


One February 2013 design for the Spingarn maintenance facility.

2013: Will it open?

Studies also continued for planning how to extend the line east from Oklahoma Avenue over the Anacostia River and west to Georgetown.

Testing on H Street hadn't even begun, but DDOT officials said that could happen in late 2013. They also started talking about a 22-mile "priority system" of three lines: east-west from Georgetown to Benning Road, from Anacostia to Buzzard Point, and from Buzzard Point to Takoma.


The 22-mile "priority system."

Even though it looked iffy, Mayor Gray kept promising streetcars would run in 2013. He also increased the budget to $400 million to pay for the line to go all the way to Georgetown, build the Anacostia line, and study the other lines in the 22-mile system.

One issue that had been brewing: How to make the area safe for people on bikes. Bicycle wheels can get stuck in streetcar tracks, and for a brief time incorrectly-installed grates even increased the danger. "Bike sneaks" and other design strategies can help cyclists stay safe.


Toronto. Photo by Eric Parker on Flickr.

The most important thing was to give cyclists another way to travel east-west, which DDOT did by designing and building bike lanes so people could ride two ways on G and I streets, parallel to H.

By October, DC officials admitted the streetcar wouldn't run in 2013. Testing would start in December 2013. This was far from the only broken promise by DDOT under Bellamy's leadership, which developed a reputation for being unable to deliver on its commitments.

Streetcar wires started appearing in November and the first vehicle arrived in December.


Photo by DC Streetcar on Flickr.

2014: The public-private partnership that wasn't

The Gray Administration also devised a strategy to significantly speed up construction: Find a contractor who could design, build, operate, and maintain (DBOM) the streetcar. They hoped an organization with more expertise could get things done without all the delays that had come thus far.

Gray proposed a major, ongoing revenue source to fund the succession of lines, by allocating a quarter of new tax revenue that comes in above the base estimate for Fiscal Year 2015. That would have given the program an estimated $800 million over five years.

A team started working on studies for the line on or near Georgia Avenue, and we pushed for dedicated lanes for this line. DDOT had already agreed to build dedicated lanes on K Street.


K Street section through downtown from October 2013. Image from DDOT.

Challengers to Mayor Gray criticized his administration's progress and the repeated delays.

On April Fool's Day 2014, DC had its primary, and Gray lost his bid for renomination. His budget plan also went down the next month, as Chairman Phil Mendelson, again near the deadline (but not in the middle of the night), took much of the money away for tax cuts. He did, however, leave $400 million over five years, which the Gray administration said wasn't even enough to pay for the segment west to Georgetown.

Mendelson disputed that allegation, and battling budget analysts left many confused about what, exactly, was still being funded. But the bigger problem was that DDOT had lost much of its credibility on the streetcar program from all of these delays, broken promises, and cover-ups over setbacks. Residents who had excitedly defended the program in 2010 were not ready to stick up for it in 2014.


A Gray administration graphic criticizing cuts.

Soon after, it became clear even opening in 2014 was unlikely, though the Gray Administration, as it had in 2013, kept promising service by the end of 2014.

"Simulated service," where the streetcars run as if they're really operating with passengers to ensure they are safe, started in the fall. There was just barely enough time to launch service before New Year's Day if the fire department signed off on the safety plans quickly. It didn't.


"Simulated service" in January 2015. Photo by Dan Malouff.

2015: Reboot

A new administration brought in new leadership. Leif Dormsjo, the new head of DDOT, said he'd stop making promises until they could actually keep them. In fact, Dormsjo said he wasn't totally certain the line would ever open.

He brought in a team of experts from the American Public Transportation Association to evaluate the line. Their report concluded that it could indeed open, and Mayor Bowser promised to finish the line from Georgetown to either Minnesota Avenue or Benning Road Metro.

Oh, remember wires? The ones on H Street weren't destroying the neighborhood, but DDOT did start planning for wireless operation across major intersections with state avenues, the Mall, and so on.

APTA's report identified 33 fixes to make to the streetcar line, and DDOT got going on those. By July, it had finished 12. Dormsjo brought in a team of experts who had actually launched streetcars in other cities to get this project over the finish line.


Workers modify the 19th Street station following the APTA review. Photo by Dan Malouff.

We didn't hear a lot about the streetcar in late 2015, but DDOT was working on fixing remaining problems with the line. Officials were also trying to get the fire department to sign off on safety plans.

2016: It's time

DDOT restarted "simulated service" at the end of 2015 and even announced the streetcar would close during the "Snowzilla" storm, in part to show safety officials how the line would handle a storm like this. The fire department ultimately gave its consent to open the line, and now it's scheduled to open on February 27.


Photo by Fototak on Flickr.

This will be the first time most people will be able to get on a DC Streetcar since May 2010 and the first time they can while the vehicle is in motion. There have been a lot of claims about the streetcar, pro and con, and riding it will finally give people a chance to decide based on real experience.

After that, DC will have to decide what to do about the other proposed lines and studies. DDOT will have to finish studies about extending the H Street/Benning Road line east and west, and decide what to do with the studies in limbo in Anacostia and Georgia Avenue.

One thing is for sure: It'll be great to have this sordid saga of delays and broken promises in the past.

Transit


H Street streetcar will carry passengers on February 27

DC Mayor Muriel Bowser just announced the H Street streetcar will officially open to passengers on Saturday, February 27. Of this year. Hallelujah!


Photo by the author.

Mayor Bowser's announcement should mean the DC fire department has certified the streetcar as safe to run and submitted its paperwork to the federal government, thus accomplishing the last step before the streetcar can open. With that done, it's ready to carry passengers.

The opening party and first passenger-carrying run will take place at 10:00 am on Saturday, February 27, at the corner of H Street and 13th Street NE.

After that, streetcars will run between Union Station and Oklahoma Avenue every 15 minutes the rest of the day. Rides will be free for everyone for the first few months.

The streetcar will close again Sunday the 28th; for now it's only scheduled to run six days per week. But passengers will be able to pick it up again on Monday the 29th, and every day thereafter except Sundays.

Many of us will be there to enjoy the festivities, and we'll try to all meet up to make a GGWash contingent. Join us if you can! Or ride the streetcar to our 8th birthday party on March 8. Or both!

Meta


Join us for our 8th birthday party on March 8!

Eight years ago, Greater Greater Washington set out to inform and engage people across the DC area to make it a thriving, inclusive place. On Tuesday, March 8 from 6:30 to 9 pm, we'll be celebrating at Vendetta, 1212 H Street NE, as we wrap up our reader drive.


Last year's birthday cake! Photo by Kian McKellar.

You'll get to meet Greater Greater Washington staff, contributors, readers, and supporters for an evening of drinks, snacks, and conversation.

Vendetta has limited space, so please let us know if you're coming here.

For those who are interested, we're also going to run a special GGWash trivia game around 7:45 with questions picked from our 2015 posts. When you arrive, you can sign up to play and form teams. We'll also have prizes donated by Capital Bikeshare/goDCgo and Island Press. We ask for a $5 donation to participate.

If you don't want to play the trivia, don't worry—you'll still be able to mingle and talk on the side of the venue that's not having the trivia. (But we think you'll find it fun!)

The party is free (and cash bar), but it's also the end of our reader drive. Please help us hit our $25,000 goal well before the party by making a monthly, yearly, or one-time contribution now:

Support us: Monthly   Yearly   One time
Greatest supporter—$250/year
Greater supporter—$100/year
Great supporter—$50/year
Or pick your own amount: $/year
Greatest supporter—$250
Greater supporter—$100
Great supporter—$50
Supporter—$20
Or pick your own amount: $
Want to contribute by mail or another way? Instructions are here.
Contributions to Greater Greater Washington are not tax deductible.

Getting there

Vendetta is located about a mile east of Union Station and the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro station, both on the Red Line. It's about a 20-minute walk from either one.

There seems to be a growing chance that the DC Streetcar will be open in time. If it is, you can ride it from Union Station to 13th and H, just a half block away.

Either way, there are also lots of other options. The Metrobus X2 and rush hour X1 stop at 12th and H. The X9 express and B2 stop at 14th and H, and the 90s buses stop at 8th and H. There's also a Capital Bikeshare station right there at 13th and H, not to mention car2go, Uber, Lyft, Split, and much more.

Thanks for everything you do to support Greater Greater Washington! Don't forget to RSVP here. Also, check out this recap of our birthday party last year.

And finally, we'd like to thank our sponsors, who are making it possible to throw the party and keep Greater Greater Washington going:

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