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Transit


Lisbon is a rail transit mecca

Lisbon has just about every type of rail transit out there. Streetcars, funiculars, a metro, and commuter rail all provide a dense, interconnected transit system for the Southern Europe metropolis.


A streetcar in Lisbon. All photos by the author.

Lisbon's streetcarstrams, as they refer to them—act as both transportation for the city's residents and a popular way for visitors to see the city, with streetcar line 28 connecting many of the main sights of the city's old city.

Many of the streetcar lines share the city's narrow streets with car traffic. However, some stretches have dedicated lanes, including along Avenue 24 de Julho, next to the commuter rail tracks approaching the Cais do Sodré railway station.


A vintage streetcar in a dedicated lane alongside a commuter train in Lisbon.

Complementing the streetcar network are three funiculars and an elevator that climb some of the city's steep hills.


The Gloria funicular in Lisbon.

The Lisbon metro has four lines stretching 26.8 miles across the city and providing the backbone of the transit network.


A map of the Lisbon metro with commuter rail services in gray.

Lisbon has two commuter rail operators: state-owned Comboios de Portugal (CP) and the private Fertagus line. While more frequent and metro-like than Washington DC's commuter rail services, CP's services are not as extensive as those in most European cities with overlapping lines connecting four terminals in central Lisbon and one south of the Tagus River with five different suburbs.


CP's Lisbon commuter rail map.

Fertagus provides the only commuter rail service that crosses the Tagus River, running on the lower deck of the 25 de Abril bridge.


The 25 de Abril bridge in Lisbon.

Lisbon is a good example of how a dense transit network with a variety of interconnected modes can work.

The Washington region is slowly moving towards a similarly dense and varied network, with Metro forming the backbone and other modes like the Metroway bus rapid transit line Virginia, the DC Streetcar in the District and, when it opens, the Purple Line light rail in Maryland filling in the gaps and complementing Metro. However, we have a long way to go to match Lisbon's network.

For more on transit developments in other cities and around the world, check out Greater Greater Washington's articles about Adelaide, Cape Town, Dallas, Hartford, Johannesburg, Oakland airport, San Diego, and San Juan.

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


The Purple Line will have America's longest railcars

According to the latest plans for Maryland's Purple Line, it will have the longest transit railcars in America. Each train will have a single 136-foot-long five-segment railcar. They'll practically be open-gangway trains.


A Purple Line railcar compared to Metro and DC Streetcar. Image by the author.

Purple Line trains will be Urbos model trams, built by Spanish company CAF. Urbos trams are modular; you can make them as long or as short as you want. These will be unusually long ones.

At 136 feet long, they'll be 2 feet longer than the closest US competitor: Austin Metrorail's 134 foot cars. But Austin's cars are DMUs, a sort of commuter rail / light rail hybrid, built for longer distance and fewer stops compared to the Purple Line.

The next biggest US light rail cars are Dallas' 124 foot cars.


Dallas light rail car. 12 feet shorter than the Purple Line's cars. Photo by Matt' Johnson on Flickr.

Longer is better

Having one long railcar rather than multiple short ones has a lot of advantages. There's less wasted space between cars, less expense per rider, and passengers can move back and forth inside the train to find the least crowded spot. Overall, having one long open interior increases the capacity of a train by about 10%, and it costs less.

The downside is you can't pull individual cars out of service if something goes wrong. It's all or nothing. But as long as everything works, long railcars are great.

Since the Purple Line will be operated by a private company that faces penalties if it doesn't meet service requirements, the onus is on them to keep trains in service.


An open interior train on the Paris Metro. Photo by BeyondDC on Flickr.

In transit jargon, these open interior trains are called "open gangway," and almost everyone else in the world uses them, except the United States. For the Purple Line to move in that direction makes it a national model.

Using these long trains was one of the changes project officials made in response to Maryland Governor Hogan's demands to reduce the Purple Line's costs. One long railcar rather than two short ones coupled into a train saves money and keeps train capacity high enough to work.

Hogan's other changes made the Purple Line a lot worse. They reduced train frequency, eliminated the direct transfer to Metro at Silver Spring, and reduced the electrical power of the line, limiting its capacity. But the move to longer railcars with open interiors may be a silver lining.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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.

History


DC's first streetcar opened in 1862. Here's what it was like.

The DC Streetcar will start carrying passengers on Saturday, but that won't be the first time we've seen a streetcar's opening day. DC's first streetcar system opened in the middle of the Civil War after taking only six months to build. It ran horse-drawn streetcars along Pennsylvania Avenue, and was an instant hit.


An early streetcar passes the Treasury. All images from antique stereoviews in the author's collection.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. Like my recent post about how streetcars shaped DC's Eckington neighborhood, the following has been adapted from the book.

In the early 1850s, omnibuses—rickety stagecoach-like wagons that could hold maybe a dozen riders—were the only "mass transit" available in Washington. As early as 1852, Gilbert Vanderwerken, an ambitious businessman who owned the city's omnibus company, petitioned Congress for the right to establish the city's first streetcar system, running from Georgetown to Capitol Hill, but it didn't have the political backing to make it through Congress.

Meanwhile, other cities rapidly built streetcar systems: Brooklyn in 1853, Boston in 1856, Philadelphia in 1858, and Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Cincinnati in 1859. Finally, in May 1862—one year into the Civil War and ten years after streetcars had first been proposed—Congress agreed to one in DC, passing a law incorporating the Washington & Georgetown Railroad.

The project had a very tight timeline

The charter specified three lines: an east-west route along Pennsylvania Avenue from Georgetown to the Navy Yard; a north-south route along Seventh Street from Boundary Street (Florida Avenue NW) to the Seventh Street wharves in Southwest; and another north-south route along Fourteenth Street from Boundary Street to Pennsylvania Avenue.

Although Congress had dawdled on authorizing the railway, it required the new company to put the first segment of its line into operation within 60 working days of incorporation—an astonishingly short timespan considering that a war was on and no cars, ties, rails, or other materiel were on hand. Nevertheless, luck was on the side of the fledgling railway. Construction began within a few weeks; rails were ordered and arrived in time for a crew of 40 to begin laying them in June 1862.


Original streetcar tracks on Pennsylvania Avenue, circa 1869.

By early July, the first stretch of track, from the Capitol to the State Department building on Fifteenth Street, was nearly done. "This great and inappreciable comfort and convenience, so long desired and so often defeated, has been…completed with great promptitude," the National Intelligencer exulted.

The first two cars for the new railway arrived from the manufacturer on July 11th. They were elegant pieces of craftsmanship intended to entice well-to-do riders who had no previous experience of public transportation. The Evening Star described them in detail: "The seats on the sides are covered with fine silk velvet, and the windows, which are stained and plain glass combined, are furnished with cherry sash and poplar blinds, beside handsome damask curtains. The top of the car is rounded, permitting persons to stand upright without inconvenience, and rods to which loops are attached, are run from end to end."

The Star also described a festive nighttime test run: "The cars were put on the track last night, and at 11 o'clock run up [Pennsylvania Avenue] as far as Willard's [Hotel], having on board a number of gentlemen, cheering loudly as they passed up and being greeted with cheers from the few persons on the street at that hour."

An operating streetcar system shaped up over the course of a summer

July 29th marked the first day of public operation. The company had ten cars by then, all typical streetcars of the day, pulled by two horses with a driver standing on a platform in front and an enclosed passenger compartment that could comfortably seat twenty. A conductor, usually stationed on the rear platform, collected fares. On opening day the cars were packed, at times with as many as forty eager passengers.

The first car was "crowded almost to suffocation" and screeched to a halt at the curve from Pennsylvania Avenue on to Fifteenth Street. An extra horse was added, and the car kept rolling. The Star wrote admiringly that "The cars in use are handsome and commodious, and the smoothness with which they glide along affords an agreeable change from the rough jolting over the pavements experienced in other modes of vehicular conveyance" (referring to the old omnibuses that the streetcars were replacing). The Star's enthusiastic reporter concluded with a wistful "Farewell, old bus, you're nigh played out."

In August the new line was extended to Georgetown, where the old Vanderwerken omnibus stables were located. By early October the complete line from Georgetown to the Navy Yard was in operation. The two north-south lines on Seventh and Fourteenth Streets entered service shortly thereafter, completing the entire system in less than six months.

In October, with all three lines nearly finished, the company's directors donated twenty old omnibuses to the army for use as ambulances. They were much needed for the war effort and apparently served that purpose well.


A horse-drawn streetcar poses in front of the Capitol.

People loved riding the streetcar

Praise for the new streetcars ran high as Washingtonians began shaping their daily routines around them. People from all walks of life took to the new form of transport. "I rode all the way from Georgetown. What a blessing & a comfort," wrote Martha Custis Williams, the great great granddaughter of Martha Washington, who lived at Georgetown's stately Tudor Place mansion.

In July 1863, The National Intelligencer commented on the Seventh Street line, which had opened nine months earlier: "We cannot help admiring the regularity with which the cars on this road now run. There is no detention to passengers whatsoever. The energy manifested by the gentlemanly conductors meets the approbation of everyone who rides them. We cannot help speaking of the politeness of Conductor Steptoe T. Tune. His obliging manners and amiability give him the praise of all who chance in his car."

Once fully operational, the Washington & Georgetown Railroad scheduled cars to arrive on a five-minute headway and charged a five-cent fare with a free transfer between routes. The company had a total of 70 cars and 490 horses, the horses wearing bells tied to their harnesses to alert pedestrians that a car was coming. The railway's original routes would remain the core of the city's streetcar network throughout its one-hundred-year history and are still echoed in the Route 30 Metrobuses that operate today.

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.

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