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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.

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!

History


DC's first electric streetcar helped build Eckington

DC got its first electric streetcar in 1888 when the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway went into operation. A ban on overhead wires kept it from running downtown, and the company ultimately went out of business because it couldn't find another option.

I recently wrote about the 100-year history of streetcars in the District, from 1862 to 1962 (the span from the first and last times a streetcar carried passengers in DC), in my book, Capital Streetcars: Early Mass Transit in Washington, DC. The following story about the Eckington line has been adapted from the book.

Eckington developed alongside the streetcar

Eckington was perhaps the first "true" streetcar suburb in the District in the sense that it was designed from the start as a streetcar destination. It originally had been the estate of Joseph Gales Jr. (1786—1860), publisher of the National Intelligencer newspaper and one of the city's early mayors. He had named it Eckington after his birthplace in England.

Real estate investor Colonel George Truesdell (1842—1921) bought the Eckington tract in 1887 with the idea of building a modern bedroom suburb on it. Truesdell laid out his new subdivision as an idyllic suburban community with large house lots, stunning views of the city and desirable modern amenities—including paved streets, stone sidewalks and electric streetlights—that more established District neighborhoods still didn't have.

In 1888, Truesdell obtained a Congressional charter for a streetcar company specifically to serve his pretty new suburb. The line would include an electric station to power the railway as well as the brilliant streetlights to light up Eckington at night. Poles went into the center of the roadway to carry the overhead wires for the streetcars. It was an ideal arrangement.

The railway's original route started downtown at Mount Vernon Square, at the intersection of Seventh Street (the main commercial corridor of the day) and New York Avenue. It ran northeast from there to Third Street, then turned north, passing through the heart of the new development, and continued into the countryside along Fourth Street until it finally ended at the southern entrance to the Soldiers Home grounds, a popular spot for Sunday outings.


The route of the Eckington line superimposed on a modern map. Map by Matthew B. Gilmore

The Eckington line was not only the first mechanized streetcar line in Washington, but it was also the city's first electric trolley line—the word trolley referring to a streetcar that gathers electric power from overhead lines through a pole on the roof of the car.

Some dreaded "the evil of overhead wires"

For many Washingtonians, the revolutionary new Eckington trolley was a marvel to behold. But for other observers, notably Crosby S. Noyes (1825—1908), editor of the Evening Star, it was the incarnation of evil.

When plans for the Eckington project first became public in August 1888, the Star lashed out with a fierce editorial:

"The reform of abolishing overhead wires in the District seems to be progressing backward," it warned. "[N]ow the Commissioners add a new species of overhead wire to the existing network by permitting the Eckington railway to construct an overhead electric system." They should instead be working to "secure to the city the benefits of rapid transit without aggravating the evil of overhead wires," the Star insisted.

Spurred to action, Congress soon passed a series of laws that required all DC streetcar companies to convert from horsepower to some form of mechanized power by July 1893. But they simultaneously banned the use of overhead wires in the downtown area after that date.

The edict undoubtedly was frustrating for Truesdell. After the successful inauguration of Richmond's trolley system early in 1888, it was universally understood that trolleys using overhead wires were the cheapest and most efficient way to power streetcar systems. Trolley systems were already being planned and built in cities all over the country, but they were now banned in the District.

Still, the streetcar was initially successful, and it even expanded to Brookland

For several days after the new line opened in October 1888, crowds formed along New York Avenue, not only to see the streetcars zipping along without horses but also to see the street lit up at night by the electric lights mounted on the iron poles in the center of the roadway.


Opening day of the Eckington & Soldiers Home Railway. Photo from the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

Truesdell soon set about expanding his new railway to serve a wider clientele. Extensions were first built on the northern ends of the lines, one heading north along North Capitol Street and the other extending from the Soldiers Home to the Catholic University of America, which had just been established in 1887, and the adjoining new village of Brookland. With luck, the new destinations would soon fill with streetcar riders.

Truesdell had always wanted to extend the line on its southern end farther into the downtown area, but that meant coming up with an alternate power source because of the ban on overhead trolleys downtown. Truesdell was determined to find a propulsion technology that wouldn't break the bank. He, like other railway directors, was convinced that using underground electrical power was not economical.

Another power option was too dangerous, and batteries didn't work either

One alternative was to set electrical contacts right in the pavement between the tracks on the roadway, which was certainly a much less expensive approach than digging underground conduits lined with continuous power rails. Each streetcar would get power momentarily from one of these contact plates as the car passed over, propelling it on to the next plate.

The company experimented with such a system in late 1890 on a stretch of test track along North Capital Street north of Boundary Street. However, the "surface contact" system they tried was a bust. The contact plates in the street were supposed to be electrified only when a streetcar was directly over them, but there was no practical way to ensure that they did not stay charged when they were in the open. It was soon obvious that the railroad couldn't deploy a system that might randomly electrocute people or horses stepping on the plates, and the experiment had to be abandoned.


An experimental surface contact streetcar. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Next, when in late 1890 the company began building its downtown extension, it tried using battery-powered cars. The extension ran south from New York Avenue along Fifth Street Northwest and then turned east on G Street and continued to the Treasury Department, bringing the Eckington line into the heart of the downtown commercial district. With this southern extension in place, the company could offer a twenty-five-minute ride all the way from Brookland down to the Treasury Department, although it required a transfer at New York Avenue from a trolley-powered to a battery-powered car.

For the new Southern extension, the company bought the latest Robinson electric cars, elegant carriages finished in mahogany with gold trim that had three sets of wheels intended to facilitate going around curves. Pretty as they may have been, the Robinson cars were too pokey, and recharging their batteries was slow and expensive. In 1893, after just two years, the company gave up on batteries.

The struggle over overhead wires continued, but ultimately failed

The railway soldiered on, its fight for overhead wires soon degenerating into a game of chicken with the Star and the DC commissioners. Exasperated that an overhead trolley system could not be installed to replace the failed battery cars, the railway converted its downtown extension to horsecars, ignoring the fact that horsecars were supposed to have been phased out by that time.

More horsecar lines were added in 1894 while the original overhead trolley line along New York Avenue and to the north continued to operate. The company's directors figured that people would be so fed up with these outmoded cars that Congress would give in and allow them to install an overhead trolley system.

The Evening Star editors were doubly upset about this turn of events. Not only were horsecars back, but the Eckington company had also missed a revised July 1, 1895 deadline for taking down the poles and overhead wires on New York Avenue, which the newspaper referred to as "obnoxious obstructions."

After the Star redoubled its public complaints, the company tried a new tack. The overhead wire system on New York Avenue was removed, and that portion of the Eckington line began running…yes, more horsecars!

The Washington Post commented that switching to horses "will mean a considerable increase in the expense to the company, which already has its stables full of horses that are not in condition for use, and it will give the residents on the line a poorer service. But the company is taking a rather grim satisfaction in the matter, as they are already losing money on their horse service, and they think that the additional loss will be a sort of investment as an object lesson to the public on the benefit of rapid transit, trolley or otherwise."

As it turned out, the public was the one giving the lesson. "Eckington is at present a very much disgusted community," the Post reported. Customers stayed away from the balky, outmoded horsecar service, which they found insulting. Ridership plummeted as rapidly as expenses soared. A year later, the overextended company was bankrupt.

A final try didn't work

A last desperate effort went into making the Eckington line viable. In early 1896, the company hosted the demonstration of a streetcar powered by compressed air, which it gambled would be both publicly acceptable and economically viable. The compressed air system used the pressure of air from canisters stored underneath the passenger seats to push pistons that turned the car's wheels. The compressed air was heated with steam to increase its force as it moved out of the canisters.


This double-decker streetcar saw brief service on the Eckington line. Photo courtesy of the National Capital Trolley Museum.

However, the public did not care for the compressed air cars, finding them smoky, dusty and smelly. The cars also tended to be slow on uphill grades. The compressed air experiment, on which the hopes of the company had been pinned, was quickly abandoned.

At this point, the bankrupt line had already been purchased by a group of investors led by financier Oscar T. Crosby (1861—1947). In 1898, the Crosby syndicate also gained control of most of the other street railway lines in the District and began operating them under one holding company, called the Washington Traction and Electric Company. In compliance with the Congressional edict, the new conglomerate finally began installing underground electrical conduit systems on the portions of the former Eckington line that were within the downtown area. The struggle to find an alternative to underground conduits had failed.

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