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D.C. Streetcars Begin Slow Testing Process On H Street

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Contractors made sure the streetcar cleared the curb during testing.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Contractors made sure the streetcar cleared the curb during testing.
Testing of the streetcar will proceed slowly at first.

As traffic slowed to a crawl behind it, the District’s first streetcar in a half century was towed downs it tracks on H Street NE at four miles per hour on Monday, the first in what will be months of safety tests before passengers board the sleek red and gray vessels in the 2.4-mile corridor.

The District Department of Transportation said the slow speed testing was a success as the streetcar, with a police escort and flanked by contractors in hard hats and florescent yellow safety vests, cleared its platforms and cars parallel parked along H St. and Benning Road. The clearances between the streetcar and platforms where passengers will one day wait for a ride was two to three inches, as designed. The space between the streetcar and cars parked on its right was about one foot wide.

“So far everything is a win,” said DDOT’s Thomas Perry, the head of the streetcar program. “There have been no major issues.”

After successfully towing the streetcar the full length of the corridor, engineers were planning on energizing the overhead power lines to run the streetcar six to eight hours a day for the next couple of weeks at the same leisurely pace before attempting more aggressive testing.

Drivers on H Street who get caught behind the procession are being asked to be patient through the first stage of testing.

“Please be patient, because we are bringing a form of transportation I think people will love in this city,” said Mayor Vincent Gray, who briefly watched the first test from the roadside. “And for those who have been here long enough to remember 50 years ago when we had streetcars, people loved it then.”

DDOT is not estimating a date for the start of passenger service, although safety testing and federal certification is expected to last through most of the winter. The 2.4-mile H Street/Benning Road corridor was contracted for $50 million (not including the cost of four streetcars), the first segment of a planned 22-mile priority streetcar system that will crisscross the District at an estimated cost of $450 million.

The project is designed to serve two purposes: improve public transit and spur economic development. Mayor Gray said Portland, Oregon has a successful streetcar model he believes D.C. can emulate.

“They've had billions of dollars of development that they attribute directly to their streetcar system,” he said.

But the changes the District is banking on worry some longtime residents. The anticipated gentrification along the streetcar corridor – new businesses and residents attracted to planned mixed use development – may mean the displacement of established, poorer residents unless District planners take steps to include affordable housing units in new buildings, as Portland has done.

Neighborhood resident Demetrus Lee-Watson, who watched the streetcar being slowly towed as she waited to cross H Street NE Monday, called the project a waste of money.

“There are a lot of homeless people out here and they don't see what's going on behind these streetcars. We live over here. We know what is going on. There are a lot of people out here who are hungry and have no money. They need to do something about that, and then bring back the streetcars,” she said.

Graig Glufling, the chef at a relatively new restaurant, The Liberty Tree, at 10th and H St., said he welcomes the changes because it will bring him more customers, but he said that should not come at the expense of the people living in the neighborhood now.

“I think when you bring business to the neighborhood, it helps the neighborhood overall, it brings more people and will in turn reduce crime and raise more money for the city,” he said. “The streetcar will bring a lot of business to H Street and those tax revenues can be rolled into projects like affordable housing and programs for the homeless.”

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