In May 2013, Mayor Vincent Gray stood in front of a red-and-gray streetcar in an Anacostia testing yard and repeated a promise he had made before: The long-awaited trolley line along H Street and Benning Road Northeast would open for passenger service by the end of the year.
"We have said all along that the streetcar effort would start in earnest this year, in 2013, and we’re still on track to be able to do that," he said, before turning to Terry Bellamy and Nic Nicholson, the director and chief engineer, respectively, at the D.C. Department of Transportation. "I know that our chief engineer and our director, we are still on track, right?"
"On track, sir," responded Nicholson.
That optimism continued late into 2013, even as indications — both internal and external — mounted that the two-and-half-mile route would not be ready. A maintenance and training facility remained unbuilt, three streetcars from an Oregon-based manufacturer were months late, city officials couldn't even say what fares would be or how they would be paid, and a time-consuming safety certification had barely started.
Now, close to halfway through 2014, the streetcar along H Street — the first in D.C. in over 50 years — remains a project in the works. But despite the continually shifting estimates as to when the trolleys would run, residents, businesses and city leaders say they are excited for the return of streetcars to D.C. They say streetcars — a planned 37-mile network of them — will connect distant neighborhoods and revive retail corridors in all four quadrants, much as they have in other U.S. cities.
But what has caused all the delays on the H Street line? And could those delays extend to the next planned portion, in which 22 more miles of streetcar tracks are set to be built? In the first of a four-part series on the return of streetcars to D.C., WAMU 88.5 looks at what it has taken to get trolleys running again and what city officials are doing to make sure that the next lines are built more quickly than the first.
Moving Forward By Looking Back
Details on the H Street/Benning Road NE line. Click to enlarge
Streetcars are not a new idea in D.C. In fact, they're very old.
Streetcars crisscrossed D.C. for close to 100 years, carrying people from as far as Cabin John to the Navy Yard and Takoma to Capitol Hill. But in 1962, the last of the streetcar lines was shut down, victim of an America more enthralled by private automobiles than aging trolleys. Ken Rucker, a historian at the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville, Maryland, says that a route along H Street, a historic commercial corridor, dated back to 1872.
"At one time through the H Street corridor, it was possible to travel out to Benning and on to Seat Pleasant and Kenilworth by streetcar. And if you boarded one of the large inter-urban cars of the Washington, Baltimore and Annapolis, it was possible to go to Annapolis, transfer to a ferry and cross the bay to get to the Eastern Shore," he explains.
The H Street line was dismantled in the 1930s and 40s; the last line in D.C. ceased operation 20 years later. Rucker says that a growing interest in private automobiles and growing bus companies spelled the end of trolleys in D.C. and many other U.S. cities.
The interest in bringing streetcars back dates to 1997, when then-mayor Marion Barry's administration published a map showing a line on H Street and another running from Buzzard Point to Takoma. His successor, Mayor Anthony Williams, also expressed interest in the option as part of a broader revitalization of the corridor, but it wasn't until Mayor Adrian Fenty's administration implemented a planned streetscape upgrade on H Street that the streetcar tracks were installed.
D.C. officials have since planned for up to 37 miles of streetcar routes crossing the city, starting with H Street and expanding to a 22-mile priority system that will see trolleys travel from Benning Road to Georgetown and Anacostia to Takoma. The entire 37-mile system, which will take 30 years to fully implement, is expected to cost $1.5 billion.
Proponents of returning trolleys to D.C. streets say that they will serve to connect neighborhoods, increase residential density and bring more residents closer to mass transit.
"The main thing about streetcar is that it’s really about mobility, and that’s about being able to ensure connections between neighborhood to neighborhood as well as complementing the existing system. For instance, being able to connect to Metro stations as well as connecting that those neighborhoods, that’s what we see the purpose of streetcar," says Thomas Perry, DDOT's project manager for the H Street project.
But more than that, advocates say that trolleys will provide a permanent investment that can help spur economic development. In 2012, the D.C. Office of Planning estimated that the streetcar routes would bring $18 billion in new development within a decade.
"When it runs, when people are able to see it, experience it, I think it will be transformative, like it has been in other cities across the world," says Council member Tommy Wells, who has represented Ward 6 on the D.C. Council since 2007. H Street is in his ward.
Delays, Delays, Delays
When it runs, of course, has been a question since the tracks were put in the ground on H Street in 2011. But what has accounted for all the delays?
According to Gabe Klein, who headed DDOT from 2008 to 2011, the problems started with how the tracks were put in the ground. He says the city rushed into installing them as part of streetscape upgrades, but punted on further planning for the streetcar line. In fact, H Street wasn't even supposed to be the first line — that distinction was set for a short segment in Anacostia, though it was eventually replaced by H Street and Benning Road.
"I was hired at the end of 2008, and as I remember it, the Anacostia line was soon to start construction, and that was considered the first line that was going to come up. The H Street project was actually a streetscape, that was a complete streetscape, meaning a reconstruction of the street, which means the utilities needed to be moved," he says.
"The thinking of my predecessors was, 'If we’re going to disrupt the street that much, if we’re going to disrupt the businesses and so forth, let’s go ahead and lay the tracks because we know this is going to be a major route for streetcars,'" he says. "It was a smart thing to do. When you do that, of course, sometimes you don’t plan for everything else at the same time. And so there was a little bit of time lost."
That time lost meant that D.C. missed an opportunity to run the streetcar through the base of the Hopscotch Bridge to connect to Union Station. Instead, the city was forced to run the tracks over the bridge, despite knowing that it will have to be replaced within the next five years.
There were also substantial complications with contracts and procurement.
According to internal DDOT documents obtained by WAMU 88.5 through a FOIA request, construction on a training and maintenance facility — known as the car barn — and other infrastructure as part of a $50 million contract was set to begin in November 2011, but was delayed by 228 days. That delay alone largely pushed possible streetcar service outside of the 2013 window Gray and other city officials were claiming. Once construction began on the car barn, which is to be located on the campus of Spingarn High School, a move to grant the school historic designation increased the price of the contract substantially, to $79 million.
There were also procurement problems in the purchase of three additional streetcars. D.C. had bought three Czech-made streetcars for $10 million in 2008, but it needed at least three more to allow for regular service on H Street. When it put out an $8.7 million contract out for bid in late 2011, the same Czech company, Inekon, submitted an offer — but D.C. chose to go with United Streetcar, an Oregon-based manufacturer. Inekon formally protested, leading D.C. to cancel to deal altogether and instead piggy-back on an existing contract that the city of Portland, Oregon had with United Streetcar.
A D.C. streetcar being built in Oregon. (Photo by DDOT)
Two of the streetcars were due in August 2013 and a third in October, but in August of that year the company informed DDOT that the earliest it could get the two of the three cars to the city was in January 2014, with the third coming in March. Based on that schedule, D.C. estimated that the company would owe the city over $110,000 in fines for late delivery. (The contract called for $300-per-car fines for every day that the delivery was delayed.)
In December 2013, DDOT director Terry Bellamy wrote the company's president to express his dissatisfaction with the delays, which other cities working with the company had also experienced. He also criticized what he said was a move by the company to ship a streetcar that city consultants had said was not ready. (See Bellamy's letter and United Streetcar's response here.)
"It is simply unacceptable that your firm expected the District to approve acceptance of a streetcar vehicle that it technically or mechanically deficient and not ready to be transported to the nation's capital," he wrote. "DDOT not only expects United Streetcar to promptly correct all of these issues with the first vehicle, but it also expects that you will make delivery of our other two vehicles a top priority — and that there not be not even one day of further slippage in the delivery dates."
The first car arrived in D.C. on January 21, a second in February, and a third is expected by June 2 — the date set by Bellamy in his letter. With any further delays, he wrote, any future deals between the city and the company would be imperiled. That could mean a lot of lost business for the Oregon company: Bellamy said D.C. will need 60 cars for the initial 22-mile network of streetcar routes.
"We had some challenges through the procurement process. Very frustrating, but it’s a procurement process. To make sure everything’s fair, that’s what we had to deal with," says Nic Nicholson, who served as DDOT's chief engineer from 2010 to April 2014. (Gray has said he wants to change how D.C. handles contracts and procurement.)
But even if those issues had been resolved earlier in 2013, Nicholson says that a time-consuming safety certification required by the federal government would have likely pushed streetcar service outside the 2013 window.
"The mayor and the DDOT committed to the community to have streetcar service within 2013, by the end of the year. As things start to gel, we began seeing that, OK, we need to get this state safety oversight certification. And as that lined up, we started to see that, OK, end of the year is really a far reach because for them to do a new line and everything else, it wasn’t going to happen," he says.
The delays are weighing on some D.C. legislators. Mary Cheh represents Ward 3 on the D.C. Council and presides over the Council’s transportation committee. "Every time I ask about deadline, it moves on me. I had been thinking that by summer, now it’s by fall," she says.
Cheh also believes that DDOT's management of the project speaks to its abilities as a bureaucracy, one that she's hoping to break up into smaller agencies.
"It's part of this whole issue about their ability to manage projects, projects of this size and other projects, which is why I'm thinking we have to have some change," she says.
Wells is also unhappy with the project’s pace.
"The thing that has frustrated me the most is how long this has taken. It has taken way too long. I am frustrated that this has seemed so cumbersome. Other cities are able to build streetcars and light rail, I believe, at a much faster rate," he says.
Speeding Up The Streetcars
Gray on a streetcar during testing in January. (Photo by DDOT)
The D.C. Department of Transportation thinks it has a solution to speed up construction on the next 22-mile segment: Farm the project out to a consortium of private firms that would design, built, operate, and maintain the lines.
"I think we told the mayor that if the 22 miles — if we were to maybe do it, [it would take] 20 years. The mayor says that’s unacceptable. So we say give me some options on how we can bring it closer. We began thinking of some of these options and one of them was to work with the private sector," said Nicholson, DDOT's chief engineer.
How much faster could the private sector build the next streetcar lines? City officials estimate that working with the firms they could complete the lines by 2020, and at a fraction of the cost. The investment in H Street and a short streetcar segment in Anacostia exceeds $160 million; Mayor Vincent Gray has budgeted $810 million for the next 22 miles.
"The benefits you get from that is the coordination between the company that’s going to operate it day to day and the company that’s going to do the design of the system and the engineering," says Klein, who worked with private firms on the reconstruction of the 11th Street Bridge.
"You can get a lot of operational efficiencies long term that save the city money day to day in operating it, but you can also save a lot of time and budget in the actual construction, because you’re designing it as you build it," he explains.
What's Next On H Street?
Work continues on H Street ahead of what city officials hope is passenger service in late summer or early fall. Construction on temporary and permanent maintenance facilities are ongoing and DDOT is working through the details of exactly what fares will be, how they will be paid and what D.C. will have to put in on a yearly basis to keep the line operating.
There is also the issue of the safety certification: Nicholson says that once it is complete, revenue service could begin within 30-45 days. The certification process is extensive, though, and it is up to the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department, which is responsible for the certification, to sign off on the streetcars before they can run.
D.C. Fire and EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe has not seemed intent on speeding up the process. In a late-December 2013 email from DDOT associate director Carl Jackson obtained by WAMU, Jackson writes others in the department that Ellerbe resisted requests from City Administrator Allen Lew that the certification be sped up in order to get the streetcars running sooner.
"Chief Ellerbe stated that an accelerated schedule in some way is a compromise of safety, and that he instructed [Safety Oversight Agency] to apply a very high level of oversight," wrote Jackson. According to the email, Lew said he wanted additional shifts added for contractors to make sure fixes were completed more quickly.
Despite the remaining work that's left to be done, Perry, DDOT's point man on H Street, remains upbeat.
"Bringing back streetcar to the District after more than 50 years, there are going to be some bumps and bruises," he says. "I think with the plan that we’ve had we’ve been able to mitigate those issues and those challenges and move forward. We are pretty much at the 20-yard line, we’re trying to score, we’re getting there, we just need to keep pushing."
Coming Tomorrow: We look at how D.C. has been working to prepare residents, drivers, businesses, and cyclists for life with a streetcar.