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Paperwork Problems Holding Up D.C. Streetcar Launch

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DDOT maintains that streetcars should be ready to go by the end of the year.
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DDOT maintains that streetcars should be ready to go by the end of the year.

Piles of paperwork may be holding up the grand opening of D.C.’s new streetcar line on H Street and Benning Road in Northeast Washington.

For months the modern, red and gray streetcars have glided up and down the 2.4-mile corridor in successive testing phases. Meanwhile, the District Department of Transportation has worked with the District’s Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (FEMS) to certify the system’s safety under criteria established by the Federal Transit Administration. But that partnership is strained.

Multiple sources inside the State Safety Oversight office (part of FEMS), the body that ultimately will decide when the $160 million streetcar line is ready to carry passengers, said DDOT’s project managers consistently submit incomplete or incorrect paperwork in the safety certification process.

DDOT’s submissions have required three or four revisions, said one source, who described the work as “not up to par.” Another source said the oversight office risks “looking foolish” if it approves incomplete or flawed documents before opening the city’s first streetcar line since the 1960s.

DDOT — whose contractor, Omaha-based HDR, helps provide oversight and management of the streetcar program — denied that its work is problematic. The agency provided WAMU 88.5 an extensive log (see below) of the documents submitted to the state safety oversight office (SSO) as of Oct. 28 for all aspects of the project including its safety, emergency preparedness, maintenance, rail activation, and system integration plans.

“We are working in good faith with the SSO. We need to submit information they will accept. Sure the SSO has come back with edits and comments, but I think that is their role,” said DDOT director Matt Brown in an interview.

The District’s six streetcars continue to be tested along H Street and Benning Road despite outstanding safety issues that must be resolved before a single passenger can climb aboard.

Three streetcars built by Czech Republic-based Inekon must undergo brake testing before they can be certified, Brown said. The three streetcars by United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Iron Works (OIW), are missing documents.

“There are car and body frame certifications that we need to obtain from OIW and we are working through that process now,” said Brown.

When asked why the District had not obtained the proper documents when the streetcars rolled off the assembly line, Brown responded, “I can't tell you that. I found out about a week ago that we didn't have those.”

“There is matrix after matrix after matrix of tests that have to be completed. These are ones that, in my opinion, should have been completed before they left the factory,” he added.

Questions linger on opening date

In June WAMU 88.5 reported the H Street/Benning Road streetcar line could open in November under a best-case scenario. While street testing and operator training have been successful, the paperwork delays in the safety certification process make a November opening “very unlikely,” according to the SSO sources. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the partnership with DDOT.

For its part, DDOT publicly is not offering any estimated start dates. Brown repeated the agency’s position that the streetcars should be ready by the end of the year.

“We are working through the issues,” said Brown. “We want to do this in a way that is safe.”

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is expected to announce a grand opening date at a news conference in the next several weeks where he will also reveal how what streetcar fares will cost. The Washington Post has reported fares will be free at first.

Once DDOT submits a final certification package, the SSO will then send the documents to the Federal Transit Administration. Federal officials have agreed to work with DDOT on an expedited schedule. Instead of taking the usual 60 days to review the documents, the FTA has informed DDOT the process could take three to five days.

The SSO will then have the final say on whether a streetcar system plagued by years of delays finally is ready for revenue service.

Streetcar Logs From The State Safety Oversight Office

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