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DDOT Requests Top-To-Bottom Review For D.C. Streetcar After Series Of Delays

Grand opening unlikely before May

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The streetcar is still in testing mode on H Street in the early going of 2015.
The streetcar is still in testing mode on H Street in the early going of 2015.

One of the first major transportation decisions made by the Bowser administration and its new director of DDOT was to hit the restart button on the long delayed H Street/Benning Road Northeast streetcar line.

One bogus target date after another had passed without passenger service in both 2013 and 2014, and the relationship between DDOT and safety oversight officials within the D.C. Fire Department grew acrimonious.

Now, as the safety certification process continues without a deadline and streetcar test runs carry on along H Street Northeast, the District Department of Transportation has requested a top-to-bottom "peer review" of all aspects of the 2.5-mile streetcar system’s operations. It will be performed over the next several weeks by a team of transit experts assembled by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a non-profit research and advocacy group.

Peer review to examine what DDOT is doing right and wrong

APTA performs 25 to 30 reviews of transit systems per year, said the group’s vice president for public safety, operations, and technical service, Greg Hull, in an interview with WAMU 88.5.

“DDOT has asked us to bring together a team of subject matter experts from other public transit organizations with skill sets and experience — lessons learned — through the introduction of their own rail systems over the past number of years,” Hull said.

“This activity is not uncommon both here in the U.S. and outside the U.S.,” Hull added. “We are often asked to bring together people in the industry before a system goes into revenue service.”

The APTA review is expected to take five to seven weeks, making a grand opening for the streetcar line unlikely before May.

The line, the District’s first since 1962, also will not open until state safety oversight (SSO) officials within the D.C. Fire Department agree to the final safety certification, a process that has dragged on for months.

Last June, a high level project source with direct knowledge of the system’s operations and on-track testing told WAMU the streetcars could be ready to go in November, but safety oversight officials repeatedly clashed with DDOT’s project management team over acceptance of safety documentation, indefinitely delaying the final approval.

In an interview, new DDOT director Leif Dormsjo repeated his stance that the SSO office will receive as much time as it needs to complete the certification without any pressure from his agency.

“I can't speak to the work being performed by the SSO because I want to respect their independence,” Dormsjo said. “They are being very earnest and professional. I haven’t been concerned about the scope or direction of their work.”

Dormsjo said the APTA review will also be independent.

“They don't have anything at stake with the project. They can give you an honest assessment of what you are doing right, and what you need to do better.”

APTA to look at streetcar function on H Street

Since the streetcar began test runs last summer, residents, pedestrians, motorists, and Metro’s X2 bus drivers have had to make an adjustment, and no longer could cars double park outside storefronts because they would block the streetcar tracks.

APTA’s experts will analyze DDOT’s plans for the streetcar to share space with other traffic.

“The types of things we would be looking for would be the procedures that have been developed for interacting with vehicles in traffic, interfacing with pedestrians, outreach to the public, and to educate the public,” Hull said.

“Each and every transit system is different,” Hull added. “There is a saying that if you have seen one transit system, you have seen one transit system. There are a lot of common features in the operations of these rail systems, but they are unique in many ways.”

Businesses sticking by project

Mayor Vincent Gray spent the better part of his single term in office touting the streetcar as the lynchpin to H Street’s renaissance, the potential driver of billions in future economic development based on Portland’s successful streetcar model. Gray never got to see that vision fully realized, but the very presence of fixed tracks along the corridor is credited with spurring at least some of the new residential and commercial development there.

For now, businesses say they remain confident the streetcar will deliver under new leadership in the Wilson Building.

“The last thing we need is for something to happen on that streetcar to take us months back and people lose confidence, so I rather the city do the right thing, make sure it is safe, and then the public can ride it,” said Anwar Saleem, executive director of H Street Main Street, a non-profit group dedicated to neighborhood revitalization.

Saleem said DDOT’s new director has reached out to the community to communicate the project’s new direction.

“Dormsjo stopped everything he was doing and had a meeting with us. He explained to us what was going on and we gave our side of the story,” Saleem said.

“People have to understand what we are going through on H Street. You are looking at four, five years of frustration waiting for the streetcar. We can't sustain ourselves after going through what we've been through,” said Saleem referring to all the plans and investments businesses have put into place on the premise the streetcar would have started passenger service by now.


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