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For D.C. Streetcar Line, 2.2 Miles' Worth Of Questions Remain

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A D.C. streetcar makes a practice run along H Street Northeast.
WAMU/Martin Di Caro
A D.C. streetcar makes a practice run along H Street Northeast.

As empty streetcars continue to move up and down H Street Northeast in snow, rain or sunshine, residents and business owners along the busy D.C. commercial corridor hardly can be blamed for building up an expectation of actual passenger service.

The streetcars at least appear to be operating OK — with the exception of several minor fender-benders and a still unexplained but small flash fire that knocked one of the streetcars out of service. The sleek red-and-gray vehicles glide along fixed tracks, sharing the road with cars and buses, and making stops at new platforms every few blocks. They have been visible outside storefronts for months.

Whatever safety issues are holding up the grand opening of the 2.2-mile line are not obvious to the naked eye, however. So what are they?

The first place to look is a Dec. 11 letter by federal safety officials to the District Department of Transportation that appears to substantiate the stated concerns of D.C. leaders that the $160 million project suffered from poor, haphazard management. The letter came as former Mayor Vincent Gray was pushing for the system to open before his single term in office ended in late December.

Lapses in project management

Seven recommendations in the letter issued by the Federal Transit Administration remain unresolved. (They’re listed in full below.) The recommendations point to lapses in fundamental aspects of project management, identifying tasks that any public transit system in the country would need to complete before carrying a single passenger.

DDOT already had fulfilled 17 safety recommendations made by federal officials last year, but these seven are still open. A DDOT spokesman said no one in the agency was available to discuss when the work would be complete.

DDOT did not provide answers to a number of other questions posed by WAMU 88.5: What caused the fire where the streetcar made contact with the overhead wires on Feb. 21? How many of the District’s fleet of six streetcars continue to conduct “pre-revenue operations” – test runs – along H Street? What is the updated price tag of the entire project thus far?

The D.C. Fire and EMS Department also did not respond to a request by WAMU 88.5 to interview the head of the project’s safety oversight office, Capt. Kelton Ellerbe, who is tasked with certifying the line is safe for passenger service.

Since Mayor Muriel Bowser took office in January, her choice to run DDOT, Leif Dormsjo, has reshuffled the streetcar project’s management team, placing in charge the agency’s deputy associate director, Ralph Burns.

Dormsjo has vowed to comprehensively review the project before determining if and when it will open.

Holes in the process

The seven unresolved recommendations indicate DDOT failed to fulfill important process-related elements of the project, even as streetcars continued test runs last year.

For instance, the FTA’s safety inspectors noted holes in the training of streetcar employees and maintenance personnel who will work out of the system’s operations control center. Standard operating procedures were not finalized. The FTA recommended DDOT work with the city’s traffic engineers to minimize the possibility of crashes with other vehicles. And it was noted that safety oversight officials should clearly communicate what is required to open the line to the public.

Last June, WAMU 88.5, citing a high-level project source with direct knowledge of the testing and training process, reported that the streetcars could open under a best-case scenario in November. But deadlines proved slippery. However strongly DDOT’s project team believed the system was ready for launch, disagreements with oversight officials over the documentation of safety and operational protocols derailed hopes of a 2014 opening.

It remains unclear how much longer the safety certification process led by Ellerbe will last.

Once-positive outlook fading

Work to lay the streetcar tracks along H Street started in 2008 under the administration of Mayor Adrian Fenty. In 2009, he hired Gabe Klein to run DDOT, and the following year Klein produced a study for a streetcar network crisscrossing Washington.

Years later that plan has yet to be realized, and the new administration in the Wilson Building has not yet committed to funding it.

“People should go back and read that,” said Klein, referring to his 2010 plan (pdf). “That was coordinated with Metro. It coordinated bus service with streetcar service in a 37-mile system in the District of Columbia.”

“I’d love to see the original study and report we put together for the streetcar be picked back up. In 2010 we envisioned we would build the 37 miles under a consortium of international experts. H Street was a learning process for us.”

While disappointed the H Street line is not open to the public, Klein expressed confidence the Bowser administration would effectively deal with the project’s problems.

“The new mayor has inherited a situation that she and the new DDOT director have to figure out. They are going to do that. These are very competent people.”

Unresolved FTA safety recommendations issued to DDOT:

  • Recommendation 3: The integrated schedule should accurately address all major project activities leading into revenue service.
  • Recommendation 13: The District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services (D.C. FEMS) should communicate the State Safety Oversight Agency (SSOA) requirements to the DDOT, including scheduling and conducting the pre-revenue assessment.
  • Recommendation 19: The DDOT should ensure that all Standard Operating Procedures are comprehensive and finalized prior to revenue operations.
  • Recommendation 20: The DDOT should develop training curriculum and criteria for the D.C. Streetcar control center employees and maintenance personnel.
  • Recommendation 21: Simulated service, pre-revenue operations, and elements subject to retesting should be sufficiently described and scheduled.
  • Recommendation 22: The DDOT should specify a process supporting certification of public outreach events in their public outreach plan.
  • Recommendation 24: As part of the Operating Hazard Analysis (OHA), the DDOT should conduct diagnostic evaluations of the alignment with city traffic engineers and other experts to determine possible mitigations related to the interaction of the streetcars with vehicular traffic.

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