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Long-Delayed D.C. Streetcar Months From Opening, Says DDOT Chief
Final expert review identifies additional design problems

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The 2.4-mile line along H Street and Benning Road NE has yet to carry any passengers.
Martin Austermuhle/WAMU
The 2.4-mile line along H Street and Benning Road NE has yet to carry any passengers.

The District’s first streetcar line in more than half a century — beset by a bevy of construction and planning problems — is nearing completion, but it still remains “months” from opening to the public, said D.C.’s top transportation official in an interview with WAMU 88.5 on Thursday.

The remarks by DDOT director Leif Dormsjo come as the District releases a final report by outside transit experts assembled by the American Public Transportation Association. A preliminary report issued in March identified 18 areas that needed to be addressed before the 2.4-mile streetcar line along H Street and Benning Road Northeast should open to the public.

The final report was reviewed by WAMU 88.5 before its public release on Thursday morning.

“It serves as a road map to getting us to operational readiness,” said Dormsjo. “It is a validation that we have a lot of work that needs to be knocked out, but that we’re close. We are close to getting open. I would say we are months away from getting open.”

Delays have plagued the project since its inception in 2011, when streetcar tracks were installed along H Street. Former Mayor Vincent Gray oversaw significant work on the streetcar line, but also failed to meet a number of promises for starting passenger service along the commercial corridor.

And according to the final APTA report, there is still work to be done. It lists 15 additional observations on top of the 18 recommendations in the preliminary findings.

“The general organization of the project and the support to DDOT from the contractors appears to be uneven. Many areas of support may be buried deeper in the organization than need be. As stated previously, there needs to be one person in charge who takes responsibility for the project,” according to one of the report’s new observations.

One of Dormsjo’s first moves after taking the helm of DDOT was to re-organize the streetcar’s management team. The report found confusion between project staff and independent safety oversight officers housed within the D.C. Fire Department, an issue Dormsjo said is being rectified.

“Now we are really trying to drive the schedule and work closely with the Fire Department to make sure they have adequate time for their reviews. That was a problem in the past and I think it is important to make sure we are on the same page with the Fire Department,” the DDOT director said.

Under the Gray administration, the relationship between streetcar project managers and the safety oversight office, run by Fire Captain Kelton Ellerbe, was marked by hostility. Each side accused the other of holding up final safety approval.

Now, Dormsjo said, that relationship is fixed. Other problems are delaying the start of passenger service.

“A lot of steps had been skipped and going back and getting that work retrofit and corrected has taken some time. We’ve had to correct the platforms. We’ve had to make some adjustments to the vehicles and their leveling systems. We are also doing some overhauls on the mechanical systems on the streetcars. These are things you can’t avoid. You have to take care of them,” Dormsjo said.

The findings of the preliminary APTA report turned H Street and Benning Road into an active construction zone. Contractors went to work fixing cracked rails and the six streetcars, three of which came off the assembly line a decade ago, were pulled from the line and sent to a temporary maintenance barn for repairs.

Among the final report’s new observations is a recommendation that could lead to fewer mishaps involving cars parked along the curb on H Street Northeast, where the streetcar tracks lie just inches away.

“Consider using rear-facing cameras on streetcars instead of mirrors. DDOT should consider replacing rear view mirrors on the streetcars with backward-facing exterior cameras. This will both reduce the extended “width” of the streetcar in this narrow corridor and avoid potential conflicts, especially with adjacent parked vehicles along H Street,” the report said.

Also, the report recommends resolving pedestrian safety concerns at Union Station.

“There are potential problems with pedestrians walking down the alignment from Union Station. This is a result of construction work between Union Station and 3rd Street along the south side of H Street,” the report said.

APTA experts identified potential pedestrian safety problems in other areas.

“Pedestrians frequently jaywalk across H Street and Benning Road along the entire alignment, which is why it is critical to encourage them to use existing, marked, and signalized crossings,” the report said.

“Pedestrian safety along the corridor requires additional evaluation, so the panel suggests using deterrents to this practice, such as enhanced landscaping, fencing, and enforcement. Several current and potential conflict areas with pedestrians need to be improved.”

Parking signage along H Street was also identified as a problem.

“A solid white line is painted on the inside of the parking lanes (between vehicles and the streetcar track) for the entire length of H Street. While there are signs explaining the need for drivers to park inside the white line, with no tires on the line, these signs are small and posted only sporadically along H Street,” the report said.

“Further, there is a profusion of other signs on that route — including “Tow Away Zone,” “Emergency Snow Route,” “Pay to Park,” and “No Parking” — so that the major message is essentially hidden.”

The report concludes that some of DDOT’s contractors lack the necessary experience to effectively build a streetcar line.

“Based on the panel’s examination of resumes provided, we concluded that not all PM contractor staff assigned to this project have enough relevant light rail or streetcar experience. Likewise, the O & M contractor resumes reviewed found only one individual with a light rail or streetcar experience,” the report said.

DDOT Final Report June 17 2015 by Martin Austermuhle

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