Tim Borchers, right, is the new streetcar launch manager for DDOT, bringing his international transportation experience to bear for the H Street project.
This is Part One of two-part series. Part Two deals with residents' reactions to the timeline.
After years of hollow promises and missed deadlines, the managers of the D.C. streetcar project in Northeast Washington took a new approach since Mayor Muriel Bowser appointed Leif Dormsjo to run the District Department of Transportation. The days are over of publicly promising the start of passenger service, replaced by straight talk and realistic expectations.
But as the empty streetcars continue their test runs and construction crews fix the platforms, the question remains: when will the streetcar line open? The man the District hired to see the $160 million project to completion is only willing to say the launch is close. How close? Very.
Tim Borchers, 53, is the new streetcar launch manager. He comes to D.C. via Interfleet, an international rail consulting firm. Interfleet signed a six-month, $833,000 contract.
Borchers is an Australia native who has managed streetcar and tram systems in his native country and in the U.S. He launched the Atlanta streetcar last year, and contributed to the top-to-bottom peer review now guiding the work that will rectify any problems holding up completion of the H Street/Benning Road line, the District’s first since 1962.
The review’s final report, written by transit experts assembled by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), was released July 9 and includes 18 recommendations and 15 other observations concerning safety.
Streetcar service is coming, but don't expect to hear promises about timelines anymore. (Martin Di Caro/WAMU)
Meet Tim Borchers
In his first remarks to reporters since being hired in May, Borchers said project managers and contractors are methodically rectifying design problems in the 2.4-mile corridor, upgrading and maintaining the District’s fleet of six vehicles, training the operators, and cooperatively working with safety oversight officials within the D.C. Fire Department who will have the final say on when the line may open.
Borchers spoke to reporters during an hour-long tour of the maintenance barn at the eastern end of the line and at a platform being replaced at 19th Street and Benning Road Northeast.
“My first impression when I walked in the door was it was almost ready,” said Borchers, who has worked on rail systems in Australia, including Melbourne’s largest-in-the-world tramway network, Atlanta, Savannah, Sarasota, Tucson, and Memphis, among other cities.
“The system is very close to being open,” he said.
Of course, the people have heard that line before. Officials spent 2013 and then 2014 promising streetcars but failed to deliver. Last week Dormsjo expressed confidence the line would open “within months.”
Streetcars in the barn
When the six-car fleet is not sharing a lane with cars, trucks, bikes, and Metro’s X2 buses on H Street and Benning Road, the streetcars are sitting inside a temporary maintenance barn where they undergo continual tune-ups.
“These cars are being brought to a very high standard so they can meet passenger service requirements,” said Borchers, pointing to the three streetcars built by Inekon in the Czech Republic that started arriving in D.C. in 2008.
“Those cars were manufactured many years ago and were stored for a long time. A lot of parts had to be serviced and replaced, in fact, before they could be made fully operational,” Borchers added.
Bringing the streetcars into a state of good repair was one of the 18 APTA recommendations.
The three streetcars built by United Streetcar, a subsidiary of Oregon Ironworks, were retrofit to prevent a repeat of the Feb. 21 fire that damaged the top of one vehicle.
“It was an arcing [escape of electrical current] that resulted in a fire on the pantograph,” said Borchers, referring to the metal arm atop the streetcars that makes contact with overhead power lines.
“[United Streetcar] had a fleet-wide fault with some of the insulation and material in the pantograph. Here it manifested itself into an arc and a small fire. Since then there was a re-engineering of the component and the entire fleet both here and throughout the country has been retrofit so it can’t happen again.”
Mirrors vs. cameras
One of the 15 additional observations made by the APTA team concerned the streetcars’ dynamic envelope, which is the amount of clearance each vehicle needs when traveling the corridor.
To reduce the width of the streetcars, their large side view mirrors are being replaced by sleek rear-facing cameras. This adjustment will help prevent accidents involving parked cars that sit just inches from the tracks along H Street Northeast.
“The original side view mirror looks very much like a truck mirror,” Borchers said.
“Now, see this white device here? That will be replacing it,” he said, pointing to the new cameras affixed to the sides of the streetcars. “The driver will have split screens to either side. Instead of looking outside the car, he will look at the rear view camera [screen].”
Four of the 15 additional observations and eight of the initial 18 APTA recommendations have been closed, according to DDOT. An estimated 75 personnel are supporting the streetcar launch, including 51 operations and maintenance workers.
“I’ve been involved in the industry all my life. You might think problems or issues are particular to this system. Most of the New Start (federal grant program) streetcar or tramway systems have different issues and some are very similar to these,” said Borchers.
As repairs and design changes continue, the line is not quite ready to begin a final test phase that will precede passenger service, known as pre-revenue operations, Borchers said.
“This streetcar system has been through a short pre-revenue operation, and that is not the time we are in at the moment,” said Borchers.
Last year DDOT under former Mayor Vincent Gray twice announced the start of pre-revenue operations, but in each case the project had not received the necessary safety certification to start carrying passengers. The safety oversight office is run by D.C. Fire Captain Kelton Ellerbe.
“Is it safe to operate? Yes. Is it safe to carry passengers? It hasn’t placed in that certification yet,” Borchers added. “There will be a second pre-revenue operation period.”
Although he declined to estimate when it would begin, Borchers said the pre-revenue operations period would last two to three weeks. It may begin only after Captain Ellerbe’s office signs off on DDOT’s launch plan.
“It is an onerous process,” said Borchers. “We are not in a position to tell you the passenger operating day because it is not our decision.”
For now, the project team is maintaining the streetcars and upgrading the right-of-way. “The best way I could describe it is housekeeping.”
Work continues on the ADA ramp work at the platform at 19th and Benning NE. (Martin Di Caro/WAMU)
Platform not ADA compliant
Considering the project is years in the making, passersby may wonder why construction crews had to excavate the streetcar platform at 19th Street and Benning Road Northeast.
The platform, one of 12 along the 2.4-mile line, was finished in 2011. But it was one of nine platforms built as part of DDOT’s H Street/Benning Road streetscape project completed before streetcar subcontractor Dean-Facchina built the final three platforms in 2013-14.
It turned out the platform at 19th and Benning did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ramps were built at non-compliant angles for wheelchairs.
“It is the strictest regulations in the world, and I can say that with certainty,” Borchers said. “Could a wheelchair use it if it were one or two degrees out? Yes. But the regulations say that it must be [exact].”
The APTA report also recommended placing reflectors on the sides of platforms to help motorists avoid crashing into and chipping them at night. The edges have visible dents and scratches.
“I can’t make a judgment call on something that was done when I wasn’t here,” said Borchers, who was started his job in May, “But I can state that in my experience in the industry there are some rectification works prior to passenger service. I haven’t seen a system that hasn’t had them.”
The width of the gap between the streetcars, which have hydraulically-powered leveling systems, and the platform stops also must fall within ADA requirements.
“If you are one-quarter of an inch out — a quarter of an inch — you are not compliant,” said Borchers. The APTA report recommended DDOT investigate why streetcar doors were scraping platform edges when opening and closing.
Parking problems on H Street?
The District reportedly has issued more than $100,000 in parking tickets since it began fining motorists $100 last July for double parking on the streetcar tracks or parallel parking outside a white “do not cross” line next to the tracks.
Those figures would indicate illegal parking will continue to disrupt streetcar operations after passenger service begins, but Borchers said the problem is disappearing.
“I watch the figures every month of the delays caused by parked cars and it is dropping to almost zero,” Borchers said. “We’ve looked at other cities with similar operating conditions and what have they done…and so the [delays] are dropping away.”
DDOT looked closely at Portland’s extensive — and “identical” — streetcar system to learn how to defeat illegal parking, he said.
“They have done it through policing, public education, and the regular operation of streetcars,” Borchers said.