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Streetcar In '15? D.C.'s Top Transportation Official Offers No Guarantees

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Will the streetcar run along H Street and Benning Road NE in 2015? Maybe, but the city's top transportation official isn't making any promises.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
Will the streetcar run along H Street and Benning Road NE in 2015? Maybe, but the city's top transportation official isn't making any promises.

Updated 6:45 p.m., Oct. 20. Adds comments from D.C. Fire and EMS chief.

The District’s top transportation official is tamping down expectations that the city’s delay-plagued, $200 million streetcar project may open this year, just weeks after his boss, Mayor Muriel Bowser, promised she would ride the H Street/Benning Road line in her “first year” in office.

“Our working plan is to try to get the system open this year, but I cannot guarantee that,” said Leif Dormsjo, the director of the District Department of Transportation (DDOT), in an interview with WAMU 88.5 at the temporary streetcar barn at the eastern end of the 2.4-mile line in Northeast Washington.

“We are getting closer and I am feeling pretty good about where we are, but I can’t say with precision that we are going to open by a date specific,” said Dormsjo, who steadfastly has refused to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors by prematurely announcing a start date.

During an hour-long appearance on WAMU 88.5's The Politics Hour on Sept. 18, Bowser vowed the District’s first streetcar line since 1962 would open soon.

“We will get the streetcar running on H Street,” Bowser said.

When asked if she would ride it during her first term in office, she responded, “I will ride it in the first year.” The anniversary of her inauguration is Jan. 2, 2016.

Retesting everything

In wide-ranging interviews at the streetcar maintenance facility, Dormsjo and his new streetcar program chief, Derek Jones, explained what is holding up the start of passenger service.

Nearly every major component of the system had to undergo modifications and retesting, building on work that began late last summer — 2014 — with the start of streetcar test runs along busy H Street.

Equally important, the safety certification process remains a work-in-progress. DDOT personnel are working with the independent safety office inside the D.C. Fire & EMS Department, run by Captain Kelton Ellerbe, to certify the line as safe for passengers. No one will board one of the District’s six streetcars until Ellerbe’s office signs off.

As for the six streetcars, only five are ready today. One needs repairs to its electrical unit. It is one of three built by Inekon in the Czech Republic that started arriving in D.C. in 2008.

There is no timetable for when the replacement parts will be ready. As a result, Dormsjo and Jones are considering opening the line with five cars and running them at 15-minute headways, or four streetcars per hour arriving at each of the 12 platforms along the route.

“We don’t have the manufacturer’s production schedule. It is all dependent on getting that into their assembly line production and having [the parts] fabricated,” said Dormsjo, who revealed that DDOT did not have a supply chain in place to acquire replacement parts for its fleet.

“It is something that has plagued many of the streetcar systems around the country because the fleet sizes are relatively small and there is just not a deep chain that you can reach back into to get parts,” he said.

Documents, documents, documents

“This is a system which we need to turn into an example for the rest of this country,” said Jones, whose past experience includes chief of operations at the Maryland Transportation Authority and overseeing the operation and extension of Baltimore’s light rail system.

“By the time I get done with it, we are going to have a system that people will look to, and come to see how to do it properly.”

Anyone who has followed the progress — if that is the correct word — of the D.C. streetcar project over the past half-decade may find Jones’ optimism unintentionally humorous. Time and again public officials, most notably former Mayor Vincent Gray, predicted streetcars would be running in 2013 and then in 2014.

Whether wishful thinking or a concerted effort to pressure Ellerbe’s office to sign the final safety documents, the public pronouncements all proved false. The reality on the ground was full of problems, leading to Dormsjo asking nationally-recognized rail experts to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the entire streetcar line.

In early July, the peer review team released its final report — numbering 33 recommended fixes — and Dormsjo was confident to forecast passenger service “within months.” Also in July, a new streetcar launch manager, Tim Borchers, started his assignment and now answers to Jones, who will run all transportation systems operated by DDOT.

Now in late October, Dormsjo remains confident the streetcar line is close to opening.

“I am really pleased with the working relationship we have with the fire department right now. I asked the fire chief several months ago to help support the SSO [state safety oversight office] for the final push,” Dormsjo said.

D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Dean, who came to the District from Seattle in March, is working closely with Ellerbe’s office as DDOT increases the amount of documentation requiring certification.

"We are all working very well together. We are having very productive meetings. I just sat in on our meeting yesterday," Dean said in an interview.

As Seattle’s fire marshal from 1998 to 2004, Dean served as the department’s lead for the city’s monorail and light rail implementation plans. Later, as fire chief, Dean led his agency’s role in developing emergency response plans for a streetcar system.

Now established in the District, the new chief said he is aware of the public's frustration with the long overdue H Street/Benning Road streetcar.

"I have heard this has been a long project that has had some starts and stops over the last couple of years," Dean said. "What's more important is that we are able to deliver a safe project that will go on for years and years and years. We think we are pretty close to being able to do that."

He added: "We think we have momentum now because the parties have been working together for a while, and we see ourselves being able to shorten the amount of time it takes to take to … approve the documents."

The next major milestone will be the start of a final testing phase, known in transit parlance as "pre-revenue operations."

Under Mayor Vincent Gray, an aborted pre-revenue phase was started in December 2014 in a last, desperate attempt to open the streetcar line to the public before his single term expired. When Dormsjo announces the system is ready for "pre-revenue operations" this time around, it will last up to 21 days, giving the public three weeks’ notice for passenger service.

Level platforms, level streetcars

Among the tests underway out on H Street and Benning Road, the streetcar’s new leveling systems have been adjusted to avoid scraping against the sides of rebuilt passenger platforms, Jones said.

The leveling system will keep a streetcar from rocking if passengers bunch up at any one door, tilting the vehicle off balance.

“When you make an alteration to a vehicle like this, there is a lot of testing to do, a lot of certification to do, so that the state safety oversight office is satisfied that we are safe to operate this car,” Jones said.

A thick line of white tape has been applied beneath the doorways of each of the streetcars making test runs to determine if they continue to scrape platforms.

“We are going to run back and forth with varying loads to see if that tape gets hit by anything. If it does, then we still have a problem,” Jones said.

The signaling systems at three intersections in the 2.4-mile corridor were adjusted, requiring a new round of testing, and power substations and other project components also are being examined a final time, Jones said.

“We actually have the right team in place finally to get this done properly,” he said. “There are certain tests that we decided weren’t done very well and we need to do them again and make sure they are safe.”

Dormsjo acknowledged the public may be out of patience with promises that streetcar service “is coming soon,” but he will not announce a grand opening date until every last aspect of the project is squared away.

“[The public] have to bear with us here, as we want to retain this highly respectful and appropriate relationship with the SSO. If we do something to weaken that relationship, the consequences to the public could be very dramatic.”

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