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How D.C. Streetcar May Have (Finally) Made It Through The Testing Process

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Martin Austermuhle/WAMU

Safety oversight officials within the D.C. Fire and EMS Department have approved the long-delayed, oft-criticized H Street-Benning Road streetcar project, pending a final review expected to wrap up in the next week. The safety certification comes about 18 months after project leaders first sought it, ending a process drawn out by bureaucratic holdups and an array of design and construction problems.

The city's first streetcar line since 1962 may start carrying passengers along the Northeast D.C. corridor “on or after Feb. 26,” according to a letter notifying federal transportation officials the $200 million, 2.2-mile line is ready after months of system testing and document reviews.

“The open items on the rail activation item list are being successfully closed and documented, the final versions of the standard operating procedures and all requisite plans are being developed and reviewed,” said the letter by D.C. deputy fire chief Mark Wynn to Eric Madison, a Federal Transit Administration (FTA) official involved in his agency’s review of the project. (FTA’s role is advisory since the streetcar line is not federally funded).

“We feel that the testing and certification process to verify the system’s safety and security readiness has proceeded in a very efficient and comprehensive,” Wynn said in his letter.

Overdue breakthrough

The process has not always been described as efficient. In fact, only after new D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Dean became personally involved in the safety certification process late last year did DDOT project leaders see an end in sight.

The final say on the streetcar always has been with the “state safety oversight office” (SSO) within the D.C. Fire Department – and for the better part of its existence its relationship with the District Department of Transportation was strained or even uncooperative.

The relationship improved not only because of Chief Dean’s involvement. Late last year Captain Kelton Ellerbe, the head of the SSO from the start of the safety certification process, retired. Project leaders privately grumbled that Ellerbe stubbornly refused to accept any and all documentation as complete, sending it back for revisions time and again. But they refused to publicly criticize Ellerbe to avoid pressuring him into approving the streetcar line before he was comfortable.

Then-D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray on a streetcar during testing in January 2014. (Photo by DDOT)

The back-and-forth began in mid-2014 when DDOT officials and project contractors believed the streetcar could open by the end of that year. After erroneously promising streetcar service in 2013, then-Mayor Vincent Gray once again was raising the public’s expectations throughout 2014. His acting transportation director, Matt Brown, even signed off on the necessary documents on Dec. 31, but Ellerbe would not budge from his stance that the streetcar was not ready for passengers.

Hitting the reset button

Soon after Mayor Muriel Bowser took office, her choice to run DDOT put the project on hold.

New DDOT director Leif Dormsjo called in outside transit experts to conduct a top-to-bottom review, and then ordered extensive work to rebuild platforms along H Street and Benning Road, fix the already aging streetcar fleet, and refine the traffic signaling at key intersections, just to name a few fixes.

Dormsjo also overhauled the project leadership team. He hired a streetcar launch manager, Tim Borchers, an Australian with international experience. Most recently, Borchers led the launch of Atlanta’s streetcar line.

But by late last year Bowser’s DDOT found itself in the same place as Gray’s DDOT — waiting for the SSO to sign off. Now, finally, about six years after the tracks were laid, the streetcar is deemed ready to go. The District is expected to announce a grand opening date soon.

Relief on H Street

Next door to DDOT’s project office at the corner of H and 10th Streets Northeast is a restaurant that opened about the time the streetcar project started, The Atlas Room. Manager Karim Soumah is relieved that streetcars soon will start dropping off actual people near his entrance.

“There had been a lot of upheavals throughout the construction but most importantly we don’t understand, at least collectively within the people I know in the neighborhood, what the overall objective is of this transportation device,” Soumah said as he served drinks one evening.

“A lot has been promised, not much has been delivered,” said Soumah, who said his eatery endured traffic-snarling construction zones that made it harder for his customers to reach him.

Anwar Saleem, the executive director of the H Street Main Street neighborhood revitalization group and a big streetcar booster, said businesses are understandably frustrated.

“The excitement took place a long time ago and then we had so many false starts. So talking to many businesses, they just want to get it going,” he said.

The news that the SSO approved the line for passenger service, pending a final review, was welcomed.

“I’m elated. It is good for H Street and it is good for the city, and will help with the further revitalization of the H Street and Benning Road corridor,” Saleem said.

As for a grand opening, Saleem prefers that DDOT simply open the line as soon as possible and plan for a big celebration a few weeks later.

D.C. Fire & EMS Letter On Opening Date For Streetcar


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