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Long-Awaited D.C. Streetcar To Start Passenger Service On Feb. 27 (No, Really)

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DDOT released a "how to ride the streetcar" video Thursday on YouTube.
DDOT released a "how to ride the streetcar" video Thursday on YouTube.

After years of delays and millions of dollars in cost overruns, the long-awaited streetcar along H Street and Benning Road NE will start carrying passengers on Saturday, Feb. 27.

No, really.

Mayor Muriel Bowser made the announcement on Thursday, only a week after a long-delayed safety certification for the $200 million, 2.2-mile streetcar line — the first to run in D.C. since 1962 — was completed.

“I'm proud to announce that streetcar is ready for passenger service,” said Bowser, using words that long eluded her predecessors.

Planning for the H Street line dates back to Mayor Marion Barry, but it wasn't until Mayor Adrian Fenty that the streetcar tracks were put down and three Czech-made streetcars purchased. But since then the project has been beset by delays, largely the product of poor management and planning of the project.

During his time in office, Mayor Vincent Gray repeatedly promised to start passenger service, only to see those dates come and go. As Bowser took over in early 2015, Dormsjo ordered a full review of the streetcar line — and oversaw dozens of fixes to a system he said he even considered scrapping at one point.

Bowser herself promised to start streetcar service before the close of her first year in office, only to be stymied by a long-running and contentious safety certification process that pitted DDOT against D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, which led the certification process. It was only earlier this month that the safety testing process was completed.

“What a different a year makes. Last February, a streetcar had a fire incident. The vehicles had been worn down to the point where we had only one vehicle in service. But in one week, we will be opening the service to passengers,” says Dormsjo.

According to Bowser, passengers along H Street and Benning Road will be able to start riding the streetcar at 10 a.m. on Feb. 27. It will operate from 6 a.m. to midnight from Monday through Thursday, from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Fridays, and from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturdays. Riding the streetcar will be free.

D.C. officials say streetcars will serve stations along H Street and Benning Road at 15-minute intervals. That's because only 5 of the city's 6 streetcars are currently operational, says Dormsjo.

“We want to reduce the headways which will mean more frequent service for folks. If we can extend the hours or extend into Sunday, we would like to do that, too,” he says.

Dormsjo says the operating hours and fares will eventually change, though it could take as long as a year.

“What we are going to do is get about six months of operating service under our belt and then revisit days of service and the fare policy. The initial phase of at least six months could be longer. Other streetcar services have had 12-month promotional periods," he says.

What remains unclear is just how much of the broader streetcar network will still come to pass. Gray promised 22 miles of lines stretching across to Georgetown and from Buzzard Point to Takoma, but the D.C. Council cut back on much of the funding for those lines. The only line still scheduled would run from Union Station to Georgetown along K Street; it is set to open in 2022.

But for now, Dormsjo says there's a feeling of relief that the long-awaited streetcar can start carrying passengers.

“It’s been quite a transformation. It’s been a very serious and deliberate effort to get it done right. The mayor and the city administrator have been great supporters,” he says.

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