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After 50-Year Hiatus, Streetcars Are Running Again In Washington D.C.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, left, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser were all smiles Saturday morning during the inaugural ride of the streetcar on H Street NE.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, left, and D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser were all smiles Saturday morning during the inaugural ride of the streetcar on H Street NE.

"Everybody, let's ride!"

With those words, a beaming Mayor Muriel Bowser launched D.C.'s long-delayed streetcar line along H Street Northeast on Saturday morning, more than 50 years after Washington's old streetcar network was closed down to be converted to buses.

Several hundred people attended the fanfare at the corner of H and 13 Streets, smack dab in the commercial district that has undergone dramatic gentrification and painful disruptions over the past decade. The streetcar tracks were laid during a massive streetscape renovation that started in 2008.

Construction of the 2.2-mile line traversing H Street and Benning Road - from the top of the Hopscotch Bridge east to Oklahoma Avenue - only wrapped up last year. The $200 million project was marred by ad hoc planning, cost overruns, empty promises and bureaucratic battling - but at the grand opening ceremony public officials sought to put the past behind.

"On behalf of four mayors, many DDOT directors, a lot of Council members, ANC commissioners, to the residents of Ward 6, especially the blocks that surround H Street, thank you for your patience," Bowser said during the brief ceremony on a sun-splashed morning, a gleaming red and gray streetcar in the backdrop.

"To the businesses, thank you for your persistence. We are so grateful that you stuck it out with us, because this is the start of something big for our transportation mobility system in the District of Columbia," the mayor said.

After taking office in Jan. 2015, the mayor's choice to run the District Department of Transportation, Leif Dormsjo, put the project on hold. Instead of opening the line, DDOT and its contractors and consultants spent the year rectifying dozens of design and construction problems that were identified by a team of transit experts in a top-to-bottom review.

On Saturday morning, the focus was on the future.

"This is only a beginning. This is a starting point for future transit connections along this corridor," said Dormsjo, moments before Bowser administration officials, reporters, and dignitaries piled into a streetcar for its inaugural ride toward Union Station.

Amid light traffic, the first ride went off without any problems. The streetcar was not blocked by illegally parked cars or double-parked delivery trucks as it slowly glided toward the line's western terminus atop the Hopscotch Bridge.

During the trip, Mayor Bowser said she supports extending the initial line east over the Anacostia River to Ward 7. Planning for the project already is underway.

"We can't have the streetcar stop in the middle of the street, and that is what is does now," said Bowser, referring to the eastern terminus at Oklahoma Avenue. "So we have to have a connection to the Metro. Just like it connects here close to Union Station, it has to connect to the Metro line at Benning Road."

In the meantime, DDOT's focus will be on smooth operations along H Street and Benning Road Northeast, where officials acknowledge the public's confidence in and excitement about the return of streetcars has waned because of the project's tortured history.

Streetcars will operate Monday through Saturday, with Sundays reserved for system maintenance. Fares will be free for at least the first six months. 

The fleet of five streetcars will service the eight stops every 15 minutes. A sixth streetcar is awaiting repairs, and when it becomes available DDOT may deploy it to shorten headways to 10 to 12 minutes. 

Ridership is expected to be light at first, the neighborhood figures out how to incorporate streetcar trips into daily travel routines. The corridor already is well served by Metrobus; the X2 line carries more than 16,000 passengers daily.

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