Housing Complex

Slow Train

A Czech-made D.C. streetcar, currently cooling its heels in Greenbelt. (DDOT)

It sure is a beautiful vision: For years now, District officials have regaled citizens with tales of light rail from other coasts and countries. They’ve commissioned studies that depict streetcars as economic-development fairy dust, brightening every community that they touch. And now that the city has completed roadwork on H Street NE, the newly track-inlaid roadway and shiny streetcar stops sure look like those cosmopolitan locales.

There’s just one thing missing: actual streetcars.

Those are still far in the future. The District Department of Transportation keeps revising their arrival date, most recently from mid-2012 to the end of 2013. The list of tasks yet to complete is long: DDOT only just put out a call for contractors who’ll bid to design and build the needed power substations, maintenance facility, and overhead wires, not to mention the beginning and end of the line. That last part is responsible for a large chunk of the delay, and may prompt DDOT to run the streetcar only to 3rd and H Streets NE until a final connection to Union Station can be established—which, by forcing passengers to hoof it blocks to the Metro, would undercut one of the line’s big selling points.

Meanwhile, the streetcar’s biggest champions have moved on. Mayor Vince Gray swapped out hard-charging DDOT Director Gabe Klein for his more mild-mannered deputy, Terry Bellamy. D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown relieved Councilmember Tommy Wells—whose ward stands to gain most from the first phase of the streetcar plan—of his command of the transportation committee. And the guy who ran streetcar planning for the past few years, Scott Kubly, followed Klein to another new mayor’s administration in Chicago.

All of that has made streetcar boosters more than a little long-faced. “It’s definitely a challenge to get people excited about something that’s getting more and more distant,” says Jason Broehm, who heads up the local Sierra Club chapter’s transportation committee. “What we need is some strong leadership.”

Streetcars will get done eventually; the District has already invested $48 million dollars (and committed $100 million more to the project over the next five years), and pulling the plug now would just mean that money will have been wasted. But things are definitely slowing down. In the first phase, using the city’s own cash, planners could throw down tracks before knowing where they’d end and figure out the details later—which may have been the right approach at the time. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who now oversees transportation, thinks that initial blitz was necessary to “put stakes in the ground.”

“I’ve been thinking about Julius Caesar lately, and there is a tide in the affairs of men. And if you take things at the flood, you’re better off,” she says, paraphrasing Brutus. “There could have been some better planning, but I don’t fault them ultimately for that, because sometimes it’s good to get a little bit of traction to get it started.”

Now, though, the District needs federal funding to finish the job. That comes with layer upon layer of new procedural steps—not to mention costs, because all equipment and materials have to come from U.S. sources. With the bumps in the road thus far, all the District can say is this: Trust us. Please.

“We would like to ask the community to bear with us,” says Bellamy. “This is the first time we’ve built a streetcar in our lifetime. It’s gonna take a lot of help from a lot of people.”

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Why is the streetcar so behind schedule? Blame much of the delay on the very heart of the system: Union Station, a bureaucratic jigsaw puzzle composed of separate entities that sometimes don’t communicate as well as they should.

DDOT’s original plan had been elegantly simple. The streetcar would punch through the Hopscotch bridge along H Street and go through an underpass beneath Amtrak’s tracks, emerging on 1st Street NE. Pedestrians could take a tunnel that had been started but never completed; it needed only 60 more feet of excavation to become a useful route into the main station.

That would have been only a temporary solution, until Amtrak needed the space for the addition of new tracks for its very-far-in-the-future high-speed rail service. Meanwhile, DDOT would reinforce the Hopscotch bridge so it could handle the weight of the streetcar and eventually run the line over the top.

The District proposed this idea to Amtrak early last year, and Kubly was still confident that they’d be able to reach an agreement a year later. As the mayoral transition ground on, though, Amtrak wasn’t sure how much the Gray administration wanted the option that his predecessor’s DDOT director had pushed for, despite Kubly’s best efforts to reassure them. (On April 1, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Kubly wrote to an Amtrak representative that Gray’s $99.3 million commitment to streetcars should “alleviate any concerns on Amtrak’s side about the political will behind the project.”) Meanwhile, Amtrak had started its own master planning process. It decided to hold on to the cavernous area underneath the tracks for its own future use.

“Amtrak had certain rights they felt would be violated,” says David Ball, president of the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, which holds the lease to the federally owned parts of the station. “Both organizations saw a use for one piece of real estate, and if they were communicating, they weren’t understanding.”

Earlier this summer, DDOT officials admitted they had lost the struggle with Amtrak. So now they’re back to the drawing board, looking at three options (map here).

(1) Run the streetcar up on the Hopscotch bridge and stop there, forcing riders to walk through the garage and down into Union Station. Walking briskly, taking no wrong turns, it took me 4 minutes and 26 seconds to walk from the bridge to the Metro fare gate. A planned elevator could make the trip faster, though.

(2) Turn the line south on 2nd Street NE and stop at F Street NE. That puts you a block away from Union Station, which Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning thinks is the best option. On the wintriest of days, however, that three-minute walk could still prove daunting, especially for tourists who aren’t sure where they’re going.

And (3): Heading north on 3rd Street NE to stop at the New York Avenue Metro station, turn the streetcar west on M Street NE, and come down 1st Street NE to deposit passengers right outside the Union Station Metro entrance. This option has two direct connections to the Red Line and could be a great opportunity to integrate NoMa, but it would increase the time it takes to get from H Street to Union Station.

All of these options would make for a more complicated connection than the original plan of running the H Street line directly under Amtrak’s tracks. But it could be even worse: The District might pick none of the above and just end the line at 3rd and H Streets NE. That’s because to get federal funding for a second line, which is supposed to run from Union Station along K Street to Washington Circle, officials have to complete a formal environmental study that, by law, explores various options for that line without leaning toward any of them. Officials worry that study will eventually require them to choose a different Metro connection than they prefer now for the H Street line—so they might just stop the line short, instead.

But ending the line at 3rd and H would mean the streetcar is only barely connected to the Metro when it opens—and that’s the problem. Initial impressions are important. If riders don’t find their first experience with the streetcar to be particularly impressive, excitement for the rest of the 37-mile system could dissipate—which would undermine the political will for an enormous project that requires a lot of taxpayer dollars. That’s what worries David Tuchmann, who's managing Akridge’s gigantic mixed-use project planned to go over the tracks behind Union Station.

“We think it’s essential that the city’s first streetcar line include a smooth and convenient connection point to Metro and other modes and amenities at Union Station,” Tuchmann says in an email. “We are committed to the H Street line’s success, not only because of our investment in Burnham Place, but also because demonstrating this transit mode’s efficacy in its infancy will be crucial to building broad public support for its future phases.”

So the question could come down to this: Get streetcars moving faster, even if they stop at a bad location? Or build a temporary connection that might have to be ripped out later? Richard Bradley, who’s watched the streetcar planning process from his perch as head of the Downtown Business Improvement District since 1996, leans towards the latter.

“I just think that it has to be done right,” he says. “If this first segment doesn’t work, what’s at stake is the system. You’re talking about a $2 billion infrastructure investment. There’s a huge upside here. But there’s also a great risk.”

Photo via DDOT's Facebook page

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