It was at this same time last year in this same august publication that I wrote that while passenger service on the H Street/Benning Road NE streetcar line had been pushed back multiple times throughout 2013, it was, as many officials promised, set to start in the spring of 2014.
And yet here we are, many months and a pair of seasons later, and the only thing D.C. has to show for the grand return of streetcars after a 50-year absence is empty red ones clunkily making their way up and down the 2.5-mile route while the D.C. Department of Transportation deals with what’s become a never-ending set of delays and disappointments.
“Bringing streetcar back to the District after a 50-year hiatus has not been easy. Each time we have an issue resolved, something else seems to emerge that has not been fully resolved,” said Matt Brown, DDOT’s director, during a November D.C. Council hearing. He looked particularly defeated having to defend a streetcar system that he had little chance to speed up—he only took the helm of the department in April, and this is a project fast on its way to spanning three mayoral administrations.
So what’s holding it up? Well, everything. Construction on a needed maintenance facility on the campus of Spingarn High School was delayed, as was the final delivery of three streetcars from an Oregon-based manufacturer. And even with the streetcars in hand, DDOT had to train operators and undertake extensive testing and safety certifications—all slowly.
Even if every last issue is resolved in the closing two weeks of the year, the streetcar line will still feel half-baked: The city hasn’t yet settled on a payment system—plus side: you’ll ride free!—and the trolleys will share the road with traffic, meaning they will only go as fast as the cars do. In other words, not fast. Worse yet, crowded X2 Metro buses have periodically gotten stuck behind slow-moving streetcars. Talk about irony: One form of mass transit slowing another.
The hitches and delays could be brushed off as mere growing pains, but they’ve prompted questions and doubts as to whether D.C. can deliver on the promised 22-mile streetcar system it wants to build over the next decade.
“This is not a good way to run a huge project, a highly costly project, and one that has been subject to delays and criticism throughout,” said Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh in November. “All of that’s not good, and it doesn’t inspire confidence. In fact, it kind of drains confidence. If confidence is drained by these actions, then what happens is the community gets restless, the Council gets restless, there may be effects on funding. I don’t want us to go on that downward spiral.”
That shouldn’t be taken as an idle threat—especially considering what happened just across the Potomac River. Faced with increasing costs and mounting political frustrations, in November the Arlington County Board voted to shelve plans for a $333 million streetcar system along Columbia Pike and in Crystal City. It caught boosters by surprise and provoked protestations that board members were folding on a project that could help drive urban-style development in the county.
D.C. hasn’t yet gotten there. Most legislators and Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser say they support the streetcar system, and DDOT is already putting out bids for a line from Union Station to Georgetown and an extension of a planned line in Anacostia. Still, confidence has been shaken.
Earlier this year, the Council voted to change the funding formula for the streetcar, cutting what would have been close to $2 billion in dedicated funds through 2023 to $526 million. Legislators argued that the money had to be freed up for other capital projects, and hinted that it didn’t trust that DDOT could spend the money responsibly. Just look at H Street, they said.
While the Council is right to criticize how the H Street line was built and whether it can trust DDOT to manage future lines, DDOT is also right that the best way to build the next 20 miles would be as part of a single contract to a consortium of firms that would design, build, operate, and maintain everything. For now, they’re splitting the difference: Eight miles of lines will be built over the next decade, not 17.
So where does that leave you? Like Gray and other city officials, I’ve opted out of the predicting business when it comes to starts dates for passenger service on the streetcar. You should, too. Instead, just take solace from signs that appeared at streetcar stops a few months back: “Coming Soon.” They don’t define how soon “soon” is, but at least you know something is coming—eventually.