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The District Department of Transportation sent out an email update this morning that appears banal and technical: Beginning today, the two streetcar vehicles undergoing testing on H Street and Benning Road NE are being moved to a testing site in Anacostia. But at a time when DDOT is dropping few hints about when the long-delayed H Street/Benning line will finally start carrying passengers, this small item provides the best recent indication about when we’ll be able to start riding the new rails. The answer is: not soon.
According to the DDOT email, the vehicles will remain at the testing site for approximately six weeks. After that, DDOT will conduct its final system integration tests. DDOT spokesman Reggie Sanders declines to provide a time frame for those tests, stating only, “It depends how fast we can get through them.” When the tests conclude, DDOT will begin to train the streetcar operators; each operator will receive 30 hours of training.
Then comes the safety certification, executed by the State Safety Oversight Agency, which is part of D.C.’s Fire and EMS Department, operating under the authority of the Federal Transit Administration. Again, there’s no specific time frame for the certification, especially because this is D.C.’s first certification of this sort. But Ron Garraffa, an engineer with HDR, one of the city’s streetcar contractors, said last year that certification for a streetcar system in Tampa, on which he also worked, took between 90 and 120 days. The D.C. certification, he said, could be more complicated and lengthy because there was less traffic on the Tampa route and it wasn’t sharing a lane with cars for the full route.
Once certification is complete, passenger service should begin within 30 days, DDOT chief engineer Nick Nicholson pledged last year. (My colleague Will Sommer reported last month that Nicholson is leaving DDOT, along with DDOT chief Terry Bellamy.)
DDOT is understandably shying away from making any predictions or promises as to when streetcar service will begin. The city has been burned in the past by forecasts that didn’t come to pass, like Mayor Vince Gray‘s pledge last November that passenger service would be “probably starting in January, not later than early February.” Sanders adds, “Anything can go wrong. We can have a weather situation.”
But today’s update from DDOT makes it almost inconceivable that the streetcar will run before fall, or more likely winter. The streetcars will be at the Anacostia site until around mid-July. Even if safety tests and operator training wrap up in a matter of weeks, and safety certification goes more quickly than in Tampa, we’re still unlikely to see streetcar service before November at the earliest. And if the recent history of delays is any indication, it could be much longer.
It looks like Metro’s Silver Line, scheduled to begin running in the late summer, may have the long-running race against the streetcar locked up.
Photo from the D.C. Streetcar Flickr page