District Department of Transportation officials expect the streetcar to begin running on H Street NE for testing next month, but passenger service is unlikely before the spring.

In a press briefing this morning, DDOT Chief Engineer Ronaldo “Nick” Nicholson said the streetcar is in its “countdown phase,” with safety certification set to begin in December. The certification will be carried out by the State Safety Oversight Agency, which is part of D.C.’s Fire and EMS Department, operating under the authority of the federal Federal Transit Administration. This is the first certification being undertaken by the State Safety Oversight Agency, so there’s “no precedent in D.C.,” according to Nicholson.

But Ron Garraffa, an engineer with HDR, one of the city’s contractors for the streetcar, says that certification for Tampa’s streetcar project, on which he also worked, took between 90 and 120 days. That certification, said Garraffa, was simpler because there was less traffic on the Tampa route, and the streetcar wasn’t sharing a lane with cars for its entirety, so D.C.’s process is likely to take longer.

Nicholson pledged to have passenger streetcars running within 30 days of the certification. But if certification takes more than three to four months, beginning in December, that means passenger service is unlikely before April at the earliest.

Nicholson declined to give an estimated opening date, saying it’s “improper to throw dates out there,” but stated that passenger service would definitely begin in 2014.

“We’re definitely in the last four minutes of the fourth quarter,” said Nicholson. “We’ve got a lot of pressure to score.”

DDOT is waiting on utility work from Pepco, the delivery of the streetcar vehicles, and final work by the city’s contractors. This week, workers are installing the hardware on the caternary poles for the streetcar’s overhead wiring, according to DDOT’s streetcar project manager, Thomas Perry.

The streetcar project has thus far cost about $161 million between the H Street-Benning line and the Anacostia line, plus planning and administrative costs, according to Nicholson. That’s slightly over budget; Nicholson says DDOT will be requesting an additional $29 million for the construction contract, due largely to a historic preservation hurdle with the streetcar barn on the campus of Spingarn High School.

Nicholson also says it’s possible that streetcar service will begin with only two or three cars, if the full fleet is not yet certified. Five cars are required to maintain the desired 10-minute headways between arrivals. The line’s fourth car is expected to be delivered in December, with the fifth coming in January. It’s possible, then, that the streetcar will begin running with long waits for arriving cars.

Nicholson says streetcar fares are “expected to be consistent with Circulator,” and can be paid with SmarTrip. A pedestrian traffic signal will help riders connect with Union Station at the streetcar terminus on the Hopscotch Bridge—-though the indirect connection could limit the line’s initial ridership. The schedule, according to Perry, will “mirror the hours of Metro and bus service,” running into the early a.m. hours on the weekend.

If traffic on H Street makes it difficult to maintain 10-minute headways, Perry said, it’s possible that some of the cars will run only on the H Street segment and not to Benning Road.

Belaboring his extended football metaphor, Nicholson said, “This is only the first game. This is only the first 2.2 miles, 10 percent of the 22 miles” that will constitute the city’s priority streetcar network on the way to the planned 37-mile complete network. The 22-mile network, Nicholson said, will be done in five to seven years.

Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr