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Back in April, the District Department of Transportation’s point man on streetcars, Scott Kubly, assured the denizens of H Street NE that they were still working with Amtrak to run the western end of the streetcar underneath the railroad tracks, creating a direct connection to Union Station and transit links to the rest of the city.
“Nobody has signed on the dotted line, but nobody has told us ‘no’ yet,” he said. “What’s slowing it down isn’t a hard ‘no’ from Amtrak. What it is is uncertainty from Amtrak.”
Not long after, however, Amtrak started saying “no,” citing a desire to preserve space for high-speed rail infrastructure in its long-range master plan—-if it ever gets funded. Now, it looks like DDOT’s preferred option is dead, and with it the District’s hope of hitching the streetcar directly to Metro.
“It has enough problems with Amtrak’s desire to do significant construction over and under that area that the other alternatives, I think, are looking more realistic,” says Jonathon Kass, who until last week was the clerk for the Council’s committee on public works and transportation. “It’s plausible that it’s 100 percent off the table.”
(Another source confirmed that the option is, in fact, off the table).
That isn’t the end of the world, of course. The currently favored idea, running the streetcar over the Hopscotch Bridge and depositing passengers in the parking lot, would add only a few minutes to the walk in between modes of transit. But it’s still not optimal—-in its analysis of alternatives last fall, DDOT said that would cost about twice as much as their preferred plan, and also would leave no space in Union Station for the needed maintenance facility, which would likely have to be built towards the eastern end of the line.
The other dismaying part about Amtrak’s unwillingness to work with DDOT is how far it’s set the project back. If the agency had said no this time last year, the District could have moved more quickly to issue a design/build request for proposals, which Kass says it may still do while analysis of terminus alternatives is underway. (DDOT, which I’ve been asking about this for over a month now, may expand on these points at some point in the future).
Part of the problem may have been uncertainty from Amtrak about just how much incoming mayor Vince Gray was committed to streetcars, after his aborted attempt to cut funding for the program during the previous budget season. In February, during the transition, Amtrak’s vice president for government affairs Joe McHugh wrote to Gray’s chief of staff Gerri Mason Hall:
My larger question to you is whether or not this project is going to go forward. There are a number of issues that we need to resolve with the city and they are not huge issues but they will require time and careful consideration. They have to do with easement and the duration of time that the H Street tunnel needs to be utilized and review of design documents. I get the sense that DC DOT is basically forging ahead with this project and there was some sense that this would not be a priority for the new mayor. Obviously we want to be cooperative and helpful to the city because many aspects of this project are mutually beneficial to the station and the overall transportation synergies that are created. So this is really to ask you what your sense is on the future of the project and that will help me gauge the allocation of our resources.
He didn’t receive a response. And Gray went on to include nearly $100 million in the capital budget for streetcars over the next six years.