Over 100 people packed a theater at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street, NE last night to hear DDOT Director Gabe Klein and Chief of Staff Scott Kubly talk about DC’s streetcar project. DC has had plans to build streetcars for many years, but recently progress seems to have stalled.

Klein said that people at DDOT within the Mass Transit Administration and IPMA (the engineering arm) had continued working on the project, but there was no clear owner keeping it a top priority. Kubly is now in charge of the streetcar program, and is committed to making it happen. Klein also added that in his opinion, sluggish occasional progress is not acceptable; DDOT should either pursue the program actively or not at all.

Klein and Kubly emphasized that the project is still in early stages, and had few specific answers on timelines, costs, and more. Klein also pointed out that Portland’s project took eleven years from initial vision (1990) to the first operating segment (2001); by that standard, DC’s project isn’t actually very far behind.

There’s also still no definitive answer on how DC will power the streetcars. In many areas, the streetcars will use overhead wires, which are much less visible than the heavy, multiple wires of old systems. Instead, a single, thin wire powers streetcars almost invisibly. That’s still not satisfactory to the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), which wants a different power technology on at least some of the system. Klein said that DDOT is likely to pursue a dual mode system that can use wires in some areas and another technology in more sensitive regions.

The Business Journal reported earlier this week that DDOT also plans to pursue federal funding, contrary to previous plans. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is reportedly excited about streetcars, including the potential for them to run past USDOT headquarters on M Street SE, one alignment in DC’s Comprehensive Plan.

Klein reiterated support for the streetcar alignments in the current Comprehensive Plan. The first streetcars will run from Anacostia over the 11th Street Bridge, and along H Street and Benning Road, ultimately connecting to downtown on the K Street Transitway. Phase two is 7th Street and Georgia Avenue, and Minnesota Avenue between Anacostia and the Minnesota Avenue Metro near Benning Road, connecting the two lines across River East. There are still many outstanding alignment questions, like how to connect the streetcar to Union Station, where to continue it over the 11th Street Bridge (to Eastern Market? M Street SE?), and where to place maintenance facilities and storage yards for the H/Benning line.

Recommendations from the 2005 Alternatives Analysis.

Blue is streetcar, green BRT, yellow “rapid bus.”

The program will depend on public support, both in neighborhoods and citywide to advocate with the Council, NCPC, and Congress. DDOT has communicated very poorly so far. Advocates had been pushing for about a year to even get this meeting, and DDOT shared little about its progress or plans. Councilmember Jim Graham had to force them to attend hearings to share their latest thinking on alignments last year, and officials were extremely close-mouthed about the reasons they had chosen particular alignments. They promised to release an updated version of the “Alternatives Analysis” last year, but held it back because the Mayor had to review it first. Then, months later, they refused to release it saying it was now out of date.

How many of you knew that construction is actively underway for the Anacostia streetcar line? Last I had heard, DDOT was close to awarding a contract for construction of the segment from the maintenance facility on South Capitol Street to Barry Farm and Anacostia Metro, but there were reports of delays. However, DDOT hasn’t touted recent progress or released engineering details for the line. Even leaders of the streetcar advocacy movement didn’t know about this. We can’t support DDOT if we don’t know what’s going on. It’s okay if thinking shifts from month to month as new information comes to light. People can handle changes. Silence and resistance, however, won’t build the support the project needs.

With Kubly’s and Klein’s leadership, sharing progress more openly with advocates must become a top priority. Fortunately, Klein and Kubly have been much more open about communication than many others. Kubly, in fact, is also managing new DDOT Web tools to share status and plans for projects across the city, from streetscapes to repavings to tree trimmings. Klein committed to quarterly public meetings on the streetcar program; the next one will be in Ward 5. If DDOT can work with DC’s communities instead of against them, with the help of advocacy groups like Streetcars 4 DC, we’ll be able to replicate the strong public support that catapulted Portland’s streetcar dreams into a successful reality.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.