Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

The historic landmark nomination for Spingarn High School could delay the H Street streetcar by 3 months or even much more, said DDOT Director Terry Bellamy at a DC Council hearing today. But could DDOT have avoided this long ago? Councilmember Mary Cheh rebuked the agency for not planning effectively and not sharing its plans with the council or public.

The Kingman Park Civic Association filed a petition in September to designate the school. A landmark application prevents any action while it is pending, and if the building gets designated, it may be difficult to build a car barn in the open space between the school and Benning Road.

Bellamy said that they were shooting to open the line in “late 2013,” but now that they have to deal with the historic issue, it will likely push the opening date back by 90 days or more. He did assure Cheh that DDOT would have 5 working cars, enough to run the line, by opening day (whenever that is).

Maintenance facility decisions fell through at the last minute

Some have charged that the association’s true goal is to stop the streetcar entirely. Unfortunately, DDOT made this snafu possible by really blowing the planning for the maintenance facility for the H Street line.

Former streetcar head Scott Kubly spent years believing that the agency could put the facility in the underpass below the Union Station tracks, but Amtrak ultimately decided to use the space for its own Union Station plan.

At that point, DDOT turned around and said they would put the facility at Spingarn, because that’s the only place they could get approval quickly enough. A far better choice would be the edge of the massive parking lots at RFK stadium, but that is federal land, which DC controls but can only use for recreational purposes.

WMATA was able to build the Orange and Blue Line through the parking lots on a long ramp from underground to a bridge over the river, and one can certainly argue whether giant parking lots are really a recreational use. Still, any effort to get permission for a car barn would be complex and take a long time.

It’s hard to really fault area residents who are frustrated that DDOT didn’t pursue alternatives for the car barn location, then had to put it at Spingarn because it didn’t have time to pursue any alternatives.

Will car barns look attractive?

The very industrial look in DDOT’s early sketches also doesn’t do much to assuage residents’ fears. DDOT now says they will be designing a more attractive facility that fits better with Spingarn’s historic architecture. They should, but can residents feel confident a better design will actually come to pass?

Sketch of possible car barn. Image from DDOT.

DDOT is finishing the line under a design-build contract, which includes the maintenance facility. In a design-build process, DDOT picks a contractor and then works with that contractor to work out design details as they go. This can significantly speed up projects, but it doesn’t always allow for a lot of public participation or transparency. A lot of details of the 11th Street Bridge project remained somewhat vague until very late in the process, often far too late to change anything.

DDOT spokesperson John Lisle says that the contractor has “commenced” the design process for the facility, and that “Additional opportunities for public participation/

feedback will be scheduled over the next 90-120 calendar days.” We just have to hope that this process is more participatory than DDOT’s last few efforts, and gives residents real choices.

If DDOT ends up only offering unattractive designs and says they are the only possibilities because of the short time frame or limited budget, it will only validate the arguments of those who seek to landmark Spingarn.

Streetcar planning has been limited or secret

The fact is that most large transportation projects involve a lot of different pieces, and an agency must either plow ahead knowing it will probably encounter some hiccups, or the project may never get done.

Still, it has been years since DDOT promised to flesh out details of the streetcar system, with almost no progress. The agency promised a plan for financing the streetcar, and also for how it will procure cars that can run without overhead wires at least in key viewsheds. Bellamy alluded to a lot of work getting done on these issues at the hearing, but has never actually shared any of that work with the public.

The Committee of 100 has been arguing for such plans. They initially wanted to halt progress on the project until DDOT finished the plans. That could have killed the streetcar, and we pushed hard at that time to let DDOT keep moving forward. As the years pass without any more details, however, I find it harder to keep justifying this approach.

Business groups have been talking about setting up a “value capture” mechanism that applies some of the real estate appreciation, which the streetcar brings, toward financing the lines. The farther DDOT goes down the path of planning new lines, the harder it will be to set something like this up. Already, as Cheh pointed out in the hearing, it may be too late to do this on H Street.

Similarly, where will future maintenance facilities go? For some other lines, the best locations might take time to secure permission and build community support. DDOT needs to start far sooner than it did with Spingarn to plan for these locations and create designs that satisfy neighbors.

Cheh also harangued DDOT for dragging its feet on a governance plan. When the council approved the streetcar plan, it required DDOT to study and report on options for what authority or board would control the streetcar system in the long term. Bellamy has come to multiple hearings promising that such a report was just around the corner, but then nothing happened.

Today, he said they had such a report, but some unnamed “stakeholders” had asked DDOT to hold off on releasing it. When Cheh threatened to withhold a key authorization, however, Bellamy promised to give her staff copies of the draft report. Why can’t the public see this report?

DDOT might be doing a lot of work behind the scenes, but it’s high time the conversation moved out into public view. Former director Gabe Klein was moving very rapidly on the streetcar, sometimes so much so that he smashed headlong into some obstacles, but he and Kubly also were forthright with residents about the way they were operating. They also built public support for the streetcar program by sharing details and progress regularly.

As we saw with the battles over streetcar funding and council authorization in 2010 and 2011, residents eager for this very important project will forgive a lot of mistakes as long as they know what is happening. With a more secretive approach of late, DDOT risks squandering a lot of the enthusiasm from residents outside the line’s immediate area.

That would be a shame, because the streetcar is an important project to shape the future of the District. We can’t build Metrorail everywhere it doesn’t serve today. A streetcar can stimulate transit-oriented growth that buses simply don’t, but if the line doesn’t work well, the maintenance facility looks ugly, or a value capture mechanism for funding never comes together, neighborhoods outside H Street will either oppose or never get streetcars of their own.

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.