Photo by DDOTDC on Flickr.

You could start seeing streetcars running in the District as early as this March, though just on a test track in Anacostia, and appearing for testing on H Street next fall. After that, the line can open, DDOT will extend it east of the river and build a line in Anacostia, and on to Georgetown, Georgia Avenue and more.

DDOT officials gave the press an update on the streetcar program today. Basically, you could break up the streetcar work at this point into 3 rough stages: getting the first segment on H Street/Benning Road done, building a few more lines, and then building everything else.

For the first line, H Street and Benning Road from Union Station to Oklahoma Avenue, DDOT is mainly focused on just getting the thing built. Most of the tracks, as we know, are already there. DDOT plans to start installing the tracks at the ends, which weren’t part of the H Street streetscape project, in March.

All images from DDOT.

Poles for overhead wires and streetcar signals will go up from May to August, wires August to October, and then they can bring the streetcars over and start testing them. They need to run them back and forth for a while before revenue service can begin.

Before the cars go to H Street, they will be on a commissioning track DDOT is building in Anacostia, right along the edge of Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling on South Capitol Street. Streetcars will arrive there in February, if things go as planned, with testing starting in March and drivers getting trained soon after that.

As for the car barn at Spingarn, DDOT Chief Engineer Ronaldo (“Nick”) Nicholson said that they are redoing the car barn design, which started out more contemporary, in a more classical way based on comments from the Historic Preservation Review Board and Historic Preservation Office.

HPRB landmarked the Spingarn site last month, and DDOT officials don’t know or didn’t want to say how much this will delay things, but they claimed that the H Street line could even start running before the car barn is done; DDOT will just have to maintain the cars in a more ad hoc way in the interim.

Besides the 3 streetcars DC already owns, there are 3 more coming from Oregon Iron Works, 2 due in August and the third in December.

Shell of a streetcar being built for DC in Oregon.

On the west end, you’ll have to walk through the Union Station parking garage, down 3 escalators, into the Amtrak concourse, then over to the Metro to transfer to the Red Line. DDOT would like to build an elevator directly from the Metro to the garage to speed that part up a bit, and is studying that, but would have to come up with money or find federal funds to build such a thing.

Before and when the line opens, DDOT will reach out aggressively to area residents and businesses to educate people about not parking in the streetcar lane. Director Terry Bellamy said that they expect to have to tow a few cars at the start, and will work with DPW to have more tow trucks at the ready in the area, until people get used to the new setup.

For deliveries, trucks will have to park somewhere other than the tracks, or switch around delivery times. Consultant Steve Carroll, who worked on systems in Norfolk, Tampa, Tucson, and many more, said that in most cities, the businesses just rescheduled deliveries to come outside streetcar hours.

After H Street, Minnesota-Benning, Anacostia, and more

The next steps are to extend the streetcar over the Anacostia River to either Benning Road or Minnesota Avenue Metro station; DDOT is finishing up a study to decide that. They’ll also build a line through Historic Anacostia, and are close to finishing a study on where to run that line. After that is another study to look at the best route to Georgetown.

These would be the first pieces in a 22-mile “priority system” DDOT has picked out from the original plan. The general idea consists of 3 lines: Benning Road to Georgetown (the “One City Line”), Anacostia to Buzzard’s Point, and Buzzard’s Point to Takoma.

To achieve that, DDOT is looking for a partner who can design, build, finance, operate, and maintain (DBFOM) the system. This concessionaire would handle the whole project under DDOT’s management and with promised funding from DC to pay off the financing and cover operations.

They haven’t decided on the exact alignments for each line; this map shows the alignments from the 2009 streetcar study. A subsequent Office of Planning study suggested some alternatives, and the two agencies will work together with others to actually study each line in detail.

Chief among the potential changes is running the Georgia Avenue line to Silver Spring, a far more obvious endpoint than Takoma as people could ride it both directions to jobs and connect to the Purple Line. Nicholson said DC officials have been talking with Maryland counterparts, and both sides are interested, but they haven’t reached any firm agreements.

What about car barns? Those lines will need some number of new car barns, and DDOT plans to undertake yet another study, also with the Office of Planning, to figure that out. Car barns can be pretty small, even on the underground parking level of a mixed-use building using a streetcar elevator (or “lift”). If there could be more of them, each can be a lot smaller, or a larger area could hold a major facility that can handle more cars.

And beyond…

The rest of the 37-mile system isn’t forgotten, either, and will follow the 22-mile “priority” set of lines. Nicholson said the car barn study will look at locations for all of those lines as well, not just ones for the priority lines.

Bellamy emphasized that they are going to work hard to put every car barn in Ward 5. No, he didn’t say that. In fact, he reiterated that they will go all across the city.

We didn’t discuss the later lines much in the meeting, but it’s clear they will depend a lot on the early ones. As we’ve seen with other types of streets, like the recent streetscapes that add two-way traffic and bike lanes, once an agency has a bunch of engineers who are used to building one type of thing, they can just march along building it more places without a lot of trouble.

If the first few lines become a big success, DDOT will be able to expand the program and turn its by then finely-honed streetcar-planning, community-involving (hopefully), and concessionaire-driven streetcar-building machine to more corridors as long as the District is willing to make it a priority to pay for them.

You can see the complete slideshow DDOT presented at today’s briefing.

Update: Here’s Martin Austermuhle’s report on DCist.


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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.