There’s more bad news for DC streetcars: The latest estimates show the H Street line may not open until early 2015. This isn’t an additional delay, but rather seems to be simply a more genuine timeline of how long the remaining work will take. That’s a step forward. Unfortunately, DDOT is still not being fully forthright about what’s going on.


DC streetcars at the Anacostia testing & commissioning site. Photo by Dan Malouff.



What’s left to do, and how long it will take

The streetcar team sent a construction update yesterday. It said that crews would move the streetcars currently on H Street back to the Anacostia testing and commissioning site for 6 weeks of vehicle maintenance and equipment installation. That was enough for Aaron Wiener at the City Paper to start digging for more details.

Here’s a breakdown of what he found out.

First, the maintenance and equipment phase beginning today will last 6 weeks. Six weeks from yesterday is July 16.

Following that, DDOT will conduct final system integration tests. DDOT hasn’t said how long that will take. Since we don’t have a timeline, let’s come back to this later.

Next, DDOT will train its day-to-day streetcar drivers. Each operator will have at least 30 hours of training, but DDOT hasn’t said how long this will take overall. Let’s come back to this later too.

Following that, the Federal Transit Administration will oversee final safety certification. In other cities with streetcars this takes 90-120 days, although engineers caution it could be more for DC since this is DC’s first time doing it. Let’s assume 120 days, or 4 months. Starting from July 16, that pushes the streetcar to mid-November.

Once safety certification is complete, passenger service should begin within 30 days. That puts us in December, before we’ve even accounted for the integration tests or the operator training.

Unless those tasks take no more than about one week each, an opening date after the new year looks unavoidable.

Honest communication will help regain trust

This may not exactly be another delay. Rather, it seems a more honest account of the timeline all along.

Last year, Mayor Gray trumpeted a late 2013 opening that now appears to have never been technically realistic. Was DDOT under orders from the mayor to hide the true timeline? Or maybe DDOT officials felt pressure to give Mayor Gray overly optimistic assumptions, and the mayor never knew the real timeline. Or maybe it’s just taken a lot longer than anybody thought.

Either way, having been burned by this, the streetcar team now seems afraid to give many timeline details at all, forcing reporters like Aaron Wiener to try and piece things together.

But fear of missing another deadline is hurting DDOT more than missing deadlines would. Instead of setting expectations for 2015, DDOT officials keep saying they don’t know how long work will take. Washingtonians hopeful to ride the streetcar soon have nothing to go on, and assume opening day is at most a month or two away. Every couple of months feels like a fresh delay.

Instead of one clear delay and one negative news cycle, DDOT’s lack of communication have resulted in fresh news cycles reporting mounting delays every couple of months. The press has had an ongoing joke about a “race” between the streetcar and the Silver Line for which will open first. (It looks like the Silver Line will “win.”)

DDOT may not know exactly how long every task will take, and it’s understandable that the timeline needs padding to account for problems. It’s taken longer than expected for Oregon Iron Works to build the streetcar vehicles.  Officials say the extra-harsh winter slowed some things down. So did historic preservation at Spingarn High School for the maintenance facility (though in a city where preservation has a hand in many big projects, perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise).

But officials should have a general idea of roughly how long each task will take. Instead of giving no information at all about integration testing and driver training, officials could share a range. Instead of leaving us to guess how long until the line opens, they should give a range.

Then, if there’s a setback that is out of everyone’s control, like a lot of snow, honestly reassess the timeline. It doesn’t help to insist that the line can open by July 2013 when it’s also clear the vehicles won’t arrive by then, for instance.

The agency’s inability or unwillingness to articulate a realistic timeline is frustrating, and is clearly having a negative effect on streetcar politics. In 2010, a lot of people rose up to defend a streetcar project which seemed just around the corner. Four years later, there’s much less enthusiasm to fight for streetcars, in part because DDOT has lost credibility.

DDOT’s problem has now become similar to WMATA’s. There’s a lot of legitimate work to be done, and some understandable reasons why it hasn’t been done yet. But problems and bad communication have caused the public to stop trusting the agency, and fear of potential negative stories has led people on the inside to keep quiet even more when they need to be communicating more. That’s an enormous problem. Understandable delays sound like excuses when trust doesn’t exist.

This is a difficult phase for any project

Infrastructure projects are expensive, time-consuming, hard on the community, and politically challenging. It’s common for big projects like this to face obstacles in the home stretch.  Costs and criticism have been mounting for years, while benefits remain off in the future.

Having to wait longer to actually benefit from the streetcar is frustrating. Not knowing how long it will take, or hearing timelines which are obviously unrealistic, is especially frustrating. But this difficult time will eventually pass.

Meanwhile, however, while it’s still ongoing, DDOT must shed its fear of disappointing people, and begin to communicate with the public as openly and honestly as it possibly can.

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David Alpert is the founder of Greater Greater Washington and its board president. 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.

Dan Malouff is a transportation planner for Arlington and professor of geography at George Washington University, but blogs to express personal views. He has a degree in urban planning from the University of Colorado, and lives in NE DC. He runs BeyondDC and contributes to the Washington Post .