It’s been a tough winter in the Nation’s Capital, with a chain of storms, sustained bitterly cold temperatures, and the recurring threats of federal government shutdowns.
But while more seasonable weather may go a long way toward ameliorating at least two of those woes, recovery for the District of Columbia’s $3 billion streetcar project may prove more difficult.
Envisioned to complement the District’s existing bus and light rail public transit options, the DC Streetcar system has undergone the same squabbles and evolutionary pangs that tend accompany most major urban transportation projects, particularly in the financing arena. The 2013 start of construction on the 2.4-mile H Street line appeared to indicate that the program, planned to grow into a 22-mile network over the next two decades, had finally gained some traction.
But concerns about financing both rolling stock and future expansion, safety issues with vehicles and pedestrians, and a controversy over the location for the car storage facility, continued to beleaguer the project up to and past its scheduled November 2014 start-up date.
While the H Line awaits the Federal Transit Administration’s certification for passenger service, streetcars have been operating then as part of a protracted testing and simulation program, making it something of a “ghost” system.
Then, February 21 happened.
With the streets and curbsides once again constrained by yet another snow and ice storm, several cars were left parked closer to the streetcar right of way than the drivers may have realized. During yet another of those test runs, the streetcar operator apparently overestimated the amount of clearance, clipping one parked car’s mirror and damaging another's door and fenders..
A few hours later, a small fire erupted on the roof of the streetcar. The brief incident is currently under investigation with the manufacturer.
What might have been a bad night has since gotten worse for the Streetcar system, rekindling the debate about whether the project moved forward too fast, or if it should've moved forward at all. Newly installed District Department of Transportation (DDOT) director Leif A. Dormsjo has vowed to conduct a thorough review of the project, including an outside assessment by a team of experts selected by the American Public Transportation Association.
“We’re not planning for failure,” Dormsjo told the Washington Post. I’m trying to prudently and responsibly prepare the service to be started. But if I can’t get to that point, I’m not going to be enchanted by some philosophy of transit that leads me to do something that doesn’t make sense.
Dormsjo added that while the District had already invested more than $200 million in the system, “It’s not a good outcome for that to be squandered. But at the end of the day, it has to work, it has to be safe, it has to have utility.”
The APTA team’s report, due in the Spring, may provide some clarity about the breadth and depth of the DC Streetcar system’s problems. It will then be up to DDOT and other District agencies to decide whether the “ghost” line can be turned into a living, functioning transit system, or like February’s snows, it will simply disappear.