WTOP Exclusive: D.C. streetcar service won’t start in 2013

The streetcars on H Street were supposed to be functioning by the end of 2013 - but the new prediction is sometime next year. (WTOP/Ari Ashe)

WASHINGTON — The much-anticipated launch of streetcar service in the District of Columbia has been delayed and won’t begin until early 2014, WTOP has learned.

Back in July, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray announced at a streetcar event that he hoped passenger service would begin before the end of the year, a symbolic milestone 50 years after streetcar service ended in 1963.

District of Columbia Department of Transportation engineers and the top brass also were hopeful to begin passenger service on H Street-Benning Road NE in 2013, but now admit to WTOP it hopes that’ll happen before the end of March 2014.

In an exclusive interview with WTOP, DDOT Deputy Director and Chief Engineer Renaldo “Nic” Nicholson says a number of delays have occurred. Among them were delays with the delivery of the final two streetcars from United Streetcar. They were supposed to arrive early this fall.

“This fall we were starting to get concerned, and that concern rolled over into our final steps,” says Nicholson.

“United Streetcar has a contract with Portland (Oregon) and Tucson (Arizona) that they’re really just starting out building streetcars in America. Quite frankly, in the supply chain, getting tooling and manufacturing ready, they hit some hurdles. For D.C., it meant a two month delay.”

As The Oregonian newspaper has reported, United Streetcar and parent-company Oregon Iron Works, have suffered numerous delays in their production of streetcars and meeting deadlines for their clients.

But Nicholson still expresses confidence in the company and says there were many other factors that also led to the delay besides United Streetcar.

“I’m not trying to throw them under the bus. They have had some production problems to work through like any new start-up company with the microscope on them. From the positive sign, we are working with them and with the other cities to come up with an agreement for a delivery date for all the streetcars. D.C. is not throwing Oregon Iron Works under the bus,” says Nicholson.

“Had the delays with Oregon Iron Works not happened, I think we would have been a lot closer to beginning near the end of the year. But we are not blaming them because there are a number of other factors. If you look at all the construction going on H Street right, coordination with that is another factor affecting us on when we complete the project,” he says.

Three streetcars were already delivered to DDOT. The fourth should arrive in December and the final one in January. Most of the track is laid and should be complete very soon, and the power poles are almost all up along H Street-Benning Road NE as well. Wires to power the streetcars will be strung up on the poles throughout the next month or two, although delivery was slightly delayed because of the government shutdown.

DDOT also says residents will see the first streetcars on the road for testing in December, with the final certification from the Federal Transit Administration happening likely within 90 days.

D.C. resident Malik Smith doesn’t mind waiting and plans to take the new streetcars whenever they begin carrying passengers.

“I’m not too fond of Metro, so I find the idea of streetcars interesting. It’s definition something I’m going to try, just curiosity because I know they were here before,” he says.

Pat Johnson says she remembers the old D.C. streetcars, and while she likes the nostalgia, she has several concerns about them.

“There will be traffic, congestion, a lot more congestion. The community is embracing that we’ll have another mode of transportation, but we already have so much traffic to move about to work or school in a timely fashion,” she says.

Bernice Blacknell thinks the streetcars will definitely be used and will just provide another option to bus, train and automobile.

“It will be used because some people, like me, don’t like catching that X2 Metrobus during rush hour. So I think it will definitely be packed during the rush hour,” she says.

David Zurbuchen is also excited about streetcars and thinks it’ll only enhance the revitalized H Street corridor and nightlife scene.

“It’ll be a huge benefit for anyone who wants to go to Union Station because the X2 doesn’t really provide a really convenient off-loading spot, but my main concern is the speed is these streetcars could be going slower than buses,” he says.

“I think it’ll attract people to go the bars, then use the streetcar to go back to Union Station to go home. They should target that audience.”

But Denise Davis, who lives near the streetcar depot near the old Springarn High School, is worried about the damage it could cause her home.

“There have already been cracks that keep showing up on my ceiling during construction. I’ve had it repaired twice and they keep coming back. My house is taking a beating now, so I cannot imagine what will happen when the streetcars being running up and down Benning Road. Are they going to compensate me for all these damages?” Davis asks.

“We want the business community and residents to get ready because (test) cars will be running in December and we want to have a safe introduction of the streetcars into the H Street-Benning Road corridor, which will be great for everyone,” says Nicholson.

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