DC Streetcar turns 3, remains free; extensions remain years away

WASHINGTON — As D.C. Streetcar service turns 3 years old Wednesday, riders hoping for an extension of the 2.2-mile line to make it more useful have a long wait ahead.

Still, the streetcar has carried more than 3 million trips since it launched, in part because riding is free.

The District plans to keep the streetcar free until at least 2025, when the city hopes to open a 1.9-mile extension east to the Benning Road Metro station that would make the line more useful.

“Wow, that’s — that’s a while away,” Council member Mary Cheh told District Department of Transportation Director Jeff Marootian at a D.C. Council hearing Monday.

Preliminary design work is underway. “Our initial thinking about when the timeline for construction to begin and have operational service around 2024-2025 is still the target,” Marootian said.

The extension would also include rebuilding Benning Road and the purchase of new streetcars.

The District has struggled with parts issues for repairs on the current streetcars, and plans to buy four new cars for delivery around 2023 for the Benning Road extension and six more soon after for the current line.

“Parts availability will continue to be limited in the future,” DDOT said in oversight responses to the D.C. Council.

“There may be some capacity to work with other transit agencies, which use these vehicles to operate a ‘parts sharing’ [memorandum of understanding], but this is likely only a temporary fix,” DDOT wrote.

WTOP revealed last year the potential need to eventually replace the current streetcars ahead of schedule.

The city plans to buy four more new cars sometime later for a future extension to Georgetown.

The Georgetown extension is still undergoing an environmental review but has no firm timeline.

Unlike the current service and the extension to Benning Road, the extension to Georgetown is expected to include at least some areas where the streetcar runs in its own lane past traffic, preventing problems with cars blocking the tracks and providing a significantly faster trip.

Federal agencies offered comments on the environmental review this fall, which has led DDOT to move to update old traffic data used in an original study among other changes.

The Georgetown extension ties into a major overhaul of Union Station, because the H Street bridge that serves as the current western end of the streetcar needs to be rebuilt for the streetcar, Union Station rail expansion and related projects.

Preliminary design work for the bridge is expected to be finished by the end of this year. The next phases of work could begin by 2021 if Amtrak is also ready to move forward.

Plans for a larger 22-mile streetcar network across the city, beyond the 8-mile line between Georgetown and Benning Road, are completely on hold.

Many of the issues that faced the H Street streetcar stemmed from the piecemeal way it was put together over many years as the city attempted to jump-start the redevelopment of H Street Northeast.

At a celebration Tuesday of the third anniversary, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser acknowledged residents “waited, waited and waited” for the launch.

That day was a long time in coming,” Bowser said.

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