Monday, March 9, 2015

The Sad State of DC Streetcar

I'm seriously wondering if the DC Streetcar system will ever open for revenue service. Putting it mildly, the system --and its administering agency, District Department of Transportation-- have been embattled. And despite years, then months, then weeks, then days, of broken deadlines, the streetcar system has no current target opening date and continues to be evaluated and tested. Recently, the agency head left open the slim possibility that streetcars may never run revenue service. This despite the facts that the city has purchased enough cars, trained enough drivers, hired enough support personnel, and laid enough track to operate the first segment.

It's super frustrating -- not just that it hasn't opened, but to me, the whole project seems more and more ill-conceived and managed as each day goes by. Why H Street NE first? Why does the streetcar run in mixed traffic, on this segment specifically? Why the crippling and constant delays? Who actually has the last call regarding safety certification? How did we get this far still feeling like we are at constant peril of landing back square one? These are all questions that a lot of of have had or still have. 

All this after such a promising and exciting debut of the idea. The original vision was a citywide network eventually consisting of 37 miles of streetcar tracks touching all eight political wards. The system would have connected Takoma DC to Downtown, Anacostia to Southwest + Northeast, Georgetown to Union Station, and more. Unfortunately, the only built section runs only about 2 miles miles, from a station on H Street NE north of Union Station, to Oklahoma Ave NE. When it does open, it'll serve who exactly? If you're in the city already, the route is more easily traversed by taking the X2 bus -- it covers a lot more ground. And if you're coming in via Metro, the awkard connection at Union Station makes for somewhat of a useful trip extender, but the work it takes to transfer to the streetcar is nearly equivalent to transferring to the X2 bus.
The streetcars themselves were really exciting, too. They're narrower than a Metrobus, a Circulator bus, or a Metrorail car, but have a higher passenger capacity than each. Despite being built by two different manufacturers, the existing trains are all similar as far as how many passengers can ride and will be outfitted with the same interior decor and fare payments systems, etc. 

Ultimately DDOT, its agency leader Leif Dormsjo and Mayor Muriel Bowser will make the final call of when (if) the first leg ever opens. I want to see it open, and not just the H Street line. I'd like to see the Anacostia MLK line and extension lines built, and then the K Street east-west line, eventually hooking up with the existing H Street line. Then let's look at best options for north-south lines, more mid-town and uptown lines, and lastly, connections to future MD And VA projects.