Streetcars arrive in D.C. for testing


Let The Buzz begin: Mayor Gray, with D.C. Transportation Department Director Terry Bellamy behind him, discusses the streetcar program at the Anacostia testing center. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

The District has had modern streetcar tracks for several years, and as of this week, it has streetcars. Three of them, for testing.

District officials hope to have them running on H Street and Benning Road NE by the end of the year. Before that, they will be based at a testing and commissioning center on a skinny patch of land off South Capitol Street in Anacostia.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray was there Wednesday morning to show off the first car, which arrived on Tuesday. The third should arrive on Thursday. All three, made in the Czech Republic, have been stored at a Metro facility in Greenbelt. So this does mark the return of such vehicles after half a century.

“Isn’t it wonderful to have streetcars back in the District of Columbia?” the mayor asked reporters, city officials and spectators on hand to share the experience.

To Gray, the question is rhetorical. Do you recall the speculation during Gray’s mayoral campaign that he would turn out to be no fan of streetcars? Well, turns out he’s not a fan. He’s a player.

The Wednesday morning event was part photo op, with Gray, surrounded by cameras, entering the first streetcar to arrive at the testing center.

“I’m just as anxious to see them start service,” he said.

The District Department of Transportation, which will operate the first line between Union Station and Oklahoma Avenue has set itself an ambitious schedule to start passenger service by the end of the year.

For the public, many questions remain, such as what’s the fare, how will riders pay the fare and will these things actually improve travel along a route served by Metrobuses?

Gray said several things that made me think he understands the point of this project as well as anybody.

Answering a question about why people would decide to take the streetcar along this two-mile route, he started off by saying: “Certainly in the beginning, there will be the novelty of it.”

A truck delivers second streetcar to the Anacostia testing center. (Robert Thomson / The Washington Post)
A truck delivers a second streetcar to the testing center. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

That’s exactly it. This is new, modern and buzzy. Don’t look for urban transportation projects to simply be about moving people from Point A to Point B. Many of them won’t carry enough people to call the projects “cost effective.”

Gray went on to point out that the streetcars would become part of the neighborhoods on the north side of Capitol Hill, and will help to define them. (As in, The Atlas District? That’s the one with the streetcars, right?)

There’s “a kind of engagement” coming between the community and its new transit service, the mayor said.

Mary M. Cheh, the D.C. Council member who leads its transportation committee, walked over to the newly arrived streetcar. “We’ve talked about this and talked about this, and I’ve seen the pictures, but until now,” she said as she put her hands on the metal, “it hasn’t been real.”

Up next: The three cars will be spending the spring and summer on the Anacostia test track. DDOT hopes to bring them to the H Street/Benning Road corridor in October. They will undergo further testing under real operating conditions. When they are certified by the Federal Transit Administration, they’ll start taking passengers.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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