Transit projects nearly finished, but still no opening dates

November 5, 2013

Orange barrels proliferate on H Street NE near the Hopscotch Bridge north of Union Station. (Robert Thomson/The Washington Post)

On Monday, Dulles Metrorail project Executive Director Pat Nowakowski said of the Silver Line: “We’re close to the finish line.”

On Tuesday, D.C. Chief Engineer Ronaldo T. “Nick” Nicholson said the city’s streetcar project on H Street and Benning Road NE is in “the last four minutes of the fourth quarter.”

Each transit project must have its own sports analogy, but in fact, these two major transportation programs in the D.C. region are in a somewhat similar place. Each is wrapping up construction and approaching a final testing phase. Each needs to get operators and staff familiar with the system and have the federal government sign off on safety issues. Each is going to open somewhat later than optimists had once projected.

The Silver Line, with five new stations and nearly 12 miles of track in Fairfax County, is a much bigger project. The streetcar line, along 2.4 miles of H Street and Benning Road NE, is a toy by comparison, but it does have the daunting challenge of testing and operating in the midst of traffic, something Silver Line operators will never confront.

Neither project is committed to a specific opening date. District officials no longer hope to open for passengers in 2013, though they do expect to have streetcars out for testing on the route by the end of the year. Beyond that, he would commit to passenger service in 2014, but not a more specific date. The District Department of Transportation will open it “as soon as we can,” he said.

The program as developed so far is costing about $161 million, almost all of it from D.C. funds. That’s unusual for a transit project. Other programs, such as Maryland’s Purple Line or Arlington’s Columbia Pike light rail, hope for big infusions of federal money to help with construction.

Both the Silver Line and the D.C. streetcar have been years in the making, and a few more months of waiting to ride them probably won’t hurt anybody.

Safety is the first priority, but each also represents a major investment in transit. The Silver Line will break a pattern by including four stations in Tysons with no long-term parking facilities for commuters. The H Street/Benning Road line brings streetcars back to D.C. after an absence of half a century.

In Virginia, the District and across the nation, people who care about the future of urban transportation will be watching to see how these two high-profile projects turn out.

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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Robert Thomson · November 5, 2013